This is a work of historical fiction with emphasis of the historical. All references to letters and journals are accurate, though I have taken liberties with the dialogue and some events.
The Hour of the Wolf
ockwell Kent didn’t need much sleep. On December 19, he rose at six, stoked the Yukon stove and made coffee for himself and Olson, in case the old man stopped by as he often did. For Rockie, he cooked a favorite breakfast – oatmeal with raisins.
It was a Thursday, but Rockwell didn’t know the day of the week and didn’t care. It mattered naught what you called the moment unless you lived it fully. The day before, when he heard old Olson express his “Baah” attitude toward Christmas and his son’s disappointment, Kent decided to surprise them both. He thrived on impossible challenges. Tell him he couldn’t accomplish something, and he’d die in the attempt. Christmas had always been a special holiday during his childhood – especially after an early religious epiphany. For a while, he actually believed. With adolescence, Nietzsche, and modernism came doubt, but it had been his mentor and art teacher, Robert Henri, who had extracted his religious tooth at art school in New York. These days he stumbled along a meandering and undulating trail through transcendent territory encompassing anarchistic atheism, the spirituality of William Blake, and the sacred mystics, especially those from India.
When Rockie was asleep, Kent wrote his wife that the boy had mailed her a sweet letter during their last trip to Seward asking her to join them in Alaska. “It is absolutely his own and if your heart isn’t melted to tears of joy at reading it you are no longer Kathleen-of-the-loving-heart. We are filled with the thought of you coming…Olson is going to write to you. He’s delighted at the thought of you coming.” He wrote two more letters to his wife that night, words of fervent love mixed with angry rants, apologies, regrets, and promises.
Those haunting morning hours between one and three that some called, “The Hour of the Wolf” – consumed him with fear and doubtful questions about his own genius. Would his Alaska art fail as did his Newfoundland work? Could he ever earn a living in art? Would his wife leave him for another man and take the children? Had she cheated on him with Mr. Walker, that Coastguard man on Monhegan Island off the Maine coast? Occasionally, Kent actually saw the irony in that thought, although he didn’t consider his extra-marital romantic exploits deceitful. He’d never kept them secret from Kathleen. Indeed, Kent introduced the women to each other and expected them all to live happily within the arrangement. But over ten years, things had changed.
Kathleen was no longer that innocent, 18-year-old Victorian girl he had married on New Year’s Eve 1908. She had grown up. Now in New York City with the children while he was in Alaska, she had a loyal support group which included some of his friends who knew him well. He suspected they were working against him, convincing Kathleen that she didn’t have to put up any longer with his infidelities. That must be why she had given him an ultimatum – give up Hildegarde or our marriage is over. In November during one of those dark early morning hours while obsessing over one of Kathleen’s frank letters, Kent fell to his knees in desperate prayer. But pray to whom? Was there anyone out there? He was on a remote Alaskan island with no power over his wife and family thousands of miles away.
And Rockwell Kent was a man who demanded control. He needed to be in charge. If some of Kathleen’s letters made him think she sometimes enjoyed her current freedom from his dominance, he would have been correct. Her friends knew she needed breaks from the children and occasionally to go out on the town, to concerts and plays. As a young girl she had professional musical training and at one time considered a career as a concert pianist. Her ventures into the city’s entertainment world reminded her of what she had given up and emboldened her. She found it much more comfortable now telling Kent off in letters rather than face to face – like him, mixing authentic expressions of love with anger, frustration and demands. These letters took weeks to go back and forth, and both felt like there was no real communication. The Alaska mail situation was bad enough, but in 1918 the steamship companies had contract disputes with the federal government over delivery fees. Mail took much longer and often arrived in Alaska wet or damaged. Kathleen could mail her letters to Rockwell every day, but he could only pick them up in batches every few weeks in Seward. During those trips, he would mail dozens of letters to her, ones he had written on the island, not having read all the new letters he had just collected in Seward.
Olson joined them for breakfast that morning bringing a pint of goats’ milk. “Today’s a day to live,” Kent announced after they finished eating. “Let’s get to work. Come, Rockie. You, too, Lars. Let’s get a Christmas tree.” At the same moment it was an “Oh, boy!” for Rockie and a “Bahhh on Christmas trees!” for Olson.
“Let’s get a big one and I’ll put Squirlie on top instead of a star;” Squirlie was Rockie’s stuffed animal. “I drew a picture of Squirlie as a Christmas present for my sister, Clara,” he told Olson, to which the old man replied, “You two go get your old tree. I take care of my animals.” Rockie looked questioningly at his father. “Come with us, Lars,” Kent said, but the old man just walked out the door into the cold, sunny day.
Rockie and his father explored the woods between their cabin and the fox farm and wandered beside the brackish lake. The light, fluffy snow from the night before was perfect for making snow angels. Kent pretended to pose his son under some snow-laden spruce branches for a photo, then shook the snow all over him. Rockie struck back and the two wrestled on the ground, and the father washed his son’s face red with snow. Their heavy wool clothing became ice-coated, and they raced each other to the beach in front of Olson’s cabin. The old man watched as they stripped naked and took a quick dip into Resurrection Bay. Olson shook his head. “Nothing wrong with a winter bath,” he said aloud to some nearby goats. “But a hot one couple times a winter’s plenty for me.” He shook his head. He loved the Kents, as much as his goats, and the lonely Swede deeply appreciated their company. “Crazy! Ya both!” he shouted to them as they collected their clothes and raced each other back to their cabin. Olson stood between his two favorites goats, Nannie and Billy. Patting Billy on the head he said, “You know, my sweets, they’re both nuts, right? Lucky their cabin’s a far ways down the beach, yah?”
At the cabin Kent got their Yukon stove roaring hot and they both dried off. Shivering but refreshed, Rockie almost forgot about his holiday worries – then suddenly realized, “Father! We forgot to get a tree.” Rockwell laughed. “You stay here and warm up. I saw just the tree we need, and I’ll go get it.” Rockie just shook his head, dressed quickly and followed his father back outside. They found the tree and felled it together, taking turns with the ax. Hauling it back, they stopped halfway to do some sketching, both of them. They leaned the tree up against the west cabin wall outside with plans to set it up inside the next day. Later, while Rockie helped Olson feed the fox, the artist spent another hour outside sketching and planning his holiday surprise. Then he and Rockie grabbed opposite handles of the crosscut saw and cut more firewood. By late afternoon as darkness descended amid lighted lanterns, they ate supper. Then Kent followed the routine – more sketches, some more “Robinson Crusoe” for Rockie before bed, his own reading of William Blake’s biography and the Indian mystics, and as lowbush cranberries stewed on the stove, his descent into the Dark Night of the Soul with more letters to Kathleen, complaining about her short letters to him and urging her to join him in Alaska
Kathleen had no intention of coming to Alaska alone or with the three little girls. She loved her husband and missed her son dearly, but any existence with Rockwell Kent included his other women and his fanatic ambition. It was difficult enough for her as they moved from place to place and from the city to Monhegan Island. Back and forth, here and there. She longed for a permanent home. That was the plan when they ventured to Brigus, Newfoundland in 1914 as the Great War began. Her husband planned to start an art colony and school. At first their stay had its delightful moments, but soon it became exhausting for Kathleen with Rockie, the two girls, and a new baby. Then the kiddies got the whooping cough. “Brigus,” Rockwell would say, “Just a damned provincial British colony.” The locals thought he was a German spy. Kent responded arrogantly, considering their charge ridiculous but pretended to act like it was true. His obtuse practical jokes backfired, especially that tongue-in-cheek letter he sent to a socialist magazine begging the Germans to occupy Brigus and save him from its unsophisticated inhabitants. That did it. He and his family were expelled from the country. There was no way Kathleen was going to accompany her husband on a new wilderness adventure to Alaska. She loved him and would miss him, but his letters telling her it would be wonderful to have her there to help row their boat with Rockie, and mend his and Olson’s socks, and cook their meals… No wonder Hildergarde also refused to join him in Alaska, she thought.
In August when he arrived in Seward, the Great War still raged and American troops were dying every day. Her husband was adamantly against the war and Kathleen was sure patriotic fever was high in Seward as in it been in 1914 Newfoundland. Would Rockwell end up getting thrown out of Alaska, too? Fortunately, he had registered for the draft despite his resistance to it. She had helped him get deferred by sending affidavits attesting to their marriage and children and confirming he was their sole support.
It snowed heavily on Fox Island over the next few days. Kent sketched, wrote many letters to friends and family. They all loved his illustrations, and the detailed pen and ink Chart of Resurrection Bay he had drawn in November. The journal was intended to commemorate what Kent called his “quiet adventure” in Alaska – no rants or personal information – just the day-to-day exhilarating experience. If this trip failed like Newfoundland, if his art came to nothing -- perhaps he could publish the journal and take up writing as a career. He had been reading Fridtjof Nansen’s “In Northern Mists,” and other illustrated books by artist-explorers. They were an inspiration to him.
He often sent Rockie to work with Olson or to wander the beach and forests. Kent had secret work to do in preparation for Christmas day. He wanted to decorate the cabin and plan a special menu. Kent knew the presents Kathleen and his mother sent would not arrive in time, and that Rockie would be devastated. “I’ll give him something and pretend it’s from you,” he wrote his wife. He stopped the letter and thought – but what can I give him? Rockwell had splurged on a few items on their last trip to Seward. Mr. Hawkins who owned the fox farm Olson managed, and ran Brown and Hawkins General store, has given him discounts on several items. But Kent needed something special.
He returned to the letter now to sketch something for Kathleen and looked for just the right tool in his drawing satchel. There he found the perfect gift for Rockie. After repairing the item, he wrote to Kathleen, “I just found a nice present for Rockwell – one that he’ll really appreciate and use. I’ll tell him it’s from you and that you sent it last month. It’s that old fountain pen that has tossed about so long among my pencils. I’ve no idea where it ever came from…I cleaned and filled it and it works perfectly. After Christmas I hope that Rockwell’s letters to you will be in ink like his father’s.”
There would be other presents for Rockie, too – and for Olson. On their last trip to Seward he had used the last of his cash on hand. Then he went to the cable office to wire his wife for more money. They had arrived in town at about two in the afternoon. He felt sick and thought he had the influenza. They went right to the hotel and he slept for sixteen hours with Rockie by his side, petting him and crying. He tried to assure his son, but deep down he expected the worst. Did he mumble, talk to Rockie in his half-lucid dreams? He couldn’t remember. What did he say? He knew what he was thinking – if he died who would take care of his son? What would become of him? Did he ask Rockie to grab him some paper and a pen or was that a dream? Did he scratch out a last letter to his wife and children? Was that real? Did he tell his son to keep the letter safe and give to his mother if…if what? If his father died? Was there a letter at all? If so, he didn’t want to know. He was afraid to ask his son if that letter existed. The next morning he woke feeling much better. Rockie had slept on the floor. He woke his son and was caught in the boy’s strong embrace. No words ever passed between them about that night.
Rockwell rushed through his errands in Seward because the weather looked threatening. Olson had warned him about how treacherous Resurrection Bay could be in winter. Kent had laughed it off and wrote to a friend about how timid Alaskans were about the sea, not like the New England’s lobstermen he had worked with in Maine. But the old Swede had been right and now he knew. After their near drowning in September on their return to Fox Island, every trip caused him tremendous stress. He wasn’t afraid of dying. At this point in his life, part of him didn’t care one way or the other. But what about his son? Perhaps that’s why he took the boy to Alaska. Not only as a connection to his wife and family, but also because he knew that with his son along he wouldn’t do what he sometimes desperately wanted – to end it all. What was the point? He loved his wife and children, but without his art he was nothing. He couldn’t spend the rest of his existence scratching out architectural drawings or building houses or digging ditches. It was his art or nothing, all or nothing. If he couldn’t have it all, then nothing would do – and his reading of Nietzsche made him almost certain that there was nothing at death but the empty abyss. At times, that nothingness felt comforting.
Darkness descended on Dec. 19, 1918, the routine evolved, and soon the Hour of the Wolf arrived with Dec. 20. It was time for more letters to Kathleen. Between the demands, angry rants, and apologies, his letters also expressed his love, his hope she would join him in Alaska, and his promises to become a better man. “I keep waiting to tell you about to-day,” he wrote. “it was so lonely – and yet if all of that goes into the diary it would be tiresome for you to read it twice. On such day as this…one could with good luck make the trip to Seward and return. But we can’t here be a weather prophet…All the time that I was out to-day I thought of how you would love the woods ever with its soft, virgin snow. In the snow, the trees, the sky, all the land and the sea, in everything I look at or think about your image confronts me – not always happily – but always, always there, my darling.”
Then he reminded Kathleen that Olson was anxious for her to come and would soon write her a special letter.
To be continued
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords,” and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska” published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996. Capra is writing a book about the American artist Rockwell Kent who spent the winter of 1918-1919 on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay. The draft of that book in progress can be found online at https://rockwellkentjournal.blogspot.com/.