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.
Stone took illegitimacy to be the secret wound in London’s adult life and the cause of ‘cyclical depressions’ which Jack routinely ‘numbed’ with drunkenness. After 1913, alcohol, allied to a sense of being burned out as a writer, drove Jack to reckless infidelities to Charmian (an ‘infantile’ mate-woman, as Stone portrayed her), and ultimately to suicide from a self-administered overdose of morphine. Stone based his suicide thesis on interviews and on some alleged notes by the dying man’s bed. ‘Uremia’, Stone alleged, was a cover-up by Charmian and her pliant doctors.
Stone’s Sailor on Horseback remains both readable and widely read. But as a biography it is flawed. There is not a shred of annotation attached to the text. Stone cannibalised whole chunks of Martin Eden (London’s ‘artistic memoirs’) and John Barleycorn (his ‘alcoholic memoirs’) as biographical narrative without any acknowledgement. When Stone reissued Sailor on Horseback in 1938, it was under the new label, ‘biographical novel’. It is likely that this was a tactical ploy against Charmian’s threatened legal action. (Stone nowadays lists Sailor on Horseback as one of his three ‘biographies’.) But the term ‘novel’ was gratefully seized on by the London estate. As they saw it, Stone had recanted. Nevertheless the public at large obstinately persisted in finding Stone’s fiction more convincing than Charmian’s facts. And over the next five years, the widow’s whitened Jack London was further spattered. Jack’s daughter by his first marriage, Joan London, produced her Jack London and his Times in 1939. Joan accepted the vagrant astrologer Chaney as her grandfather and presented a moody, lying, lonely, drunken, unloving Jack, redeemed only by his socialism. In 1940, one of Jack’s former drinking pals, Joseph Noel, added his scurrilous reminiscences in an anecdotal volume called Footloose in Arcadia. Noel’s Jack London is a flagrant womaniser, foul-mouthed, big-mouthed, probably bisexual, alcoholic and certainly suicidal.
With the death of Charmian in 1955, London studies entered their ice age. Charmian was childless (something else that Noel alleged made Jack suicidal in his last years). The keeper of the estate was now Irving Shepard, the son of Jack’s (step)sister, Eliza Shepard (née London). Irving Shepard – who inherited the large Jack London ranch and vineyards in Glen Ellen – was honestly convinced that the author was his uncle by blood. The Chaneyite heresy was resolutely denied and anyone who declined to deny it was unlikely to get access to manuscript materials or copyrighted matter. Like Charmian, Shepard determined himself to set the record straight. Over the years he prepared a selection of 400 (out of four thousand surviving) letters by Jack London, with the help of King Hendricks, a professor at Utah and a close friend of Charmian’s. When the selection appeared in 1966, the first sentence firmly declared the subject to be ‘the son of John and Flora Well-man London’. The name ‘Chaney’ is not to be found anywhere in the volume’s 502 pages.
Londonists responded in two ways to Shepard’s stonewalling. Richard O’Connor – who aimed to write the definitive biography – was denied access to the materials in the Huntington Library. But the estate could not keep him away from the public record and O’Connor’s Jack London (1964) began with an exhaustive investigation of the paternity issue, leading in exorably to the conclusion that ‘Chaney probably was London’s father.’ Released from any obligation of gratitude to the estate, O’Connor duly followed the unofficial line through Jack’s excessive drinking and infidelities to the suicide – although he admitted the new possibility that the overdose might have been a spasmodic act, induced in the middle of the night by the ‘unbearable agony’ of a calculus.
Other commentators tried to accommodate Irving Shepard’s fixed idea. Among them was Earle Labor, one of the editors of the new Letters. In his Twayne monograph on London, published in 1974, Labor contrives to introduce Chaney in passing, but leaves the baffled reader thinking that Flora’s naming the astrologer as Jack’s father was a malicious fib on her part. Franklin Walker, another scholar with ambitions to write the definitive life, had a harder time with the estate. He managed to bring out a book-length account of Jack’s experiences as a goldminer, Jack London and the Klondike (1966), which draws extensively on manuscript sources. But in return Walker was obliged to open his book with the squirming assertion that Jack’s father was indeed John London, something he clearly didn’t believe. Walker, who was born in 1900, evidently despaired of being able to write his authoritative life. He donated his thousand-piece collection of Londoniana to the Huntington Library in 1968. The archive contains extensive materials on Jack London’s parentage and William H. Chaney.
Irving Shepard died suddenly in 1975. Just before his death, he had given encouragement to a British would-be biographer, Andrew Sinclair. On Irving’s death, Sinclair found himself dealing with Milo Shepard, whose policy with scholars, though notably less restrictive than his father’s and Charmian’s, has not been entirely open-handed – two recent biographers of London, Robert Barltrop and John Perry, were denied archive or copyright materials. Sinclair was given a free hand, although it’s not clear that he was allowed to examine Charmian’s diaries and private papers, which have been even more closely guarded than her husband’s. The resulting Jack (1977) is something that Charmian and Irving Shepard can only have foreseen in their nightmares. Sinclair follows Stone and O’Connor in his main outline: his Jack is illegitimate, drunken, sometimes homosexual, always boastful, and if not suicidal then self-destroyed. Sinclair’s Jack ends up dosing himself to death with salvarsan (to counteract tertiary syphilis), whisky, morphine and heroin. Jack gave inevitable offence to London admirers – the scholars and enthusiasts who keep up such worthy publications as the Jack London Newsletter. An official contradiction was delivered in Russ Kingman’s Jack London: A Pictorial Biography (1978).
It is impossible now to reconcile the two versions of Jack London which have been built up over the years. One has to take sides. Not surprisingly, this new edition of the Letters takes the family side. On the legitimacy issue, the notes observe cryptically that Flora lived with Chaney during the ‘time Jack London was conceived’ without actually imputing paternity to the disreputable astrologer. That Jack committed suicide is firmly denied and attributed to Stone’s ‘biographical novel’. Andrew Sinclair (together with syphilis and heroin) is never mentioned. The biographical account which is relied on in the notes is Russ Kingman’s.
On other disputed matters, the new selection clearly has a defensive line but nobly avoids the suppressions which marred the tendentiously selective Shepard-Hendricks volume and Charmian’s self-serving biography. Here are printed for the first time love letters from the most sexually tangled period of Jack’s early life, 1903, when he was bouncing backwards and forwards between Anna Strunsky, Charmian Kittredge and his wife of three years, Bessie. Jack’s subsequent harshness to his first wife and his daughters is revealed in a number of places. The editors also print the exquisitely awkward letter of February 1914 in which Jack confesses to Charmian (home on the Glen Ellen ranch) that he has just been in a car crash in New York at one o’clock in the morning and that the papers will report there were three women (chorus girls, as O’Connor noted) in the vehicle with him at the time. In the same letter he insists that a telegram from ‘Amy’ telling Charmian that ‘London is spending all his time with a woman who lives in the Van Cortlandt Hotel on 49th Street’ is a ‘stupid practical joke’. This edition also prints for the first time the series of 1916 letters to the Greek writer Spiro Orfans in which London raves about racial ‘mongrelisation’, abuses his correspondent as a ‘degenerate’ and trumpets the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon. They show a despicable streak in Jack. But, as the editors explain in their preface, financial disasters and deteriorating health produced ‘sudden changes of personality and fits of temper’ in the author’s last years.
The editors are adamant that booze had nothing to do with such irritable lapses. ‘Alcohol’ does not even get a mention in the index: ‘cigarettes’ (which Jack smoked to excess) and ‘diet’ (he was addicted to nearly-raw duck) do. John Barleycorn (1913) – London’s ‘Alcoholic Memoirs’ – is conspicuously dropped from his list of publications in the Chronology and rarely cited in the notes. This is a pity, since this drunk’s autobiography – offensive as its confessions may be – constitutes the main source we have for London’s first 15 years of life. The earliest letter the editors of this collection can turn up is from July 1896, and there is nothing substantial until the turn of the century, when London was 24.
Working through these letters – there are more than fifteen hundred of them – is corrective. In the mass they contradict the scandalous line of biography that runs from Stone to Sinclair. London emerges as a complex man, and one who clearly loved women. (His early letters to Charmian are powerfully erotic.) But he also emerges as an impressively professional man of letters, politically shrewd and usually considerate to his loved ones. If he was a drink and drug-shattered ruin over the last five years of his life it is not evident in the sheer volume of clear-headed correspondence he churned out, nor in the best of the two-score books he wrote over the period. Nor do London’s last letters read like those of a man bent on suicide. The very last, to his daughter Joan on the day before his death, begins: ‘Next Sunday, will you and Bess have lunch with me at Saddle Rock, and if weather is good, go for a sail with me on Lake Merrit.’
The Letters of Jack London is extremely well-done and informative. The editors are to be congratulated, and Milo Shepard thanked for his generosity. But the production is inevitably tainted by the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia which has been generated by London’s life. Have they told us everything? The question is unworthy, but cannot be silenced. (In 1977, for instance, Irving Stone pointedly referred to sensitive runs of letters and diaries which he implied the estate had destroyed.) A siege situation has developed, with the estate seeing it as its first duty to keep snoopers out, and scholars seeing it as their mission to burrow, cheat or blast their way in. Of the written lives of London which I have referred to here, five have had to do without the benefit of primary documents. Charmian misused those documents. Franklin Walker, who might have made the best biographer, wilted in the face of the difficulties put in his way. Stone initially had the co-operation of the estate but it was withdrawn when it became clear he had slipped his leash. Sinclair seems to have been simply lucky in getting his iconoclastic book past the custodians. Kingman’s biography reaffirms the unyielding family line.
It is not a question of which biographers are more right than others. The point is that the situation unavoidably produces bad biography: malicious, hagiographic or ill-informed writing. And the areas about which the estate has been most defensive are areas where the reading public feels legitimately inquisitive. Suicide figures powerfully as a motif in London’s writing: for instance, in the climax of the autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909), where the hero impulsively drowns himself. If as the present editors of the letters maintain, Jack was no more prey to self-destructive thoughts than any normal man, one reads the novel differently – more as a novel. If one follows Stone, O’Connor, Sinclair and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which opts for the suicide thesis), the ending of Martin Eden has the force of a premonition. On the whole, the evidence suggests that London did not kill himself, at least not directly.
Tolstoy and London died within ten years of each other. But, with the wealth of primary materials openly available on Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson has written a biography of a kind that seems for ever denied London. Three factors have combined to supply these materials. First, Tolstoy’s will, which – as Wilson puts it – dispossessed the Tolstoys in favour of the Tolstoyans, by donating his copyrights to the world. Secondly, the efforts of Tolstoy’s disciple Chertkov, who saw it as his, mission in life to expropriate (steal if necessary) Tolstoy’s private papers from the writer’s widow. Thirdly, the Soviet Union’s laudable devotion to state-sponsored ‘full collected works’ of classic Russian authors. The result is the 90-volume Jubilee Edition of Tolstoy, which puts into print every published and unpublished scrap of writing. There is nothing equivalent for any 19th or 20th-century writer in the West. Wilson was obliged to learn Russian to get at this trove, but that was perhaps easier than getting at the buried mountain of Jack London papers.
Wilson’s thesis is stated early: Tolstoy was ‘a great novelist, that is to say a great liar. Novels are works of art which arrive at truth by telling untruths. Novelists are frequently men and women who have been compelled by some inner disaster to rewrite the past, to refashion their memories to make their existence more interesting to themselves.’ Wilson sees himself as a myth-buster. And his method is to contradict Tolstoy’s public image and propaganda with evidence from the furtive inner life. Thus all the grand pomposities about sex and chastity are traced back to Tolstoy’s having contracted venereal disease at university in 1847. Wilson notes that the first entry in the diaries that Tolstoy began to keep at this point in his life is: ‘It is six days since I entered the clinic ... I have had gonorrhoea, from the source where you usually get it.’ Guilty infection led to the ‘secret record’ of the diary, ‘which was to develop, eventually, into the practice of fiction’. Would that all pox produced a War and Peace.
Wilson conceives his duty as biographer to be that of ‘disentangling’ the published proclamation (whether fiction or tract) from the often shameful private experience that distantly inspired it. With a mixture of brash speculation and subtle analysis he succeeds brilliantly. A striking example is the use Wilson shows Tolstoy making of his brother Dimitry’s death in 1856. The 21-year-old Tolstoy deserted Dimitry on his deathbed to go off to the capital: ‘someone had offered to take him to a grand Court spectacle and it seemed a pity to be missing that just because his brother was rotting away with consumption.’ Guilt festered for twenty years, until it was ‘laundered’ as the death of Nikolay in Anna Karenina, ‘one of very greatest scenes in Tolstoy’.
Wilson contrives to unmask Tolstoy without actually damaging the achievement of the novels: they remain, even after the disentangling, supreme works of art. It’s just that we understand them better. As a thinker, however, Tolstoy is pronounced to be wholly lacking in ‘common sense’. Contemptuously little space is given to Tolstoy the ‘sage’ and when putting the old fool down Wilson lapses into his famed ‘Why, Oh Why?’ Daily Mail style. ‘What I find hard to understand,’ he writes, ‘is why Tolstoy should attribute all the many ills which he anatomises to the existence of property ... property never has been abolished, and never will be abolished.’
Wilson handles his biographical roles and tones of voice with practised ease. Sensitive to the greatness of the fiction, he is elsewhere a ruthless detective and a cocky sneerer at Tolstoy’s senile idiocy. (Wilson is not yet 40: will he, one wonders, still sneer when he is 80?) It makes an effective biographical package. And the amount of sheer work involved in the book is breathtaking, as is the speed with which the work was done. Wilson has declared this to be the last life he will write. Unless he relents, Britain is in danger of losing one of its most stimulating biographers.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.