One Hundred Years without Jack London

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Jack London, who died exactly 100 years ago, was an American author mostly remembered for “dog stories”, as London himself termed them laconically. The Call of the Wild and White Fang are novels about dogs in the Canadian wilderness, bestsellers in their time that continue to be taught in schools and adapted into film and television; they’ve never gone out of print. Most are unaware London was far more than a writer of popular stories: in his relatively brief life of only 40 years he had been a child labourer, a San Francisco Bay oyster pirate, a fish patrol member, a ship crewmate, a vagabond, a prisoner, a gold miner, a candidate for mayor, an alcoholic, and a militant socialist advocating armed revolution. He was also one of the most prolific and influential authors of his age, with works ranging from popular stories to foreign political journalism, socialist tracts and a dystopian novel.

The first great surprise of London’s life is that he ended up doing anything memorable at all – even that he survived his youth. He pointed out himself that most of his friends were either dead or in prison by the time he turned 21. When he ended up in prison himself, he experienced things that he could scarcely think about. “What I found there was unprintable, and almost unthinkable,” and indeed he never wrote directly about the abuse he endured in prison. He wrote more openly about work as a child laborer in a factory in his short story The Apostate, about a boy who can no longer bear the weight of his work. “At seven, when he drew his first wages, began his adolescence,” wrote London; he was to lament himself that he had no childhood to speak of whatsoever. London also suffered from a whole list of diseases, including malaria, kidney stones, gout and urinary failure; he survived a typhoon near the coast of Japan; and had a Greek fisherman not found him, he would have drowned drunk. Many of his younger years were horrific. “I was down in the cellar of society,” he wrote, “down in the subterranean depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak. I was in the pit, the abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel-house of our civilization.”

What eventually saved London was his great determination, aided by discipline. “If I am left naked and hungry tomorrow,” he wrote, “I will go naked and hungry; if I were a woman I would prostitute myself to all men but that I would succeed – in short, I will.” He was rejected over 600 times by magazines early in his writing career, but he stubbornly refused to give in. He would sometimes spend as much as 14 hours a day writing, trying to limit himself to 2 or 3 hours of sleep. Even he could not manage this, but for most of his life he stuck to steady sleep of 5 and a half hours a night and wrote at least 1000 words by morning. Eventually he found great success, and for a while was the best-paid author in the United States. Yet the more wealthy he became, the more he came to despise capitalism and its discontents, and for much of his life his final goal seemed to be political revolution: “Behind all,” he wrote, “ready and anxious to say the last word, looms the ominous figure of the revolution.”

A slew of recent biographies have uncovered many details about London’s life. Much of it is not very nice: he was sometimes abusive, an alcoholic, a racist, guilty of marital infidelities, and often cold and detached. He wrote to his daughter once that she incited “disgust” in him: “if I were dying I should not care to have you at my bedside.” His daughter would write, years later, “rereading his letter of February 24, 1914, I am appalled by the relentless, calculating cruelty with which he wrote to me, his daughter, just turned thirteen.” Many recent critics consider London an unsympathetic figure, and his reputation as writer of mere’s boy’s stories has not helped him in the 21st century. There is still much controversy over his racial views, although his clear-cut statements on it are hard to controvert: “The negro race, the mongrel races, the slavish races, the unprogressive races, are of bad blood.” “The black has stopped,” he wrote with finality, “just as the monkey has stopped.”

Controversy was never a stranger for London, who attracted a great deal already in his own life-time. Johah Raskin says that at “the peak” of his career as “radical”, “American newspaper editors called for his arrest and deportation.” More controversy was caused by John Barleycorn, London’s “alcoholic memoirs”. Although London denied being an alcoholic, for him meaning a chemical, physical addict to alcohol, he revealed a frightening psychological dependence on it. “I achieved a condition in which my body was never free from alcohol,” he wrote about his life around 1910. London, a major celebrity at the time, was the first person of his stature to come clean about his alcohol habits with such startling, brutal honesty.  The book was very scandalous, but eventually found great use in campaigns for the prohibition. London remained proud of the work, noting the “only trouble” with it was that he “did not put in the whole truth” – “I did not dare put in the whole truth.”  It was not the only time he left out details that were too horrifying to present.

As the biographies pile up, one gets a sense of a man who has seen too much. His most powerful works, set apart from the hundreds of stories written as mere potboilers for quick cash, are guided by great indignation and outrage over injustice. Politics creep into the works almost unintentionally; it is telling that the book London said was the most difficult to write for him was The People of the Abyss, a non-fiction work about his experiences undercover in the London Slums. Upton Sinclair reported that “for years afterwards, the memories of this stunted and depraved population haunted him beyond all peace”. His writings about the working conditions of the lower classes are lasting social documents of almost unmatched eloquence: “No caveman ever starved as chronically as they starve, ever slept as vilely as they sleep, ever festered with rottenness and disease as they fester, nor ever toiled as hard and for as long hours as they toil.” It is no surprise he lived that life himself.

It is only fitting his death at the age of 40 would be a topic of controversy too. Towards the end of London’s life the alcohol and his adventurous life became too much for his body, and he became increasingly weaker, so it was not difficult to see it coming. It is how he died that was questionable. Martin Eden, London’s bitter novel about an author from a poor background who fails to find fame and commits suicide, spawned the myth that London himself committed suicide, a belief repeated by many scholars and even his own daughter. He probably suffered from depression and became increasingly bitter as the years passed on, so it had seemed remarkably likely. Medical reports and physicians have finally laid this myth to rest almost entirely, showing he died from natural causes. There is footage available of London right before his death, and I expected to see London as he had described a Mexican revolutionary: “He has been through hell … No man could look like that who has not been through hell”. It was not the case; even then London had fight left in him, and life too. It is a tragedy we did not see him continue to fight for many years more to come. As it stands, we’ll have to do with half a dozen of the finest short stories ever written by an American, and one of the most interesting lives ever led by a litterateur.

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