In 1989 I drove from San Francisco to visit the Napa Valley an hour and a half north. On my itinerary was a visit to the Glen Ellen Winery and the nearby Jack London State Park. I was also eager to visit the Jack London Bookstore located in the small town of Glen Ellen a mile or so from the state park. I had recently been on a London reading frenzy, devouring everything from The Call of the Wild and Martin Eden to The Iron Heel and memorable short stories such as “To Build a Fire” and “The Apostate.”
I had become fascinated with the writer’s life after reading Clarice Stasz’s American Dreamers (St. Martin’s Press, 1988), a biography of London and his wife, Charmian Kittredge. At the state park, I toured London’s old ranch; looked at the ruins of Wolf House, the home he was building that mysteriously burned down only days before its completion; and visited the writer’s grave, which was marked only by an unadorned boulder.
Later, I drove into Glen Ellen to visit the Jack London bookstore run by Russ and Winnie Kingman. The late Russ Kingman was one of the world’s experts on London’s life and career. Remarkably, the bookstore then still offered a direct link to the writer, who had died in 1916 at the age of 40. Living in attached quarters was one of London’s daughters, Becky, who was then in her late eighties. A few minutes conversation with the store’s proprietors convinced them I was a sincere fan of the author, and my polite inquiry about the rumor of London’s daughter living nearby led to a coveted invitation to the nearby back room.
There I met Becky London, a friendly woman whose face still bore a resemblance to her famous father. I had the impression she enjoyed the steady trickle of visitors introduced to her by the Kingman’s. She asked what I had read by her father and we chatted for a few minutes about books. “Daddy would have loved airplanes,” I recall her saying at one point. “I think he would have loved to fly. He had such a passion for new inventions.” Years later her face still glowed as she recalled this famous man who had fleetingly and yet so enduringly once touched her own life.
Later, I thought about her remark about her father’s passion for invention, which had kind of come out of the blue. It made perfect sense. For what was Jack London the writer if not an architect of the imagination, the quintessential inventor. Here was a man who could hammer words into dramatic action with the strength of the day laborer he had once been—or touch the heart with images tender enough to make you believe he just might be the most sympathetic human being you had ever encountered.
Consider the short story, “All Gold Canyon,” for example. It was written in 1905 and first published in The New Century magazine. It is not especially well-known. Yet the story begins with a beautifully evocative passage of a place in nature, one of the best I have ever read. As Kingman described, this “tale of greed, gold, and death” in the Sierra Nevada mountains offers some of London’s “most lyrical descriptions of the beauty of the pastoral wilderness.” This is how it begins:
“It was the green heart of the canyon, where the walls swerved back from the rigid plan and relieved their harshness of line by making a little sheltered nook and filling it to the brim with sweetness and roundness and softness. Here all things rested. Even the narrow stream ceased its turbulent down-rush long enough to form a quiet pool. Knee-deep in the water, with drooping head and half-shut eyes, drowsed a red-coated, many-antlered buck.
“On one side, beginning at the very lip of the pool, was a tiny meadow, a cool, resilient surface of green that extended to the base of the frowning wall. Beyond the pool a gentle slope of earth ran up and up to meet the opposing wall. Fine grass covered the slope — grass that was spangled with flowers, with here and there patches of color, orange and purple and golden. Below, the canyon was shut in. There was no view. The walls leaned together abruptly and the canyon ended in a chaos of rocks, moss-covered and hidden by a green screen of vines and creepers and boughs of trees. Up the canyon rose far hills and peaks, the big foothills, pine-covered and remote. And far beyond, like clouds upon the border of the sky, towered minarets of white, where the Sierra’s eternal snows flashed austerely the blazes of the sun.
“There was no dust in the canyon. The leaves and flowers were clean and virginal. The grass was young velvet. Over the pool three cottonwoods sent their snowy fluffs fluttering down the quiet air. On the slope the blossoms of the wine-wooded manzanita filled the air with springtime odors, while the leaves, wise with experience, were already beginning their vertical twist against the coming aridity of summer. In the open spaces on the slope, beyond the farthest shadow-reach of the manzanita, poised the mariposa lilies, like so many flights of jeweled moths suddenly arrested and on the verge of trembling into flight again. Here and there that woods harlequin, the madrone, permitting itself to be caught in the act of changing its pea-green trunk to madder-red, breathed its fragrance into the air from great clusters of waxen bells. Creamy white were these bells, shaped like lilies-of-the-valley, with the sweetness of perfume that is of the springtime.
“There was not a sigh of wind. The air was drowsy with its weight of perfume. It was a sweetness that would have been cloying had the air been heavy and humid. But the air was sharp and thin. It was as starlight transmuted into atmosphere, shot through and warmed by sunshine, and flower-drenched with sweetness.
“An occasional butterfly drifted in and out through the patches of light and shade. And from all about rose the low and sleepy hum of mountain bees — feasting Sybarites that jostled one another good-naturedly at the board, nor found time for rough discourtesy. So quietly did the little stream drip and ripple its way through the canyon that it spoke only in faint and occasional gurgles. The voice of the stream was as a drowsy whisper, ever interrupted by dozings and silences, ever lifted again in the awakenings.
“The motion of all things was a drifting in the heart of the canyon. Sunshine and butterflies drifted in and out among the trees. The hum of the bees and the whisper of the stream were a drifting of sound. And the drifting sound and drifting color seemed to weave together in the making of a delicate and intangible fabric which was the spirit of the place. It was a spirit of peace that was not of death, but of smooth-pulsing life, of quietude that was not silence, of movement that was not action, of repose that was quick with existence without being violent with struggle and travail. The spirit of the place was the spirit of the peace of the living, somnolent with the easement and content of prosperity, and undisturbed by rumors of far wars….”
This is the work of a uniquely talented artist. Indeed, London’s literary legacy includes some of the great stories and novels of American literature. But he was also much more than the popular adventure writer of The Call of the Wild and White Fang. In books such as Martin Eden and The Iron Heel and short stories such as “South of the Slot” and “The Dream of Debs,” he explored themes of class inequality and social justice, socialism and the future of humanity. His 1912 book, John Barleycorn, a personal memoir, was the first treatment of the subject of alcoholism by a major American author. Toward the end of his life he began exploring new ideas about human psychology from Carl Jung. He also wrote science fiction.
Finally, London was a journalist. His first-person narrative, The People of the Abyss, tells the story of the weeks he spent in disguise as a vagrant in London’s slums. It was an early example of the first-person journalistic style later popularized by such writers as George Orwell, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter Thompson. His reporting from Hawaii introduced the unfamiliar island sport of surfing to American readers. He was the also the author of such enduring short story classics as “Love of Life,” “To Build a Fire,” and many more.
London’s legacy as a writer and individual is a complex one. He was a socialist, and also keen on acquiring wealth. He was known at times to indulge the racial stereotypes of his era, yet in his South Seas writing it was often the native people who represented moral integrity over white colonialists and missionaries. Certainly his instincts always bent toward the oppressed. His reputation was such that he was constantly being asked for help by ex-prisoners and down-and-out workers. And he would help.
Incredibly, Jack London tasted the bitter chalk of six hundred rejections by publishers before his first magazine story was ever published. A few short years later he was the highest paid writer in the world. In his best work, London’s writing was an expression of a passion for life and love of humanity. Even in the more personal or introspective stories there was always the eye looking outward, always that universal gauge of human experience that operated like radar in his artistic sensibility. He had the capacity, as Henry Miller once commented about great writers, to forget himself in his work, allowing inspiration to flow from some deep wellspring of his creative consciousness.
In The Right to Write, writing coach Julia Cameron describes the process of “getting over myself,” letting go of the stifling effects of self-consciousness in writing. London had such a gift. But in forgetting himself in his work he would also find himself—and us, his public. At its finest London’s work spoke beyond the narrow conventions of the day, to deeper, more timeless truths as captured in stories that resonated with a feel for the natural world and the dramas and dreams of the common people.
Published in Counterpunch (Sept. 3, 2012).