“Kent’s chatty and familiar style has the advantage of presenting places and people in an unforgettably vivid manner.”—Saturday Review
New edition. Vivid depictions of a now-vanished Greenland and its people.
- Wesleyan University Press
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Meet the Author
ROCKWELL KENT (1882-1971) was one of America’s most famous graphic artists, particularly well-known for his illustrated travel books. SCOTT R. FERRIS is an art historian, former director of the Rockwell Kent Legacies and co-author of Rockwell Kent’s Forgotten Landscapes (1998).
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By ROCKWELL KENT
WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2003
Scott R. Ferris
All right reserved.
IT IS a tranquil cloudless evening in July. The
shadow of the hills of Umanak lies on the settlement: brown
rocks, brown soil, brown native houses built of turf, and Danish
houses bright with paint. And all around, seawards and landwards,
on the blue bay islanded with ice, on mountainous islands, on
the snow-tipped ranges of the mainland, on the near hill crests and
on the towering flanks of Umanak's peak, the golden light of the
Greenland summer's never setting sun.
Then, presently, like gophers from a warren, come the people.
They stream out from the houses, come running down the stony
hillside paths from everywhere; and they all meet in front of the
carpenter shop to form, at last, a great multitude, brimming with
good humor and restless with excitement. Something is about to
The wide doorway of the carpenter shop is three steps from
the ground; square in that doorway stands a table. The table is
laid with a bright cloth and set with an array of bottles, tumblers,
little boxes, and a nickel-plated urn. Behind the table moves a
little restless man arranging things. All eyes are upon him.
A little white man, florid and ruddy-beaked, a rosebud mouth;
the people watch his movements. Boys, crowding close, peer
underneath the table at his crooked, wishbone legs. And now, all
set, apparently, he rests his palms on the table, leans out, and turns
a livid popeyed stare upon the crowd. A sea of upturned faces
gapes at him.
What masks! Broad-boned and dark; the strong jaws and placid
brows of men and women in their prime; the seared and weather-beaten
faces of the old; young faces smooth as polished bronze
and plump-cheeked as though formed by laughter; babies in
arms, and smear-faced brats on boxes, roofs, and barrel tops-all
gaping open-lipped at that hypnotic stare. It holds them, breathless.
And when at last the white mart slowly lifts a gruesome,
maimed, three-fingered hand, holds it impressively aloft, stands
there with elevated beak poised to begin-there is a silence as
might be at Doomsday for the voice of God.
He speaks. In native jargon almost unintelligible he tells them
what he is about to do, what wonder he'll perform. Into a little
box he stuffs a dirty handkerchief; closes the box; holds it aloft
tight-closed. They stare at it. Daintily he brings the box to his
lips and loudly blows on it. Again aloft, to wave it round three
times. He puts it on the table, taps it solemnly. He lifts again that
gruesome hand-now look! Opening the box, he shows it to the
people. It is empty. A buzz of charmed amazement from the
He swallows a butcher's knife; he lays an egg; he mixes the ingredients
of soup in the empty urn and brings out-soup? Not
soup: a Danish flag! He turns water into wine, and wine to water.
In utter quiet, spellbound by each miracle, the people watch. The
sound of the magician's voice has huge significance in the deep
silence of the Greenland world.
There is a Danish freighter in the harbor; men have come
ashore. A drunken stoker watching on the border of the crowd
comes lurching over to me, takes my arm. He is no fool, he wants
to have me know. "It's nothing but a God-damned bunch of
tricks," he whispers. But no one hears, or no one understands.
At last, too soon, the show will end; one last great miracle. The
magician, after moving the table aside and coming to the very
front, takes a coin from his pocket and hands it to a boy; it is
passed round for everyone to see: a Greenland kroner. They
return it. With awe-inspiring earnestness the magician now
prepares himself. He takes a sip of water, gargles it; he unbuttons
his celluloid collar, his waistcoat, his waistband. All ready now?
Good! Holding the coin aloft, opening his mouth he puts-in
plain sight of everyone-the coin into the open mouth, closes the
mouth, and swallows. One almost sees the brass piece passing
down the throat. It clearly hurts a bit. It's down; he pats his belly.
But suddenly, even as he stands there smiling, he is griped by
pain. The agony of his contorted features is reflected in the faces
of the enraptured, sympathetic onlookers. They gasp with pity.
Now, suddenly, he stoops; the posture brings relief. A look of
high expectancy illuminates that countenance: hope, faith, and
will to do. Quickly he puts a hand to his backside; all hear a rending
sound. The coin, reborn, is held on high. Roar of delight. He
gives the coin to a near-by spectator, who takes it gingerly. It is
the white man's gift to Greenland.
The crowd lingered to discuss the wonders it had seen. They
called the wizard angakok, after the ancient miracle-workers of
their race; and, it appeared in no way to diminish their delight in
what he had done to know, as they did, that there was one of their
own people farther north who performed the same miracles better,
and that, just as the stoker had guessed, they were all tricks.
SEAWARD from Umanak-fully fifty miles
away-is a large, mountainous island, christened by Dutch whalers
Ubekjendt, or Unknown. Both by the suggestion of its name and
by its position and character-its seagirt isolation, the simple
grandeur of its stark, snow-covered tableland and higher peaks,
the dark cliff barrier that forms its eastern shore-there is the
glamour of imponderable mystery about the island which dignifies
it even at the gateway of a region of stupendous grandeur. Its
cliffs, proclaiming inaccessibility, preclude the thought of human
settlements. When; therefore, on approaching its more mountainous
northeastern end where, just ahead, steep mountain walls rise
sheer from water's edge, the barrier ends, the shore sweeps inward
in a mile-wide crescent of smooth strand and, cupped by
mountains, there appears a low and gently sloping verdant foreland
jeweled with painted buildings and dotted over with those
little mounds of earth which are the houses of men, one's spirit,
in sudden awakening to a need, exults in grateful consciousness
of its fulfillment. Smooth shore, green meadow land with little
footpaths crossing it, houses where people live, smoke from their
hearths ascending in the breathless sunlit air: there is no beauty
nearer to the heart than this. And the encircling wilderness, the
appalling nearness of black mountain walls, enforce its poignancy.
And now a cry goes up, and from all the houses come the people
to welcome us. Bright-colored figures in their native costume;
they keep abreast of us and line the shore to meet us as we land.
Men wade in ankle-deep and Beach our skiff. Our goods are lifted
out and borne along in our wake as we all march-men, boys,
and half the women-up to the trader's house that stands near by.
The goods are put inside the doorway; the bearers go. "Sit down,
speak nothing, make yourself at home," orders my host, my
traveling companion, the outpost trader of Igdlorssuit, the angakok
of Umanak. Queer bird, this fellow Trolleman; I ought to
Throughout the nine interminable hours of our trip from
Umanak he raved, poured over me imprisoned on the boat the
turgid, ever branching, endless torrent of his reminiscences, the
stored imaginings of soul-starved vanity. Lies-pointless, unresolved.
Lies?-yes: he boasted of them. "I am," he'd cry, "the
world's third biggest liar.-If I could only write!" he said. "I'd
tell the story of my life. It would be awful." Boy runaway; hard
years at sea; sailor and lugger hand; mate?-one questions it;
turnkey and dairy hand; and trapper on the east coast of Greenland.
And now, at last, by that indomitable will to power of the
man not made for it, he was the trader at the outpost of Igdlorssuit,
and the lord of a native wife. From cabin boy to king.
He liked command. His style was patterned on that authority
from which in his past years he'd suffered most; he was at last the
master of a ship, his home. His wife was mate, her sisters were the
crew. And the spirit in which the young wife was admitted to the
honors of the cabin table was consistent with that hard-boiled
snobbishness which is the rule at sea. She knew her place.
There was something infinitely pathetic in her timid, half terror-stricken
observance of her master's wants and ways-her
anxious regard for trivial details in the setting of the table, her
watchful imitation of his every move with knife and fork. Worry
was there. And it had marked itself in lines about her eyes, between
her brows. She had the look of a little child forever asking
of itself bewilderingly, "What does he mean? What is it all
about?" She was not quite a child. Sometimes, it seemed, she
hated him-my genial, boisterous host, her lord.
"Regina! Come," he'd say. She'd go to him. He'd seat her on
his knee and lend his head for her caresses. "Whom do you love?"
he'd ask. And, never failingly, she'd answer like a child taught
winsome ways, "Min lille Trolleman." She knew her tricks. And
her naturally affectionate and endearing nature gave itself to the
improvement of such feminine arts as could serve her interests;
she'd learned to wheedle. It was her one defense against the master's
But on the whole, perhaps, she was content. Life had its sorrows
but her life, its glory. And the contempt and hatred which
sometimes smoldered impotently in her eyes was doubtless more
than once dispelled by proud reflections on the social position that
her marriage had brought her, and enraptured anticipation of that
visit to Denmark toward which all that irksome training in the
ways of white men was directed. Six years of it: how much had
happened in six years!
REGINA was a stranger, a newcomer
to Igdlorssuit, having moved there but the year before at her
husband's transfer from her birthplace, Agto. Both by her pride
and by her husband's will she stayed a stranger. She maintained
the prestige of her rank by the display of innumerable little vanities
of dress and manner, which in the measure that they excited envy
lost her the affection of the people. Her very position laid her
open to the suspicion of being-what she may, in fact, to some
extent quite thoughtlessly have been-a purveyor to the trader's
ears of that secret ridicule and discontent with which the native
may, for cause or none, view white officialdom. They neither
loved nor trusted her, poor child!
Spring, summer, fall, and winter she watched from her closed
windows all that life of her people-its work and play, and love
and happy idleness-which had from childhood till six years ago
been hers. She heard the laughter of the strolling groups on
promenade, their songs on summer nights. She could detect the
whispering of lovers pressed for concealment in a sheltering angle
of her mansion house. Hunters returned; she joined the populace
that welcomed them, shared in their pride in what their men had
done, thrilled to her race's manhood. There stirred in her her sex's
passionate response to youth, strength, hardihood. She paid
within herself her woman's tribute to heroic man. All that from
childhood on she'd learned to love and want, she wanted now.
Seated at a window that like an eye looks out all-seeingly on all
the settlement is a little, crooked, white-haired man. He is writing.
Long hours every day, painstakingly, with pride and pleasure in
the Spencerian flourishes of his penmanship, he lists the day's
events. Of all those feats of hardihood and skill, of all that has so
moved the populace and made its life this day, he writes: "x kilos
fat, y skins; value in kroner z." He is the recording angel of civilization.
Regina, returned to her kitchen, sees while at her work
that aged back, her man's. Unhappy child! God only knows her
There had been some excitement among the girls of Agto at
the arrival there of the new trader, Trolleman, a bachelor. And
although no thought of marriage entered their heads, the girls did
count upon him for such occasional favors as men liked to bestow;
and, anticipating the privileges, notoriety, and honor incident to
his special regard, vied with each other in that bashful hide and
seek which was their way in courtship. Regina must at that time
have been rarely beautiful, the full young oval face unmarked by
care, its look as free and guileless as her life and thoughts. She had
abundant beauty: long braids of raven hair coiled heavily about
her head, an olive skin, red lips, and teeth as white as sun-bleached
ivory. No wonder that the trader's eyes soon fell on her, and that
he picked her out to be his servant.
Trolleman as a resident in settled Greenland was a newcomer;
and those occasional adventures in the stalking of wild human
game which had fallen to him on his Greenland voyages were of
no help to him in the new sex problem of this new experience-domestic
life. It may he that a sailor's one-night stands in love
don't yield the knowledge of the ways of women that some claim
for them, and that the Magdalenes of the back alleys of St. Pauli
and Front Street are quite unlike the Marthas of that better place,
the home. At any rate, hearth, home, domestic life, were strange
to him; and whatever contempt for women he may have carried
from his foremast days, the new environment imposed its holy
hand, cloaking with circumspection the unholy lust that gnawed
The girl's goodness-which may have been no more than the
aspect of her native unsophistication-fitting as it did so touchingly
his fancies of the home, was of itself potent at once to shame
and to stimulate desire. It added to the confusion of his own mind
as to what-how bold, how crafty, cautious, circumspect-the
course of his pursuit should be. And knowing, as he did, that
every secret act of his would be the gossip of the settlement, fearing,
despite his white man's pride, the people's ridicule, he found
himself encumbered by a self-consciousness that no amount of
pompous posturing could hide. Regina knew his game: who
wouldn't? She played her hand with an instinctive art. She was instructed
in the ways of men: love was no mystery, and never had
been. She had observed the procreation of her brothers and sisters,
seen their birth; she had lived in the presence of all the phenomena
of human life. Love was not talked about: it was an act
performed. Its happening to her marked her maturity.
Regina was not innocent, but she was young; she was impressed
by Trolleman, and scared. He was so boisterous. He'd strut about
her in the kitchen, watching her with those protruding eyes. It
troubled her. She did her best, too conscious of her ignorance of
Danish housekeeping. Was what she did not right, that he should
watch her so? He'd speak: it startled her, it was so loud. And he
would laugh, and rub his hands, and clap her on the back, then
quickly walk away. If this uproarious thing was mirth it was
quite different from the mirth of Greenlanders. She understood,
of course, no word of it.
Excerpted from SALAMINA
by ROCKWELL KENT
Copyright © 2003 by Scott R. Ferris.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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