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The Man Who Invented Himself
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
He was offered a job reporting on the aftermath of the Boer War, but when he reached Britain, the job was cancelled. He stayed in London to watch the coronation of King Edward VII, then he disappeared into the slums of the East End to research and write his passionate outcry against the degradation of the London poor, The People of the Abyss , also published in 1903. While he was away, Anna Strunsky came to her senses and ended their affair. She would not risk a scandal by carrying on with a married man. Jack was bitter, but he had to accept the blow, stating that in the future he would confine romance to the pages of his books.
Yet he still chafed at domesticity, and his next two great books mirrored his mood—what he called his “long sickness.” The Call of the Wild , his third published book in 1903, was about a dog that reverted to savagery in the wilderness; but it was also about Jack’s own demand to be free. Thereafter, he called himself Wolf to his friends and he identified his nature with that lone animal’s. The Sea-Wolf , published in 1904, told of the fight to the death between an educated sissy, Humphrey van Weyden, and a blond beast, Captain Wolf Larsen, on his sealing schooner. The characters may have represented Jack’s own divided nature, with his willed concentration on self-education and the discipline of writing at war with his passion to be a physical superman.
Actually, his body had already begun to crack up on him when he lamed himself permanently on a voyage to Korea, where he reported the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. There he began riding horses the way most sailors do, lurching in the saddle as if on the deck of his sloop. He never walked a long way again, although his Alaskan heroes like Smoke Bellew were capable of vast journeys on foot. In Korea, however, he displayed both his boldness and his new taste for authority, sending back the first photographs of the Japanese Army in action and engaging the first of his two Oriental body servants, who would travel with him and look after him all the rest of his life.
Waiting for his return from Korea was Charmian Kittredge, his new mistress. She was one of the rare liberated and independent women of California, a good sportswoman and stenographer, five years older than Jack, with a trim figure. She flung herself into the affair with Jack, and she joined him in the horseplay and practical jokes that he loved. There was a fight for Jack’s possession between her and “The Crowd,” the group of radical artists and writers led by Jack’s great friend, the poet George Sterling. Charmian won and persuaded Jack to leave his wife and family for a little ranch up in the Sonoma hills near Glen Ellen. The only way to cure his “long sickness” of restlessness and divided loyalties and appetites, she argued, was to put down an anchor with her on a piece of land. He accepted the solution, divorced his wife, and married Charmian. W’here his stepfather had failed on the land, Jack decided, he would succeed. Where his first marriage had foundered in domesticity, his second would work with Charmian as his true love and “Mate.”
So began the happiest period of Jack’s life, the years 1905 and 1906, when he indulged all his contradictory urges almost simultaneously. When the Russian Revolution broke out, he toured the United States, giving a lecture on “Revolution” even at Yale and Harvard. He became the leading orator of the radical movement at the same time that he was setting himself up as a California rancher and writing imperialist articles for the Hearst press. He believed both in the superiority of the white man and in the eventual victory of the proletariat—but it had to be the white proletariat that won. Yet when he came to write his chilling prophesy of the “inevitable” world revolution, The Iron Heel , published five years later, in 1910, he foresaw the triumph of Fascism before the brotherhood of the workers could eventually rule the earth. And then—typically—at the height of his commitment to the Red cause and the California earth, he suddenly announced that he would set off in 1907 on a seven years’ cruise around the world in a sailing boat, which cost him $30,000 to build and was rightly called the Snark , being a splendid illusion.
Such a series of contradictory actions in so short a space of time was remarkable in a man who insisted that he was rational, candid, and uncomplicated. In fact, he imposed a structure of apparent logic on violent and uncontrolled appetites, which had been deprived and now were indulged. He believed that he had been fed too little meat when he was a boy. Now he ate “cannibal sandwiches” of bleeding beef on the waterfront and almost raw duck twice a day in season, even if this did give him dysentery. He had been short of money all his childhood. Now he would take any hack-writing job that paid well, only to waste the money, as though he needed the whip of debt to keep him writing his thousand words a day.