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The Man Who Invented Himself
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Jack London carved himself a special niche in the annals of American literature. Born in poverty in the first month of America’s centennial year, he spent his boyhood suffering the rejection of an unloving mother and much of his young manhood as a careless delinquent, a waterfront roisterer, and a road bum, quite as mindless of his own self-destruction as any modern youth who wastes himself with drugs and hitchhikes the interstates from nowhere to nowhere else.
London pulled himself out of poverty and psychic and physical ruin by writing, and by the time of his death in 1916 was the highest-paid writer of his time. He also was the best-known American writer of his time, for he was, by his own creation, a public figure, a man who put more of his genius into his life than into his work, even though his output as a writer was prodigious. He constructed a myth of himself as a hero battling against the elements, against drink and death, a frail superman always locked in a struggle for survival and success.
He was the prototype of the writer who tries to live out his words to the full—but cannot, except in his writing. His politics were as radical as those of Upton Sinclair; his contempt for the gaseous certitudes of middle-class life as scathing as that of Sinclair Lewis; his flouting of convention in his personal life as startling as that of F. Scott Fitzgerald; his dedication to the masculine ethos as profound as that of Ernest Hemingway; and his instinct for the public eye as shrewd as that of Norman Mailer. He preceded and presaged them all, for in the process of inventing himself, Jack London invented the idea of the American writer as personality quite as much as artist.
The materials out of which Jack London constructed his life were rich—if largely tormenting. He was born out of wedlock in San Francisco on January 12, 1876. His dwarfish, spiritualist mother tried to kill herself when his vagrant, astrologer father deserted her. After Jack’s birth, she married a Civil War veteran and widower, John London, so that her child could bear his name. The little boy was brought up with his two stepsisters like a tumbleweed, moving across the Bay to a succession of frame houses in the poor parts of the new town of Oakland. His mother never touched him with love, and terrified him, yelping at her seances with the voice of an Indian medium called Plume.
John London moved the family out to small farms off the Bay and then into the dry valleys of northern California, but his wife’s schemes for getting rich quickly ruined his agricultural ventures. The boy began to have the nightmares that disturbed his short sleep all his life, as well as the dreams of escaping his pinchpenny world for one of glittering and lavish fantasy. Thrown back into the slums of Oakland, Jack became a delinquent, a rebel with a cause. He wanted to leave his loveless mother, and he bought a skiff to sail the Bay toward the Golden Gate, challenging the rollers made by the side-wheel steamers, beating against the wind to Goat Island, yearning after the clippers that tacked toward the west and the other side of the world. The moment he could leave school, he joined the waterfront gangs, becoming an oyster pirate and a young drunk and a road kid, riding the freights up to the Sierras. He seemed reckless of his life, wasteful of his strong body, his small hands battered from fights.
He might have died young like most of the other victims of the raw port of Oakland, if he had not been bookish and determined. He had always loved reading—his mother had slipped down the social scale from an educated family. To him, the shortest ways out of the slums were the pages of Ouida or Washington Irving or Prescott. He also had the gift of organizing himself-so much time for earning money, so much time for reading, so much time for play. He knew that there must be a better world for him than the dockside saloons or the scrounging gentility of his mother’s pretensions. Also his occasional months of dulling toil in a cannery or a jute factory gave him the resolve never to become an industrial slave.
So, in 1893, at the age of seventeen, Jack signed on as a sailor on a three-masted schooner, bound for the Bering Sea on a sealing expedition. He learned his new life quickly, even taking the wheel in a storm on one occasion. It was his first moment of mastery, of power and conquest. “In my grasp the wildly careering schooner and the lives of twenty-two men,” he wrote many years later. “With my own hands I had done my trick at the wheel and guided a hundred tons of wood and iron through a few million tons of wind and waves.… When I have done some such thing, I am exalted.” It revealed to him his pride in being a man who could pit his own small self against the worst that nature could do to him.
The voyage also taught him about the bloody business of life. There was month after month of following the seal herd, killing and stripping the skins off the pretty beasts, then flinging their carcasses to the sharks that followed the boat for their share of the massacre. This daily slaughterhouse was the young sailor’s first sight of nature red in tooth and claw. The men were more bestial than the animals they killed. It was a crude, commercial competition, dictated by the market in furs. Jack began to see that the struggle among humans to live was part of the battle among species to survive. The men got the wages, the captain took the profits, the women wore the furs, the sharks devoured the meat, the masses of the seals died.
Yet the sea was only a place to escape to, not to work upon. He returned to factory jobs and heaving coal in Oakland in a time of national depression. When his free spirit could endure no more, he took to the road. Although he went with “Kelly’s Army,” California’s detachment of Coxey’s army of the unemployed, which set out for Washington, D.C., in 1894, he was no radical when he started, just a young man on the loose. In fact, he rode a raft down the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn, eating the food he was supposed to be begging for the mass of the marchers behind, and he deserted the army at Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal. As he wrote later in The Road , he went on the bum because he could not keep away from it; he did not have the price of the fare in his jeans; he was so made that he could not work always on the same shift; and, finally, “just because it was easier to than not to.”
So Jack turned into a thoughtless road kid, until a month in Pennsylvania’s Erie County Penitentiary on a charge of vagrancy made a radical out of him. Jack saw in the jail the depths of human degradation, a society of degenerates and misfits tyrannized by a few trusties and hallmen, who shamefully exploited their fellow prisoners. To him, it seemed a parable of the whole of industrial America. He found himself living one of his childhood nightmares about falling into the stench and darkness of a bottomless pit. The alternative was the tooth-and-claw fight for social success, and upon his release he returned to his mother’s home in Oakland, determined to educate himself.
Then began a frantic pursuit of knowledge. Jack was brave to go to high school after dropping out of the educational system for six years. His schoolmates were so young that he felt he was in a kindergarten. To them, he was an object of fear, an unbelievably shabby and careless man who had been a tramp and who chewed tobacco. His determination was so great, however, that after only two years he qualified in 1896 as a special student to enter the University of California at Berkeley.
Yet already a pattern in his career had begun to emerge. The rootlessness of his upbringing made him stick at no job or plan of study for too long. He had been brought up on the move, and he remained on the move in restless California. Whenever the pressures on his life seemed too great for him, he would pack up and go. Early in 1897 he dropped out to become a writer, because gossip about his birth was too much to bear; what was more, by then Jack had learned of and had contacted his real father—who had promptly denied his paternity. Jack was now determined to succeed on his own, without the help of the society that had made him poor, of the mother who did not love him, of the father who had deserted and denied him. Isolated, he determined to be utterly self-made—and how better to do it than by writing?
He worked at this new trade as diligently as ever, but found only frustration. The one anchor in his drifting, driven young life was his socialism, to which he had been converted by his jail, road, and sea experiences and by the books he read so voraciously. Radical socialism, he was now convinced, was the only thing that could keep men from being degraded and thrown out of work and crippled by the factory system. At the same time, the horror of the vicious struggle to survive in the gutters of America had hardened Jack’s dreams into a fierce personal ambition. “I had been in the cellar of society,” he later wrote, “and I did not like the place as a habitation.… If I could not live on the parlor floor of society, I could, at any rate, have a try at the attic. It was true, the diet there was slim, but the air at least was pure.”
Although Jack’s socialism was the passion of his life and made him many friends among the young radicals of San Francisco Bay, he did not put the good of the cause before his ambition for himself. He left California to look for instant fame and fortune in the Yukon gold rush of 1897. It was a stampede to illusion. He started off with enormous enthusiasm and energy, backpacking up Chilkoot Pass and getting to Dawson City before the ice froze the river. He staked a claim, but when he saw the actual grim drudgery of extracting a few ounces of gold from tons of frozen gravel, he did not stay to work it. The fact that he caught scurvy and hated to be ill also sent him back home to cure himself. The trip back to the sea two thousand miles down the river inspired him to keep a detailed diary. There was a gold mine, perhaps, in writing about Alaska.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
He did not write the great American novel, although he did write some good ones and some great short stories. He did, however, create the myth of the great American novelist. Still, it was not an entirely self-conscious creation. He thought himself to be exactly what he appeared to be. If his torments and tensions were hidden by his myth of himself, it was no bad thing; for a man who has a heroic myth of himself can achieve more than a man who knows himself too well and is afraid to move. To deny weakness, to insist on excess and success, is to live at full stretch. Jack London lived nine lives and wrote more than fifty books and died young. A man like that is worth his own myth—and his contradictions.