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The Man Who Invented Himself
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Such was Jack’s energy, such was his presence and power, that he convinced everyone he met that he would finally succeed in spite of his chopping and changing his goals. The descriptions of him as a young man were lyrical about his potential. “He had a curly mop of hair which seemed spun of its gold”; one of his friends wrote, “his strong neck, with a loose, low, soft shirt, was bronzed with it; and his eyes were like a sunlit sea. His clothes were flappy and careless; the forecastle had left a suspicion of a roll in his broad shoulders; he was a strange combination of Scandinavian sailor and Greek god.”
One of his great loves, Anna Strunsky, was even more struck by his charisma, when she first met him at a socialist conference in San Francisco. She felt a wonderful happiness, as if she were meeting Lord Byron or Karl Marx in their youth. She was certain that Jack would become a character known in history. She saw a “face illumined by large, blue eyes fringed with dark lashes, and a beautiful mouth which, opening in its ready laugh, revealed an absence of front teeth, adding to the boyishness of his appearance. The brow, the nose, the contour of the cheeks, the massive throat, were Greek. His form gave an impression of grace and athletic strength.…”
Such was the force of Jack’s presence, when he had achieved nothing. He could get what he wanted from people by awing them with his energy and conviction. He could persuade them of anything that he passionately believed about his future. Now he had to get what he wanted from his prose, for he had decided that writing short stories for the magazines offered the quickest rewards and the shortest route to fame. He modeled his style chiefly on Rudyard Kipling. Kipling had offered the world his myth of India and the mission of the British Empire. Jack would offer the world his myth of Alaska and the struggle of the fittest to survive in the northern wilderness.
Jack imitated his master well, but his Alaskan short stories possessed a raw force, a sense of elemental struggle, that Kipling never achieved. By 1903 the young Californian writer was a national name; three years later, he was known throughout the world. By 1906, before he was thirty years old, he had already written eight books, among them his two classics, The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf . Yet the incredible swiftness of his success led him to form a reverse myth about it—that he had been forced to fight every inch of the way against every possible obstacle to reach what all young writers dream of and few attain.
It was true that Jack had written night and day for some years. Yet when the break arrived, it came with the suddenness of the white-water rapids he had ridden in Alaska.
In 1900, not long after their magazine publication, his early Alaskan stories had been issued in book form as The Son of the Wolf , which had been instantly acclaimed. Two other collections had swiftly followed. But when he became successful, Jack chose to speak of his hard head, hard work, and will power, not of his genius or his good fortune. He forever after insisted that the young author should write all the time and for a market. Once an author had a name, he could sell anything he wrote-good, bad, or mediocre. That was certainly true in Jack’s own case. Yet his insistence that genius meant little, while sweat and salesmanship meant much, belittled his own powers. “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration,” he advised one colleague. “Light out after it with a club.” He did harm to his reputation by denying his own special gifts as a writer. He claimed that he was a realist who wrote straight from the shoulder. In fact, he was a mythmaker who disturbed the reader with the depths and shadows of his prose.
His determination to show his own life and his writing as a struggle for survival he justified by his belief in a combination of social Darwinism and Marxist dialectics. To him, evolution was the first faith, revolution the second faith. Mankind evolved by the struggle against nature, society evolved by the war of the classes. He himself had developed by his determined revolt from the slums and manual labor of his background. His own efforts had made him an educated man and a famous writer. He would now impose his vision on his readers, and he would redeem a youth of failure by a manhood of success.
His first goal was to reach the parlor floor of society. Already, in 1900, he had married a strong, practical, educated woman called Bess Maddern, so that she could look after his home and raise his children. It was a marriage of convenience for a young writer making his way, and he defended his cool choice with logic. Unfortunately, he soon felt confined by domesticity, and he began a passionate affair with Anna Strunsky, the beautiful radical heroine of the Bay Area socialists. He even collaborated with her in writing a book, The Kempton-Wace Letters , published in 1903; in it, as “Herbert Wace,” he hopelessly defended his calculated marriage against the romantic criticisms of Anna, as “Dane Kempton.” Much as he loved his two young daughters and his planned life, he could not suppress his feelings or his ferocity, and once again he translated frustration into movement.