Jack and Leo

John Sutherland

  • The Letters of Jack London edited by Earle Labor, Robert Leitz and Milo Shepard
    Stanford, 1657 pp, $139.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 8047 1227 1
  • Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson
    Hamish Hamilton, 572 pp, £16.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 241 12190 6

Jack London has had difficulty emerging from the blur of his own heroic lies, his family’s whitewash, and the libels of his biographers. All accounts agree, however, that London’s was as mythic an American life as anything in Horatio Alger. Raised in grinding poverty, by the age of ten young Jack was up at three in the morning delivering newspapers to support his family. An autodidact, he mainly educated himself with books borrowed by the armful from Oakland Public Library. He left school at 14 to become a freebooting oyster pirate in the shallows off San Francisco. On his 17th birthday, Jack went to sea in a sealing schooner (the original of Wolf Larson’s hell-ship, the Ghost). He returned to enlist as one of Jacob S. Coxey’s army of unemployed in its protest march on Washington. Still not 20, he hoboed all round North America, spent some time in jail and returned to enrol at Berkeley. He dropped out after a semester to dig for gold in the Yukon. He was back in Oakland a year later, broke, scurvy-ridden and – at 21 – determined to be a writer. Within ten years, he was the highest paid writer in America. By 1910, he owned a thousand-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley where he died, aged only 40, of what was entered on the death certificate as ‘uremia’.

Much of the myth of London’s life does not bear too close an examination. But controversy has focused on four critical questions: 1. Was he a bastard? 2. Was he an alcoholic? 3. Was he as unfaithful to his second wife Charmian as he was to his first wife, Bessie? 4. Was he a suicide? Answer ‘no’ to these questions and you have the official sanitised Jack London: answer ‘yes’ and you have the unofficial version.

Two of the editors of this new edition of the letters are London scholars; the third – Milo Shepard – is London’s descendant and the present owner of the estate. On the face of it, the alliance is ominous. The London-Shepard family has not in the past encouraged the inquisitive scholar. Charmian London’s first response to an independent biographical account of her husband – Rose Wilder Lane’s articles in Sunset Magazine a year after Jack’s death – was to squelch the project. The widow’s publicly-given reason for suppression was that, as Jack’s ‘mate woman’, she was herself bringing out the authoritative life. When the typescript of The Book of Jack London duly emerged in 1921, it was so interminably long (especially in its idyllic account of the couple’s 12 years together) and so clearly a whitewash job that Macmillan revoked its contract. The book eventually came out with another firm in 1921, was scathingly reviewed and did not sell. For the next decade and a half, Charmian refused to allow any other biographer near Jack on the grounds that the job had been done.

Rumour about the ‘real’ Jack continued in the decades after his death. It was discouraged by the estate. Charmian legally bludgeoned Georgia Bamford’s The Mystery of Jack London (1931) into extinction. But as the years wore on and the gossip became outrageous it was clear that something more than The Book of Jack London was needed. In 1934, Charmian was approached by a young biographer, Irving Stone, who had just produced his popular biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life. Charmian liked Stone’s technicolour vision of the tormented painter and gave the go-ahead.’

Stone took as his title what Jack had provisionally called his unwritten autobiography, Sailor on Horseback. It indicated congeniality; and Stone was predisposed to take Jack very much on his own rollicking terms. There was, if the biographer wanted it, a vast store of manuscript material to work from. (London never threw away a piece of paper or a book.) But Stone was not an archival biographer. Many of Jack’s cronies and lovers were still around in the mid-Thirties and Stone gathered a wealth of interesting oral testimony. Some of it was rather too interesting for Charmian. In the Huntington Library, where the bulk of Jack’s literary remains have resided since the Thirties, there is a file of correspondence between the widow and the biographer which must remain closed until Stone’s death. It evidently records their deteriorating relationship over the four years of composition and the estate’s increasingly urgent efforts to stifle the biography.

Sailor on Horseback appeared in 1938 and was a best-seller. But the biography began and ended with two unpardonable offences to the estate. Jack, as Stone asserted, was not in fact the son of John London. His true father, Stone claimed, was a vagrant, 55-year-old, incorrigibly bigamous ‘itinerant Irish astrologer’ called William H. Chaney. Chaney and Jack’s mother, Flora Wellman, had a tempestuous and unhallowed alliance in 1874-75, during which she attempted suicide with a pistol when Chaney demanded that she abort the unborn Jack. This episode had made the San Francisco Chronicle. Eight months after Jack’s birth in January 1876, Flora Chaney married John London. Older than her (though not as old as Chaney), a good-natured veteran of the Civil War and a widower with daughters, London adopted Flora’s fatherless child and treated him as his own son – which during childhood Jack believed himself to be.

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