Do you know Jack (London)?
by Knute Berger
This replica of Jack London's cabin in the Yukon wilderness of cabin was built in Oakland's Jack London Square. An identical cabin was built in Dawson City, Yukon. Credit: Stephen Lea/Wikimedia Commons
I had a grandfather who rushed to the Klondike in 1898 and lived long enough to dandle me on his knee and tell me stories. That probably predisposed me to like Jack London.
Like many people, I read his short stories and books like Call of the Wild and White Fang to get a taste of the life in the wilderness and the Great White North. These tales were all the more vivid because I could imagine my grandfather in them, tramping in snowshoes, climbing Chilkoot Pass, panning for gold. Grandpa had a precious nugget embedded in one of the curved pipes he like to smoke (always curved, he said, because straight pipes got in the way of reading the newspaper). That little nugget hinted and glinted of treasure and adventure. So did London’s tales.
Many put Jack London away with child’s things, acknowledging him as a master of juvenile fiction, of stories to keep alongside Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. But as a new biography of London (due in June) tells it, dismissing London this way is a mistake.
In Wolf: the Lives of Jack London (Basic Books, $29.95), James L. Haley gives us a terrific, compact biography that helps to restore London as a complex, prodigious writer of much (perhaps too much) more than tales of adventure. He was a writer who threw himself into his times, and burned out early due to back-breaking labor, booze, brilliance, and a bravehearted engagement in the radical politics.
My own brief rediscovery of London began and ended in late adolescence. I came across a copy of Martin Eden, London’s novel about a budding author who woos a woman of the upper-middle class and strives for recognition and commercial success. He is rejected, lonely, desperate, the prototypical suffering scribe. He eventually hits it big, yet finds no happiness. The system grinds him up (those who remember the era of rejection slips will be able to relate to the agony), his art is compromised. The book ends with the author slipping off a ship at sea and sinking into oblivion, a suicide who chooses to disappear.
For a budding writer, Martin Eden offers a scary study. Its message: the only thing more miserable than literary failure is success. It brings to mind the old Red Smith quote: “Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein and bleed it out drop by drop.” The very act of creativity often takes a toll that requires stamina and self-destruction. Getting on the bestseller list is no assurance of ease, and in fact can increase the pressures as more blood is required to keep up with demand.
After Martin Eden, I stopped reading Jack London. The book was so clearly autobiographical, in fact, it was hard for me not to see the character and author as the same.
It was one thing to imagine writing in a garret and dying young and unknown for art; it was another to ponder making it and then hating where it got you. London, I’d heard, had written Martin Eden and an abundance of other books, then killed himself too. Martin Eden stood as a warning for young writers, like all those dead horses and graves along the Klondike trails.
There is debate about whether he committed suicide or not, but no question that Jack London was a remarkable talent from a hard-luck background whose success was largely self-made. He was a child laborer (put to work to help support the family at age 10), who had to fight to develop any kind of life of the mind. London wrote adventure stories, and he also lived adventures: going to the Klondike, shipping off to sea on a sealing voyage, riding the rails, even engaging in oyster piracy. He also became a dedicated socialist, a member of a San Francisco bohemian literary salon, The Crowd, reminiscent of a later Bay Area literary community, the Beats, a member of which was another rambling Jack named Kerouac.
London said that his years of cruel child labor had made him a “Work Beast,” and his muse drove him like a sweatshop worker.
London was incredibly prolific. He produced socialist polemics, muckraking exposes, speculative fiction, essays, short stories, novels, travel books and memoirs. Some of his work was outstanding, some dreadful, some even plagiarized (parts of Iron Heel). During his heyday, his output included three or four books a year.
He consumed his publisher’s advances with a great appetite, and supported many friends and family members in the process. He lived to write, and wrote to live. His need for story ideas was sometimes so great he once purchased plots from news clippings kept in a trunk by a young idea-hoarder named Sinclair Lewis. London said that his years of cruel child labor had made him a “Work Beast,” and his muse drove him like a sweatshop worker.
Like many writers, London’s popularity was based on his terrific adventure tales often drawn from his wilderness and seagoing experiences, but his heart was set on being an agent of reform and revolution. An ardent young radical who made a name for himself giving soap box speeches in Oakland, he dove into social issues reporting, castigating the class system, the slums, the status quo. He was a better writer than he was a polemicist, and his most radical works were both widely read and reviled. Slowly, he alienated members of the literary middle class who had embraced Call of the Wild and other works.
So London was divided, trying to please an audience and magazine editors who wanted escapism, yet eager to shake people up with the dirty realities of capitalism. Once, giving a political speech, London vented at his audience: “You are ignoramuses. Your fatuous self-sufficiency blinds you to the revolution that is surely, surely coming, and which will surely wipe you and your silk-lined, puffed up leisure off the map.” Of course, it was that “leisure” class that had made him a success, and a celebrity. And, of course, the revolution never came.
Wolf is full of detail about London’s background, life, and wanderings. For Northwest readers, there’s not much about his brief visits to Seattle and Port Townsend during his Klondike period, but one connection was a complete revelation to me. London’s parents (though his father later, unconvincingly, denied paternity) likely met in Seattle.
His mother, Flora Chaney, was a fragile, difficult woman, a medium who conducted frontier seances. His father, “Professor” William Chaney was an astrologer, and the two were introduced by city founder (and later mayor) Henry Yesler and his wife Sarah, who, it turns out, were both spiritualists.
Prof. Chaney abandoned his wife and infant child in a much publicized scandal in San Francisco, and thus London was the product of a broken home and raised in the milieu of the West Coast’s long-standing alternative culture. Jack London never lost his working-class bohemianism.
London was enormously talented, but the pace of his complex personal life (marriages, affairs, alcoholism, financial messes, house fire, betrayals) and the sweatshop drive with which he worked himself took their toll. He sought peace at a ranch he named Beauty, but still he died an old man at 40, with the output and life experience of someone twice that age. His career was exciting and robust, but as with Martin Eden, James Haley’s book offers a real life warning too, of a man who couldn’t shake his inner demons or his Work Beast, and paid a price.