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The Man Who Invented Himself
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
The novels of Jack’s later period were less successful, because he was giving up the pretense of himself as an Alaskan superman for a version of himself as the new California rancher. Yet one of them, The Valley of the Moon , published in 1913, was as poignant and modern as today’s dream of organic living. Jack took as his heroes a young worker and his wife, Billy and Saxon Roberts, who are broken in the labor battles of Oakland and take to the road. They go on a pilgrimage through rural California with tent and Hawaiian ukelele, seeking a patch of ground to farm and to set themselves up in life. It is a romance of young love and nostalgia for the soil, with a sweetness not to be found in the rest of Jack’s writing—his admission that, when he was not racked with pain, he had found himself in his life with Charmian on the ranch.
He could not, however, completely escape his contradictory nature. His desire to settle on and develop the ranch was in conflict with his urge to run away from such responsibility. In his last years, when he called himself only a scientific rancher, he drove a four-in-hand through northern California, lived for months on end on his sloop Roamer , sailed round the Horn on a clipper, went to Veracruz to report on American intervention in the Mexican Revolution, and spent two long vacations in Hawaii, where he could hide his sickness and lethargy under the easy demands of the social life there. His last service to the legend of himself as a physical hero was his promotion of surfing, which he helped popularize as the supreme California sport.
Yet even he knew that he could not keep up the fiction of himself as a superman. The two autobiographical books of the last decade of his life demonstrated his increasing awareness of himself as a tormented man rather than a legendary pioneer. Although Martin Eden , published in 1909, overdramatizes his struggle to literary fame and fortune, it faithfully records his turning away from middle-class values and bookish success. John Barleycorn is far more interesting, less as a history of Jack’s drinking habits than as a confession of the white logic of his despair. Already unable to sleep because of the pain of his diseases and his remedies for them, he was forced toward selfanalysis in the depths of the night. He had to examine the contradictions within himself, he had to look at the tenuous links between his nature and the heroic myth that he tried to live. His process of self-awareness had begun.
In the last month of his life, shocked by the death of his favorite Shire stallion, Jack finally recognized his condition in notes for a novel about the dead stallion and for a short story to be called “Forty Horses Abreast.” The notes speak of a wasted scholar, racked with pain, who studies through the night and lives vicariously through his mighty stallion. Yet his mind is capable of driving forty horses abreast, of holding together forty contradictory creatures in a leap toward illumination. The mind is able to do everything, if only the strength of the frail body can hold itself together against the pain.
Yet the pain proved too great. In the early morning of November 22,1916, a few weeks short of his forty-first birthday, he took an apparent overdose of morphine and atrophine, a derivative of belladonna. He had used similar drugs for years to relieve his pain and to help rid himself of the toxins building up in his kidneys and bladder. He had to relieve himself every few hours through the night, or else the toxins would remain inside him and damage him severely. But belladonna is a beautiful and treacherous lady. A little of it stimulates the muscles of the bladder, while a lot of it closes them.
Trying to cure himself of a sudden spasm of acute pain, Jack injected himself with too much of the drug mixture and stopped his bladder from working. Despite later assertions that he did not die of uremia and that the death certificate was false, it is probable that he did die of the toxins in his bladder. As for the question of whether the overdose was an act of suicide or not, the answer is that the act does not seem to have been intentional, given the plans Jack had for the immediate future. The question is academic, in any case. Jack London was practically a walking corpse throughout the last months of his life. All the witnesses spoke of his slow poisoning, of a fat body, of a gray complexion, of an unnatural irritability—the signs of arsenic in his system from salvarsan. Only his powerful will and his dreams for the future of his ranch had kept him going at all.
His reputation as a man and as a writer eroded after his death. He had to be alive to speak fully through his words. His image was as mighty as his pen, if not mightier. What he left behind him was the myth that a writer should live what he describes. Jack always complained that he had little imagination, so that he had to take his plots from his own experience or the newspapers. He could also have said that he strove to realize his dreams, not to analyze them. As he seemed to be larger than life, he wanted to do more than other men did. Action to him was more satisfying than fiction. “Personal achievement, with me,” he wrote, “must be concrete. I’d rather win a water-fight in the swimming pool, or remain astride a horse that is trying to get out from under me, than write the great American novel.”