During the summer of 1918, Alaska finally received the literary treatment it had long deserved—and in a far more effervescent style than what Jack London had delivered in Burning Daylight four years prior. The impoverished painter, illustrator, commercial designer, and printmaker Rockwell Kent moved with his nine-year-old son, Rockwell Jr. (nicknamed Rocky), to an abandoned cabin on picturesque Fox Island, across Resurrection Bay twelve miles from the little fishing town of Seward, Alaska. For seven months, the Kents abandoned the fast pace of New York City, turning their backs on the “beaten, crowded way” for the glories of raw nature on this largely uninhibited island owned by the federal government.1 A book-learned transcendentalist and wandering mystic, Kent recorded his impressions of Alaska from August 1918 to March 1919 in his journals (published in 1920 as Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska). Kent was an original voice, and his musings were cosmic meditations on the inherent liberty found in wilderness settings: sea, sky, islands, and icy fjords. Deeply misanthropic, Kent—a socialist, pacifist, misfit, and activist who was sickened by the Great War—found stark relief in the dark, lonely waters around Fox Island. “There are the times in life when nothing happens,” he wrote, “but in quietness the soul expands.”2
Holed up on a lonely island in south-central Alaska, taking a respite from city life, staring at distant mountain panoramas of the Aialik Peninsula from his beach cove, Kent found solace and exhilaration in the utter remoteness just outside his cabin door. Here was an asylum for the troubled human soul, a soul anxious to abandon the “confusing intricacy of modern societies.”3 If you felt that city life was an unendurable torment, then Alaska was a logical prescription. In truth, Kent, with his son Rocky at his side, never felt alone. On Fox Island, waters abounding with river otters, Dall porpoises, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), and Steller’s sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) surrounded them. Humpback whales cavorted in the bay outside their cabin door, and scores of ducks flew overhead. Sometimes orcas maneuvered into shore to rub their huge bellies on the pebble beach. When the air was mild, the seabirds turned silent, poking for crabs in the soft blue dusk. But Kent knew that Resurrection Bay was a shipwreck zone where “frightful currents and winds” would have daunted even the bravest New England fishermen.4 Every Alaskan town built a little memorial to honor the seafarers who never returned home with their catch.
From the air, Fox Island would look like a backward number 3. There were two coves on the west side, and on the eastern part of the dollop savage cliffs seemed as forbidding as Alcatraz. Occasionally a bear would swim out to Fox Island from the mainland, and then leave, disappointed, after a fruitless look around for food. Kent treated with reverence every bird nest and seal rock he found around Resurrection Bay. To keep his son company on Fox Island, Kent adopted a little porcupine (Erethizan dorsatum) as a family pet. The largely nocturnal herbivore ate twigs, leaves, and plants, nourishment for growing the quills needed for its self-defense system. When easels were set up outside the cabin, the little porcupine also developed a liking for licking wet paint. A typical painter might not find this humorous. But Kent, who had a truant disposition, was different. Surrounded by wilderness and ocean, he preferred stormy weather to a safe anchorage.
Kent found the kaleidoscopic radiance of wild Alaska, and even the inconveniences associated with frontier conditions, exhilarating. The color scheme of the Kenai Peninsula landscape was dramatically different from that of Maine or the Adirondacks. In 1918 the most famous painter who had tried to capture Alaskan landscapes on canvas was Albert Bierstadt; his Wreck of the Ancon, Loring Bay, done in 1889, became a symbol of man’s inability to defeat nature. It took Kent all of a minute to realize that Bierstadt’s so-called realist paintings falsified the true outdoor nuances of color, darkness, and shadows in the far north. Surrounded by the primordial landscape, Kent used a broad range of electric blues and bleached whites. The overcast aura of Fox Island also called for the gunmetal grays on his palette. Each place Kent went in Alaska that impressed him inspired its own refined painting. Yet the lifestyles of the hardened, blistering Seward fishermen, trappers, and prospectors, all physically battered by the inhospitable elements, caused Kent to also paint crudely, like a folk artist. “Alaska is a fairyland in the magic beauty of its mountains and water,” Kent wrote. “The Virgin freshness of this wilderness and its utter isolation are a constant source of inspiration. Remote and free from contact with man, our life is simplicity itself.”5
Finding Kent’s proper place in American art history has proved to be difficult. His paintings of Bear Glacier (today part of Kenai Fjords National Park), sketched from the south end of his beach on Fox Island, stand out as major works of American art. Only one other American painter has ever come close to capturing Alaska’s landscape with the illuminating and haunting halo effect that Kent created. In 1904 Sydney Mortimer Laurence arrived in Alaska from Brooklyn hoping to find gold. Unable to do that, Laurence, an amateur oil painter, decided to earn money by capturing the iridescent glow of Mount McKinley on canvas. Both Muir and Sheldon had done a pretty good job of starting the tourist business in the territory. Diligently, Laurence painted the tallest summit from at least a dozen different angles. His first large painting—Top of the Continent—was exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts. Some art critics wrote condescendingly that Laurence the marketeer owned Mount McKinley; it was his only subject. They had a point. Laurence opened a photography shop in Anchorage, eager to sell his Visions of Denali to tourists. “I was attracted by the same thing that attracted all the other suckers: gold,” Laurence said. “I didn’t find any appreciable quantity of the yellow metal and then, like a lot of other fellows, I was broke and couldn’t get away. So I resumed my painting. I found enough material to keep me busy the rest of my life, and I have stayed in Alaska ever since.”6
If Alaskan landscape painting were an Olympic event, then Kent would surely have won the gold medal (with Laurence getting the silver). Whereas Laurence stayed stationary around the McKinley station at Anchorage, Kent was intrepid. Sometimes, in good weather, or even with mixed seas, Kent hopped into his skiff and traveled twelve miles across Resurrection Bay to get a close look at Bear Glacier (if the motor failed, he rowed). Kent’s paintings of that glacier have dazzling blue shades—azure, cobalt, and sapphire—as intense as those van Gogh painted in Arles; you can almost feel the solid ice sprawling over hundreds of miles under the ultramarine sky. Enduring the “seething” squall of the bay, the sea spray “whipped into vapor,” Kent would get within fifty yards of places like Frozen Falls, Caines Head, or Hive Island. Sometimes he painted the same outdoors scene in different seasons: for example, Alaska Winter and later Indian Summer, Alaska. This approach allowed him to show his uncanny ability to use different biting yellows and ice blues with sunshiny radiance.
What was the secret of Kent’s success as a painter in Alaska? Why was he more proficient than Laurence at painting the rich blue colors? Talent is hard to measure. But going the extra mile uphill for your art or craft isn’t. Kent actually got close to the inside of a glacier crevasse. While lake ice and river ice are clear or white, the glacier crevasse he inspected blazed a blue unknown in Maine or Newfoundland. When light strikes an object, some of the colors of the spectrum are absorbed and others are reflected; it all depends on the matter that makes up the object. Glacier ice, when fairly thick, absorbs red and yellow, reflecting only pure blue light for humans to see. Kent became a connoisseur of that blue tint, which looks electric or like a glowing gas flame.
The blue glacier wonderland where the Kents stayed was essentially today’s gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park (established on December 2, 1980, during the last days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency). As kayakers know, ice floats deceptively calm near outflowing glaciers and coastal fjords. Here, as nowhere else in Alaska, mountains, ice sheets, rockfall, and ocean are intertwined with dancing rivers. This is the edge of the North Pacific Ocean, with stair-step glaciers clustered together. Anywhere from 400 to 800 miles of snow accumulates annually in the mountain knuckles here. Kent knew this fjord country was outstandingly wild—nature didn’t get any more beautiful. Determined to capture the glory of the landscape, and riveted by the icy outburst of Bear Glacier, Kent set up easels. He captured Bear Glacier, in all its austere elegance, on canvas better than any other photographer or painter. All the fjords and glaciers, surrounded by open water and shoreside mud pools, some hidden in the wave-carved grottoes, became Kent’s secret sanctuary, his escape.7
Kent was born in Tarrytown, New York, in 1882. When he was only five years old, his well-to-do father died, leaving him a silver flute as a token remembrance. This little musical instrument became a good-luck charm for Kent. (He kept it with him when he went to the far reaches of Arctic Alaska, Newfoundland, Tierra del Fuego, and Greenland.) Early on, Kent became smitten with the solitude of northern seas. On a trip to Oregon, he was particularly taken with the works of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. A naturally talented graphic artist, Kent took classes in New York with both the impressionist William Merritt Chase and the innovative Robert Henri of the Ashcan school. Kent, it seemed, wanted to paint with the religiosity and spirituality of William Blake, while exploring the world’s places in all their geologic forms.8
After a well-received show at Knoedler Galleries, primarily of his Atlantic coast paintings, Kent was considered a rising star. George Bellows, the famous painter of Both Members of This Club, a dramatic boxing scene, saw him as a genuine rival, the most intriguing of the up-and-coming modernists. Kent’s colors glowed on the canvas. Because of his representational symbols—heavily influenced by Nietzsche—his works resembled those of the German painter Franz Marc. Early in Kent’s career the wild Adirondacks served as an inspiration for his intense nature studies.9Eventually Kent moved to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, hoping to soothe his troubled mind, painting the enchanting cliffs and fish houses of Monhegan Island. Even though Kent painted like a man possessed, he managed to read the collected works of Emerson, Thoreau, and Wordsworth for inspiration. While working as a lobsterman, struggling to find a commercial audience for his art, he developed into a Spartan survivalist, a singular craftsman comfortable living in genteel poverty. All Kent needed to be happy was a floor to sleep on, a bedtime vodka, and mediocre food. “If minds can become magnetized, mine was: its compass pointed north,” he wrote. “I set out for the golden North, for Newfoundland, to prospect for a homeland.”10 For a while he lived in Newfoundland, finding comfort walking over the steep hillsides and rock outcroppings that dropped dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean.11
Kent was also a pugilist, and his arms were muscular from boxing. With dark hazel eyes, his head prematurely balding, his hands fidgeting with whatever object was nearest, he was an intimidating adversary, able to quote Nietzsche verbatim and to eat halibut raw. Practical jokes were an important part of his everyday life, which, to Kent, was a dutiful exercise in carpe diem. Local mariners saw him as a peculiar piece of work, a human clock that ran backward. “Do you want my life, in a nutshell?” Kent once wrote. “It’s this: that I have only one life and I’m going to live it as nearly as possible as I want to live it.”12 Sleeping, however, didn’t come easily to the hyperactive Kent, who wrote in It’s Me, O Lord, “Insomnia isn’t nice.”13 Physical exertion outdoors, what Theodore Roosevelt called the strenuous life, appealed mightily to Kent, who felt that it directed his inner compass and uplifted him. His favorite verse of Blake’s was “Great things are done when Men and Mountains meet./This is not done by jostling in the Street.” Kent lived by this creed.14 Going to Alaska wasn’t a random impulse; it was an imperative—the three words stood for everything free, unspoiled, and democratic.
Life for Kent was always hand-to-mouth, and an ordeal. By the time he was thirty-six years old, he was stone broke, rudderless, and furious at Woodrow Wilson for not keeping America neutral during the European war. Making matters worse, Kent was often estranged from his wife, and he had a string of affairs that proved corrosive to his family. His temper was volatile, his willpower unnerving, his attire indecorous. Deeply self-centered—his friends floated into and out of his life—the fatalist Kent knew that in the end only he would be around for the curtain call. Disappearing to south-central Alaska, living a Thoreauvian life in a little shack on Fox Island, and using the inhospitable remoteness of Resurrection Bay to bond with Rocky made perfect sense to Kent. A bundle of energy, always an escapist, Kent had very little to lose by going to Fox Island. “I crave snow-topped mountains, dreary wastes, and the cruel Northern Sea with its hard horizons at the edge of the world where infinite space begins,” he said of Alaska. “Here skies are clearer and deeper and, for the greater wonders they reveal, a thousand times more eloquent of the eternal mystery than those of softer lands. I love this Northern Nature, and what I love I must possess.”15
To get to Alaska, the Kents traveled across America by passenger train. From their windows they saw the rolling prairies of the Great Plains that Washington Irving had once written about so memorably. The Kents now understood for the first time Walt Whitman’s rapture in Leaves of Grass, where he had written of “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and “peaks gigantic” and “high plateaus.” Sometimes the Kents stayed at old, rickety railroad depot inns, lured to their meals by wooden boards out in front advertising specials: fish stew, meat loaf, and beef tenderloin. In Alaska it would be halibut steak, salmon jerky, and a shot of vodka. Father and son felt like tenderfeet entering the storied Colorado Rockies in search of the northern paradise of Alaska and rumbling across Montana. Westerners, the Kents learned, had a language all their own: draws were “dells” and buffalo were “grazing cattle.” Domesticity had created no flower beds in this stark, rugged country. The Kents studied horse towns, outposts, and raw forestlands from their wooden passenger seats until their train finally arrived in Seattle. The temperature was well above fifty degrees Fahrenheit all around Puget Sound. Rusted Russian ships at dockside had long unpronounceable words painted on their sides in Cyrillic script.
Following a day’s rest in Seattle, the Kents traveled up the Inside Passage to Alaska on the SS Admiral Schley. Their ship felt its way past a stunning succession of fjords, bays, straits, sounds, and promontories. Boisterous in praise of this picturesqueness, the Kents passed from Yakutat Bay (an eighteen-mile area, rich in fish, that extended southwest between Disenchantment Bay and the Gulf of Alaska) to Prince William Sound. For five days the Kents lived at a Swift and Company salmon cannery surrounded by glacier-carved mountains looming over the open ocean. Somehow Kent had procured a “letter of introduction” to stay there. They were in earthquake country (a quake of 8.0 on the Richter scale had happened as recently as 1899). Local folklore held that the explorer Vitus Bering of Russia had visited the bay on his expedition of 1741.
The Kents shared an upper bunk and ate in the mess hall along with the weather-beaten crab trappers. “What meals they were!” Kent said in his autobiography, It’s Me, O Lord. “And how those hungry fellows wolfed them! A free for all, it was, and no holds barred. Never had either of us tasted better food or seen so much. And it disgusted us to watch our opposite at table—say at breakfast—flood his huge soup-plate full of oatmeal with undiluted evaporated milk, heap on six tablespoons of sugar; follow this with two vast stacks of six-inch flapjacks, with butter and corn syrup to match; then eat four eggs with bacon and drink a quart of coffee; and all the while goddamn the company for starving him.”16
Kent had originally hoped to begin his spiritual rebirth on the Kenai Peninsula along Kachemak Bay. But a mail clerk, working on the steamer Dora, told Kent about remote islands clustered offshore from the Resurrection Bay port town of Seward. Off they went. Seward was the southern terminus for the Alaska Railroad, which had been built by the U.S. government and always seemed to be behind schedule. It was a larger city in 1918 than Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, or Kodiak. All around were villages, fish shacks, open mines, and quarries, but the glorious wilderness remained undiminished. Alaska’s Second Organic Act of 1912—which had officially established Alaska as a territory with an elected legislature—meant that Alaskans no longer had to endure colonial status, although it wouldn’t get true congressional representation until 1959, with statehood.
The Kents loaded up on provisions such as beans, rice, flour, barley, and other foodstuffs. A deal was made with Thomas Hawkins, a local landowner, to let them live on Fox Island in a lean-to cabin or goat shed that needed refurbishment. For all his machismo, Kent’s diaries are quite honest about his lack of hardiness and lack of stamina. Like any father, he feared for his young son’s welfare. Rain gear was (and still is) mandatory in this part of Alaska. Because Kent had once built a few houses on Monhegan Island, including a small one for himself and another for his mother, he felt confident that he could remodel the hovel on Fox Island in exchange for living there rent-free.
At last, on September 24, 1918, the Kents packed a tiny dory with their essentials, including a stove and box of wood panels, and prepared to go by motorboat from Seward to Fox Island. Because they were weighed down, the three-mile voyage out to the island wasn’t for the weak-hearted. A dangerous problem, potentially a lethal one, manifested itself. The engine of the Kents’ 3.5-horsepower Evinrude, after 100 yanks, wouldn’t turn over. The dory, weighed down with about 1,000 pounds of cargo (including the Kents’ own body weight), almost capsized. Remaining undaunted, refusing to consider retreat, Kent started rowing toward his destination, using a pail to bail water out. Without modern navigational devices or survival suits, it was an act of foolhardy recklessness.
Only by the grace of God did they somehow manage to traverse or perhaps navigate Resurrection Bay safely. An intense pressure system always hovered over the Gulf of Alaska in the North Pacific, like a perpetual category 1 hurricane, regularly blanketing the vast area with heavy winds, thick fog, and whipping rain; for a sailor the region was among the most challenging on Earth to navigate. The everlasting, unpredictable waves seemed to carry a Norse wallop (as the salt wind seemed to carry an Oriental scent) and had, over the decades, gulped down and sunk British dreadnoughts and Russian vessels. “Over the water the wind blew in furious squalls,” Kent wrote, “raising a surge of white caps and a dangerous chop.”17 The Kents finally moored along the northwest harbor of Fox Island, glad to be alive and able to chuckle at their own foolishness.
After settling into the cabin that evening, father and son hugged each other. They had a new lease on life. The fierce easterly winds that had been howling down from above at fifty to sixty knots dissipated into small sighing gusts. The next day the Kents roamed the woods and thickets of Fox Island and watched river otters friskily playing along the El Dorado Narrows. Although Kent had little money—he wore the same wrinkled work shirt almost daily, and couldn’t afford even the blue plate special at the Seward Grill or the Sexton Hotel—he was an able carpenter, caulker, and workbench tinkerer. Like any survivalist, he knew how to live off the bounty of the sea and land. He practiced ahimsa—the Hindu and Buddhist belief that all living creatures deserve respect.18 On Fox Island, he converted Hawkins’s goat shed into a livable rustic cabin. He took a farmer’s approach to the clock. There were Angora goats to milk and chicken eggs to collect. Kent’s groundskeeper, who came with the house, was a seventy-one-year-old Swede, Lars Matt Olson, a retired trapper and sea dog with a pocked face and rope-burned arms indicating endurance. Olson became an adopted uncle to the Kents. It was Olson who told them stories about earless seals, tidewater glaciers, sledding black bears, and how to scratch a kid goat. His minimalist philosophy of life boiled down to: “Very little matters, and little matters a lot.”
For extra money Kent painted a portrait of Hawkins’s absent daughter, Virginia. (The itinerant John James Audubon had earned his keep likewise in Louisiana during the 1820s.) Hawkins also donated lumber and hardware to the remodeling of the goat shed. Occasionally Kent would row into town for drinks. Wandering around the mud streets of Seward, reading Goethe and Schopenhauer aloud, playing his battered flute for tips, rowing out to Bear Glacier at a speed of one knot, Kent was like an offbeat Adirondacks hermit in exile. Townspeople had high hopes that Kent, a well-connected New York artist, would promote the virtues of Seward over Anchorage: the two towns were vying to be the tourist hub of Alaska. The painter Henry Culmer had recently done a fine job of painting the interior region for the Alaska Steamship Company, and people in Seward thought that Kent might follow Culmer’s example. Kent, however, let the city fathers down in this regard. The people of Seward were too focused on self-promotion, too phlegmatic, and too eager for tourism to interest him or to stoke his artistic imagination.
During the 1920s, homesteading had increased in the coastal regions of Alaska. Along the beaches, log cabins with spectacular views from the front porches were being built. The pioneers who lived in these cabins gathered coal and seafood on the shore. With remarkable ingenuity, they made their own furniture by hand. In their gardens, because of the rich glacial till and the long summer days, cabbages grew to the size of pumpkins, though the homesteaders did miss having fresh fruit. Many families carved out a decent living but often dreamed about moving to a warmer climate. A favorite sourdough joke in Homer, on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, was that homesteaders grew “sour on the country” but “didn’t have enough dough to get out.”19
Kent, who was intrigued by ethnography, also befriended a number of Aleuts he encountered in Seward. He venerated Native Alaskan groups and thought that the Aleuts, like all maritime peoples, were riveting storytellers. As a modernist, Kent preferred Aleut primitive art rather than that of the Hudson River Valley school. The intrepid Aleuts were similar to Kent himself in caring little about social structure or about laying down permanent roots. A large Aleut village would have makeshift dwellings, and would usually be situated on an island in the Bering Sea where the fishing was good. Aleuts, to Kent’s surprise, were sexually permissive. Kent marveled at how they used animal parts for tools. Clams, mollusks, and sea urchins were part of their regular diet. Excellent hunters, they used atlatl (a throwing stick) to bring down ducks, geese, and loons in flight. Wild berries grew abundantly on Fox Island, and the Aleuts instructed Kent on which ones were edible.
Kent’s series of abrupt drawings and rhapsodic paintings of Resurrection Bay are, arguably, the finest landscapes ever done on Alaskan soil. They were influenced by Aleut art. Because Fox Island was often foggy, Kent thought of sunny days as a benediction; sunshine was good for painting the brotherhood of man and nature. “The wonder of wilderness was its tranquility,” Kent wrote. “It seemed that there both men and the wild beasts pursued their own paths freely and, as if conscious of the freedom of their world, molested one another not at all.”20
Many of Kent’s brush-and-ink drawings and engravings, free from presuppositions, accompanied the prose of Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska in perfect harmony. The cold far north appealed to his love of forlornness. Even the rotten ice—called aunniq by the Inupiat—had its charms to a symbolist painter.21 “It’s a fine life,” Kent wrote to a friend, “and more and more I realize that for me such isolation as this . . . is the only right life for me.”22
Some of Kent’s Alaskan work is reminiscent of the intricate illustrations by the poet Vachel Lindsay, who tramped around America promoting the “gospel of beauty.” Kent drew Resurrection Bay in a biblical, folklorish way, the style common in the “outsider” art movement of the 1980s. Celebrating the spectacle of life, his paintings and drawings still defy easy categorization. Taken with totemic symbols, Kent populated his Alaskan paintings with Norse gods in a semimodernist style, almost like socialist realism. Some of his images of laborers—The Whittler (1918), The Snow Queen (c. 1919), Lone Man (1918)—have a touch of Dürer; they’re paeans to heroic hardworking Alaskans who understood the power of biomass, forlornness, and self-reliance. In another context, they might be considered proletarian art. (Later, Kent would draw recruitment posters for the Industrial Workers of the World—the IWW—though he refused to join the Communist Party.)
Kent’s bizarre Mad Hermit series—included at the end of Wilderness—celebrated the age of voyages. His Alaskan sun was a Cyclopean eye. The legend of the Viking Leif Eriksson—possibly the first European to land in North America, almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus—was suggested in many of his lyrical paintings of the 1920s and 1930s. It was as if Scandinavia came into his every brushstroke; his painter’s fascination with light was piqued by the ever-shifting scenes created by the northern lights.
Never before had such a gifted poet-philosopher-painter contemplated Alaska’s subzero climate, long winter nights, and rainy landscapes with such imaginative flair. The broad glare of winter afternoons had a bracing effect on him. Life opened up every morning in the most amazing ways, and he was there to document the pageantry. “Cold?” he once said: “We had come to love it. The snow lay deep. The sun at noon now rose above the mountain, flooding our clearing with its golden light. The north wind raged and swept up clouds of vapor from the steaming sea.” Who knew that getting drenched could be fun? Kent’s attitude anticipated the back-to-nature movement of the 1960s: Scott and Helen Nearing; The Whole Earth Catalog; organic gardeners; and the rejection of plastic, chemicals, and prepackaged food.
While he was on Fox Island, Kent would sometimes write a newspaper column either for amusement or for a little extra money. He could, it must be said, be abrasive and self-righteous at times. Locals discovered that he was a man of great humor but also was very difficult. No matter what the discussion topic or issue was, he refused to be a shrinking violet; he preferred a stance of competitive firmness. Sometimes he literally threw paint at a canvas and then ran around naked in the snow. But he was not insane (although bipolar disorder is a possibility). A brouhaha occurred in Seward when Kent’s son Rocky was asked by a teacher which of several flags shown in a book was his favorite. While the other children went with Old Glory, Rocky chose the German flag because it had an eagle at its center. The angry schoolteacher thought Rocky was being treasonous and expressing support for the kaiser. The Great War had ended, but anti-German sentiment was still strong. Kent nobly defended his son’s honor to the teacher; he also challenged people in Seward to fisticuffs. Upon leaving Alaska, Kent wrote a frank, open letter in the Seward Gateway, denouncing local busybodies but also proclaiming that Alaska was “the only land that I have ever known to which I wanted to return.”23 The lines and colors and illuminations of Resurrection Bay, he said, spoke to him like a hymnal. “As graduates in wisdom,” he wrote, paraphrasing Muir, “we return from the university of the wilderness.”
What Kent philosophically promoted in Wilderness was the power of solitude and ahimsa. It didn’t matter that a “heartless ocean” eliciting a “terror of emptiness” surrounded Fox Island. Neither the five-foot chops in the ocean nor a steady “miserable drizzling rain”—about 300 inches annually—could deflate him. For Kent had a rare gift of optimism wherever he traveled, even in Alaska’s “luminous abyss,” as long as his paint kit was at hand. Kent convinced himself that the desolation of Fox Island, where winds raced in swirls, was a bracing cure for the neurotic anxiety associated with the modern condition. Solitude was better than all the pharmaceuticals in the world.
“The Northern wilderness is terrible,” Kent said in a letter to an esteemed art critic, Dr. Christian Brinton, written for publication. “There is discomfort, even misery, in being cold. The gloom of the long and lonely winter nights is appalling and yet do you know I love this misery and court it. Always I have fought and worked and played with a fierce energy and always as a man of flesh and blood and surging spirit. I have burned the candle at both ends and can only wonder that there has been left even a slender taper glow for art. And so this sojourn in the wilderness is in no sense an artist’s junket in search of picturesque material for brush or pencil but the fight to freedom of a man who detests the petty quarrels and bitterness of the crowded world—the pilgrimage of a philosopher in quest of Happiness!”24
Much of the tone and tenor of Wilderness arose from the bonding of father and son. Like Huck Finn on the river, Rocky found freedom in many things: fox dens, hollow logs, starfish in the icy water. Together Kent and Rocky created “magic” kingdoms on the island, fantasizing about being marooned like the Swiss Family Robinson. Birds, they marveled together, were better swimmers than fliers along the windswept offshore islands. They drank hot chocolate, flipped buttermilk pancakes, read Robinson Crusoe aloud, memorized William Blake’s poetry, sang Celtic ballads, explored headland coves, and sailed to remote blue islets. They collected driftwood for the evening campfire. Together they measured wind velocity with a new gadget picked up in Seward. They caught a little black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia), caged it, and trained it to mimic words like a mynah. Out in the back corral, the Kents reluctantly tended goats when Olson went into Seward. (One afternoon an angry or scared goat got into the cabin, comically trapping Kent inside.) On a few evenings the full moon rose bold and blood-orange, magically illuminating every tree and rock. Rocky’s indispensable textbook was J. P. Wood’s Natural History. With the help of Audubon’s Birds of America, the Kents were able to identify a red-throated loon, a couple of eider ducks, and a hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus).
“The day has been glorious, mild, fair, with snow everywhere, even on the trees,” Kent wrote in a journal entry. “The snow sticks to the mountain tops even to the steepest, barest peaks painting them all a spotless, dazzling white. It’s a marvelous sight. Rockwell and I journeyed around the point today and saw the sun again. Tonight in the brilliant moonlight I snow shoed around the cove. There never was so beautiful a land as this! Now at midnight the moon is overhead. Our clearing seems as bright as day—and the shadows are so dark. From the little window the lamplight shines out through the fringe of icicles along the eaves, and they glisten like diamonds. And in the still air the smoke ascends straight up into the blue night sky.”25
Fox Island had, briefly, been selected by the Biological Survey as an experimental fox-breeding station. But instead the land was leased to Seward’s farmers—local businessmen like Hawkins. All over southern Alaska—particularly in the Aleutians—foxes were bred in captivity in the hope of producing fur pelts for the market. There were nonnatural foxes on 1 million acres of Alaska, on more than forty islands. The corral behind Kent’s goat shed, in fact, had been built for fox breeding. Luckily, Roosevelt had created places like Saint Lazaria as fox-free zones, allowing bird species to survive. Nevertheless, a few feral foxes roamed freely on the island. For all of Kent’s rhapsodizing about wild animals, most of the blue foxes on Fox island were being raised in captivity by Hawkins for money. Kent, in the end, didn’t write anything substantial about fox propagation along Alaska’s southern coast from Dixon Entrance all around to Attu (the most westward island of the Aleutian chain).26
Groups such as the National Audubon Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were concerned that the proliferation of foxes in Alaska would lead to the extinction of the Aleutian Canada goose (Branta canadensis leucopareia). Foxes, it turned out, particularly loved the cream-colored eggs of these geese. Starting in 1940, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service successfully worked to remove the unwelcome foxes from public lands. After a fifty-year effort the Aleutian Canada goose became one of the few species to return from the brink of extinction. Its recovery gave hope that other Alaskan species could rebound, with proper game management.
When Kent’s Wilderness was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1920, it received splendid reviews. Kent had kicked out the doorjambs; he was a mystic who had flung himself into the Alaskan galaxy and returned with stories. The New Statesman went so far as to say that Wilderness was “the most remarkable book to come out of America since Leaves of Grass.” According to the Chicago Post, Kent was a genius: “The artist who can put into the simplest drawings of a man and a little boy eating together at a rough table in a rough cabin all dear solidity of family and home life—that artist can make me bow my head before his sincerity.” The perceptive Robert Benchley, in the New York World, thought Kent’s sojourn on Fox Island was a magnificent artistic feat: Kent had brought back both wonderful prose and priceless illustrations, making him “the envy of all urbanites” in Greenwich Village.27 Another astute critic—Martha Gruening—compared Wilderness to Paul Gauguin’s memoir Noa Noa, which was about his first trip to Tahiti and was filled with descriptions of Polynesian mythology.28
Kent’s Wilderness was a pioneering first-person narrative, promoting Alaska as an ecological retreat where city dwellers could find “OURSELVES—for the wilderness is nothing else.” On every page of Wilderness, Kent paid homage to Thoreau and gave consumer-driven America the back of his hand. Like Thoreau, Kent kept a detailed list of all the provisions he brought to Fox Island and how much they had cost. Kent, a simplifier, was content with a sleeping bag, poncho, cooking pots, and paint kit. Whether he was studying otter tracks, marveling at the moonlight, or decorating a Christmas tree for his son, he made Wilderness a quirky hymn, a sudden burst of quiet celebration, for the offshore islands around the future Kenai Fjords National Park. In Alaska the drifter had found the true heart of the universe. “And now at last it is over,” Kent wrote at the book’s end. “Fox Island will soon become in our memories like a dream or vision, a remote experience too wonderful, for the full liberty we knew there and the deep peace, to be remembered or believed in as a real experience in life. It was for us life as it should be, serene and wholesome; love—but no hate, faith without disillusionment, the absolute for the toiling hands of man and for his soaring spirit.”29
From Fox Island Kent moved to Vermont, where he completed his stunning series of Alaskan paintings—the windblown green sea, blue-golden hillsides, piercing gray mountains—along with intriguing character portraits of locals. Even as late as the 1960s Kent produced oil paintings of Alaska from the ink-and-brush drawings in his sketchbook. Alaskan Sunrise (1919), for example, is a minimalist scene of Resurrection Bay with a wide range of blinding blue and icy white hues; it conveys a barrenness that is humbling to contemplate. Somehow Kent made foreboding lifeless landscapes seem like uncrowded, untouched, unhurried holy land. Kent’s painting Alaska Winter (1919) vividly shows the view from his cabin on Fox Island. Varied shades of blue-green capture the cold of Resurrection Bay and the mountains beyond. Long shadows and cool yellow light radiate from objects that warm the winter horizon and appear, mesmerizingly, from behind the stark, split trunks of trees. Doused in wintry light, the painting shows no humans, but only the brownish shadow of a lumberjack.
Encouraged by the success of Wilderness, Kent soon thereafter wrote two other books: Voyaging (1924) and N by E (1930); both did well. He also went on to illustrate a special three-volume limited edition of Moby-Dick for the Lakeside Press of Chicago. Kent’s black-and-white pen, brush, and ink drawings of whales and Ahab were stupendous. Those first editions constituted a high-water mark in American book publishing. Kent’s illustrations helped inspire the Great Depression generation to rediscover Herman Melville. Throughout the 1930s, in fact, Kent was as celebrated for his illustrations as Norman Rockwell of the Saturday Evening Post.30 He was hired to illustrate classics such as the Canterbury Tales, Candide, Beowulf, and Boccaccio’s Decameron.
The Norse side of Kent continued to ring forth. Believing that folk sagas were a window into cultures, he famously illustrated books about Paul Bunyan and Gisli of Iceland. Major magazines—such as Frank Crowninshield’s Vanity Fair, Henry Raymond’sHarper’s Monthly, and Richard Watson Gilder’s Century—commissioned his vivid black-and-white works. Even Kent’s doodles were coveted in New York literary circles. One afternoon Kent was talking with Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House. On the spot, he drew the colophon that Random House still uses. When Modern Library was created, Kent designed its logo, an elegant torchbearer. Eventually, no publisher felt adequate without a logo designed by Rockwell Kent. When Harold Guinzburg started Viking Press, for example, Kent produced its image, a ship.31 “He was, indeed, so indefatigably busy at desk and drawing board,” the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art Journal noted, “that in the 1920s and early 30s his work was virtually inescapable.”32
But it was Wilderness—the prose of a lonely seeker combined with bold illustrations—that has survived as a classic of travel literature. There was something noble about Kent at Fox Island, painting by day, drawing by oil lamp at night. By the 1960s, some readers considered Wilderness a second Walden. It is hard to describe the religiosity Kent had found in the wilderness at Resurrection Bay. The town of Seward honored him by painting a mural of his nautical map of Resurrection Bay—the frontispiece toWilderness. Doug Capra, a ranger at Kenai Fjords National Park, hopes to someday rebuild Kent’s cabin, which remains private property. Painters regularly make pilgrimages to the area to have their try at Bear Glacier. To Kent, the far north sky was “God’s abode,” with “truth and beauty emanating as the light from Heaven.”33
For fifteen years after the publication of Wilderness, Kent, always full of pent-up passion, looked for an excuse to go back to Alaska. That opportunity finally presented itself in early 1935. The U.S. Treasury Department had commissioned him to paint two enamel murals for a post office in Washington, D.C. The idea was to demonstrate, in an impressive way, the far-flung services of U.S. airmail. Kent was to show Eskimos from Nome, Alaska, sending letters to a family in Puerto Rico, 5,350 miles away. So, suddenly, thanks to this commission, Kent found himself in Nome, in a frigid wind, looking for Arctic families to sketch under the graying sky. “Alaska in 1935 belonged, as much as a colonial country can, to ‘the people who inhabited it’: the miners and prospectors, the big merchants and little shopkeepers, the artisans and upper laborers; all white,” Kent wrote. “It was no longer, as to a great extent was Greenland, the country of the aborigines. And although the Eskimo, to judge by what I saw of them in Nome and at my farthest north, Tin City, near Cape Prince of Wales, appeared to enjoy a greater material prosperity than the Greenlanders, their citizenship—politically, socially, and economically—was second or third class.”34
Kent painted his mural, which he infused with the left-leaning political disposition of Diego Rivera. The explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a consultant to Pan American Airlines, gave Kent some tips about the difficulties of aviation around Arctic Alaska, where long gravel spits and permafrost tundra were used as landing strips. The landscape was flat and mundane, and Nome did not even have a single attractive, tree-lined square. In Nome, Kent befriended George Ahgupuk, a talented Eskimo painter, who taught him about dogsledding. (Kent did Ahgupuk the great favor of arranging for him to have a gallery show in New York.) “I got every kind of information as to details and equipment and if, when I finished my picture, there is a single rivet in the dog harness out of place,” Kent wrote to a friend, “it won’t be my fault.”35
Nervously, Kent unveiled his mural in September 1937 to a group of assembled journalists and bureaucrats. Everybody admired how amazingly he had captured Eskimo dogsleds and reindeer teams, and people bidding good-bye to their mail in the Arctic. All was well—until a few weeks later, when Kent was accused of having tried to foment revolution in Puerto Rico and Alaska, inciting indigenous peoples to break the chains of colonialism. Kent, citing the Bill of Rights in his own defense, said he was only encouraging people to be “equal and free” individualists. Only sheep could possibly believe in communism, colonialism, or corporations. Always his own man, Kent didn’t like isms at all. Perhaps the poet Gary Snyder best captured the essence of Kent’s mischievous, nonconformist mystique in his 1988 poem “Raven’s Beak River at the End,” written after a trip to Alaska:
Raven-sitting high spot
eyes on the snowpeaks,
Nose of morning
raindrops in the sunshine
Skin of sunlight
skin of chilly gravel
Mind in the mountains, mind of tumbling water,
mind running rivers,
Mind of sifting
flowers in the gravels
At the end of the ice age
we are the bears, we are the ravens,
We are the salmon
in the gravel
At the end of an ice age
Growing on the gravels
at the end of a glacier
Flying off alone
flying off alone
flying off alone