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November 21, 2013

The lost man who ate his dog

(Continued)

What all of these stories have in common is a careful balancing of ideals of wildness and domesticity. Historian Gail Bederman, whose book "Manliness and Civilization" shaped a lot of my ideas, describes key conflicts within turn-of-the-century ideas of white masculinity. At a time of urbanization and modernization, Bederman argues, people were obsessed by wildness and tameness. Fears of the bad effects of soft city living were joined by equal fears of descent into "savagery." (This was a time when eugenics and cultural chauvinism were quite mainstream.)

Summer camps, wilderness recreation and cultural tourism on Southwestern reservations, all of which were newly popular, were inoculations against softness. What all of these activities had in common was the promise that participation might give you just enough of that taste of wildness to get you through your everyday "civilized" life.

The dog in the wilderness was a perfect literary metaphor for the times. Dogs like London's Buck in "The Call of the Wild" found their wild interior when they were forced up against the harsh realities of Alaskan travel. Dogs learned to fight, to eat wild game, and to persevere on long runs.

But through all of this exertion, they always loved their masters. Their wildness was never so complete as to foreclose that affection — and, indeed, many of the fights they engaged in were on behalf of those masters. Like Lavoie's dog, they stepped between the dangers of the great North and their masters' hides, turning "red in tooth and claw," but for a purpose. The dogs in these stories, like the men they accompanied into the wilderness, were brawny, with a solid core of morality.

In using dogs as transportation, white explorers, missionaries and prospectors were adopting a practice of the native Alaskan, but they staunchly held that they were doing it better. Hudson Stuck, a missionary who wrote a memoir called "Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled," argued that native Alaskans had never figured out how to run dogs in teams, and it took white immigrants to perfect the concept. (Musher Scotty Allan and game warden Frank Dufresne agreed, taking credit for the invention of the harnesses and sleds that made rapid dog transportation possible.)

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