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The Man Who Invented Himself
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
His toil had to be voluntary. If he had suffered as a work beast under the factory system in the past, he would now preach a cause that asked the workers to take over the factories from their exploiters. If he had often fought and lost against other boys, now he would only play at fighting with his guests and report prize fights for the Hearst papers. If his mother and father had rejected him, he would proclaim to the world that he was utterly self-made and owed nothing to anyone. He would be loyal to those who were loyal to him, his stepsister Eliza, and his second wife Charmian ; but when his mother and his wet nurse took the side of his first wife and his children after the divorce, he cut the two of them out of his will and most of his life.
He had made his way against everyone and everything. Defiantly he proclaimed that he would do what he wanted. “The ultimate word is I LIKE,” he declared in the foreword to his account of The Cruise of the Snark , published in 1909. “It lies beneath philosophy, and is twined about the heart of life.… It is ILIKE that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt; that makes one man a reveler and another man an anchorite; that makes one man pursue fame, another gold, another love, and another God. Philosophy is very often a man’s way of explaining his own I LIKE.”
Yet what if a man wanted drink and revolution, revelry and intense study, fame, gold, love, and faith in mankind all at once, as Jack did? He could only try to do everything simultaneously, at the waste of his energy, at the eventual cost of his life.
If that extraordinary energy, that superb body and willpower had remained as strong as they had been most of his life, Jack might have achieved many more marvels, and he certainly would have damned their contradictions. But his sea voyage began the rapid deterioration of his body. After two years of wandering about Polynesia, he was suffering from five diseases. The worst of these were pellagra and yaws. Unfortunately, no cure was known for pellagra at the time, while yaws was treated like a form of syphilis by arsenic compounds.
As a man who declared that he was self-made, he believed in self-help. Aboard the Snark , he was both doctor and dentist. He had a large wooden medicine chest stuffed with bottles of drugs. He believed in dosing himself and his wife and his companions. He did not believe in tolerating physical pain that could be eased. Like many a Californian, he believed that the birthright of the western child was a promise to live forever. It was intolerable that the body should go wrong.
Yet his body did go wrong rapidly after 1908. The steady drinking that Jack described in John Barleycorn (1913) attacked his liver. Yet that was nothing to the remedies he injected into himself to cure his imagined diseases. Jack consequently thought that there was still a lingering taint of yaws in him. So he took a course of the new miracle remedy, salvarsan, invented in 1909. It had an arsenic base and had not been properly tested. The result was that Jack, while trying to cure himself of a disease that may have already passed through his system, was killing himself with a remedy that was a poison. The arsenic in the salvarsan attacked his nerves, his kidneys, and his bladder.
The deterioration in Jack’s physique and stability has been falsely attributed to many causes, chiefly psychiatric. In fact, the chief cause was bad medication. His kidneys and bladder were being steadily destroyed, until he could hardly sleep or concentrate, although he still managed to keep up a heroic schedule of work. He was a dying man, but he refused to admit it. Unfortunately, as the pain grew more intolerable, so grew Jack’s reliance on sedatives such as alcohol and morphine. He had to dull the pain. His pride and his sense of his body’s worth would not allow him to show weakness. Ina way, he became the victim of his own myth of himself as a man who could endure all.
Ironically, his last years on his Beauty Ranch at Glen Ellen began to resolve the contradictions in the man. He started to come to terms with the legend that he had created. Fiction and person approached each other. He learned to accept himself and to postpone some of his desires. He remained loyal to Charmian, if not always faithful to her. He devoted himself to the development of the ranch. Where the soil was looted, he enriched it. Where weeds grew, he put in crops and vines and eucalyptus. He bred prize pigs and cows and Shire horses. He wanted to redeem the failure of his stepfather on his small ranch by making a success of large-scale farming. He countered the instability of his nerves with plans for the land that stretched over decades. Instead of a Red revolution in the cities, he now preached a green one in the countryside. He no longer echoed Marx, he prophesied Mao.