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A revelatory look at the life of the great American author—and how it shaped his most beloved works
Jack London was born a working class, fatherless Californian in 1876. In his youth, he was a boundlessly energetic adventurer on the bustling West Coast—an oyster pirate, a hobo, a sailor, and a prospector by turns. He spent his brief life rapidly accumulating the experiences that would inform his acclaimed bestselling books The Call of the Wild,...
A revelatory look at the life of the great American author—and how it shaped his most beloved works
Jack London was born a working class, fatherless Californian in 1876. In his youth, he was a boundlessly energetic adventurer on the bustling West Coast—an oyster pirate, a hobo, a sailor, and a prospector by turns. He spent his brief life rapidly accumulating the experiences that would inform his acclaimed bestselling books The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf.
The bare outlines of his story suggest a classic rags-to-riches tale, but London the man was plagued by contradictions. He chronicled nature at its most savage, but wept helplessly at the deaths of his favorite animals. At his peak the highest paid writer in the United States, he was nevertheless forced to work under constant pressure for money. An irrepressibly optimistic crusader for social justice and a lover of humanity, he was also subject to spells of bitter invective, especially as his health declined. Branded by shortsighted critics as little more than a hack who produced a couple of memorable dog stories, he left behind a voluminous literary legacy, much of it ripe for rediscovery.
In Jack London: An American Life, the noted Jack London scholar Earle Labor explores the brilliant and complicated novelist lost behind the myth—at once a hard-living globe-trotter and a man alive with ideas, whose passion for seeking new worlds to explore never waned until the day he died. Returning London to his proper place in the American pantheon, Labor resurrects a major American novelist in his full fire and glory.
MOTHERS AND FATHERS
I was impotent at that time, the result of hardship, privation & too much brain-work. Therefore I cannot be your father, nor am I sure who your father is.
—W. H. CHANEY TO JACK LONDON
The future was anything but promising for the child who entered the world on January 12, 1876. His mother was scarcely strong enough to nurse him, and his putative father had abandoned them both. During the first few weeks following his birth, the infant destined to win international fame as Jack London appeared to have no future at all.
His mother was Flora Wellman, a fascinating woman worthy of being a character in one of London’s stories. Jack quite likely had her in mind as model for Mrs. Grantly, the spiritualist in his story “Planchette”:
“A weird little thing … Bundle of nerves and black eyes. I’ll wager she doesn’t weigh ninety pounds, and most of that’s magnetism.”
Uncanny is one of several words that might fit the character of Flora Wellman. To her own granddaughters she was an enigma. Joan London provides this illuminating vignette:
It is her face which commands attention. Spectacled, large-nosed, square-jawed, it could be the face of a man. Beneath well-defined brows her gaze is disconcerting, faintly hostile, even a little contemptuous; above the determined chin, her mouth is a firm straight line. Humorless, stubborn, opinionated, intelligent—it is an extraordinary face.
Flora was an extraordinary woman. She was born on August 17, 1843, the daughter of Marshall Daniel Wellman, the “Wheat King” of Massillon, Ohio. Two events particularly would shape Flora’s character: the death of her mother when she was three years old and a severe case of typhoid fever she came down with at thirteen. The first stunted her emotional growth and left her with permanent psychological scars. (Although pampered by her father, she passionately hated the woman he married in 1847 and never fully recovered from her mother’s untimely death.) The second stunted her physical growth, impaired her eyesight, and cost her the loss of much of her hair. She reached her maturity standing barely four and a half feet tall.
At sixteen she ran away from Massillon to Alliance, Ohio, where she lived for a while with her sister Mary Everhard. She returned home a few years later to help care for another sister, but the prodigal daughter was never again quite welcome in the Wellman family. After the Civil War she left Massillon for good, with no regrets on her part or on the part of the townspeople—local whispers insinuated a covertly scandalous affair with a married man. Little is known about her wanderings until 1873, when she stopped off in Seattle. There she boarded for several months in the home of “Mayor” Henry Yesler and his wife. Yesler, former mayor of Springfield, Ohio, knew that the Wellmans were a family of considerable prestige, but he may not have known of Flora’s apostasy. It was in the Yesler home that she first met the man destined to play the most dramatic role in her life: William Henry Chaney.
While Flora has been treated unkindly by many of London’s biographers, Chaney has fared even worse. Usually disparaged as a kind of footloose astrological huckster, “Professor” Chaney was in fact a celebrity of considerable distinction. He made for good newspaper copy: a dynamic figure who drew serious audiences to his popular public lectures. His friendship with the Yeslers attests to his respectability. In Flora Wellman he would find a soul mate. Although their backgrounds were vastly different, their personalities were weirdly similar—perhaps too similar.
Born on January 13, 1821, in the backwoods of Maine, the son of a yeoman farmer who died when the boy was nine years old, Chaney was bound out to several farmers, all of whom he detested. At the age of sixteen he ran off and worked for a while as a carpenter before going to sea. He served for a short time in the U.S. Navy, but in 1840 he jumped ship in Boston. He then headed west for the Mississippi River with a dream that he would travel downriver to the Gulf Coast and join a gang of pirates. The dream faded into reality when, stricken with an attack of fever, he was sidetracked in the Ohio country and compelled to settle for less romantic ventures, such as school teaching and store clerking. At the age of twenty-five he read for the law in Virginia and, during the next two decades, worked as an itinerant attorney, editor, and sometime preacher. In October 1866, now in New York City, he reached a major turning point in his checkered career: he met Dr. Luke Broughton, the famous English lecturer and editor of Broughton’s Monthly Planet Reader and Astrological Journal.
Broughton had settled in America a decade earlier and had launched his journal on April 1, 1860, explaining that “it would serve as a handbook on such various subjects as Astrology, Astronomy, Astro-Phrenology, Zodiacal Physiognomy, Hygiene, Medical Botany, Astro-Meteorology, and the useful branches of Mathematics [for the] farmer, traveler, merchant, and the youthful inquirer after truth.”
In his October 1864 issue, Broughton managed to erase a bit of the April Fool’s Day stigma that some skeptics had attached to his work when he warned that, during the coming months, President Lincoln would have “a number of evil aspects afflicting his Nativity” and that he should be “especially on his guard against attempts to take his life; by such as fire arms.” When Chaney met him, Broughton, while planning to establish an institution to be called the Eclectic Medical University, had set up headquarters in a spectacular Broadway suite. One reporter described Broughton’s sanctum as “luxuriously furnished, with winged mythological beings, Cupids, Venuses, and Dianas, presided over by Mercury, [and enhanced by] mystical configurations and puzzles cabalistic hanging against the wall in mysterious and uninterpreted grandeur.”
Chaney was captivated when he met Broughton in these exotic surroundings, and his conversion to astrology was immediate. Broughton himself was impressed by this intense young Jack-of-many-trades and took him at once under his astrological wing. To this newfound religion Chaney remained faithful to the end. Appearances to the contrary, he was at heart a humanitarian idealist who envisioned astrology as a panacea for the spiritual malaise of modern civilization.
Chaney’s marital fidelity was less constant than his devotion to Broughton’s creed. In 1867 he married the third in a series of six wives. In 1869, leaving this wife behind, he headed west to spread the word about astrology. He spent a couple of years in Salem, Oregon, then moved to San Francisco, where he began delivering lectures on “Astro-Theology.” On June 11, 1874, according to his autobiography, he “took another wife,” with whom he lived until June 3, 1875.
This new wife was Flora Wellman. By 1874, Flora had come a long way from Massillon, Ohio. After her stay in Seattle, she headed south for San Francisco, accompanying “a lady as a traveling companion,” she vaguely explained to her curious granddaughter years afterward. Arriving in “The City,” she found a locale far more congenial to a freethinking individualist than her home town had been.
By 1874, San Francisco had also come a long way from the rough-and-tumble frontier fishing port it had been a couple of generations earlier. The American Dream to “Go West for Wealth and Success” had metamorphosed into the California Dream, climaxing in the 1849 gold rush. By the end of the Civil War, San Francisco had become transformed. It was now the Mecca of the Great American West: a cosmopolitan metropolis of some quarter million people worthy of competing with anything the East could offer. It could boast of a booming economy; paved thoroughfares; fancy Victorian architecture; theaters; modern sanitation, gas, water, and educational systems. It could match Boston’s Beacon Hill with Nob Hill and Boston’s Atlantic Monthly with the Overland Monthly. And the City had even more than Boston, with its own “public characters”: Joshua, promoting himself as “Norton I, Emperor of the United States,” dressed out in imperial regalia, issuing proclamations and scrip, which the newspapers published and the merchants honored; Krause, self-proclaimed City laureate, chanting and hawking his ballads on the street to all passersby; Father Elphick, preaching the gospel of “air, water, and sun,” along with socialism; Li Po Tai, promoting Chinese herbs as the cure of every human ailment. In short, the City of the Golden Gate had become a natural magnet for fortune-seekers of all kinds, including fortune-tellers, astrologists, and spiritualists.
Nowhere could Flora Wellman and William Chaney have found an environment more congenial to their idiosyncratic needs. When the two met again, Flora was making a modest living by teaching piano lessons while becoming increasingly committed to the emotional raptures of spiritualism. She had become friends with Amanda and William Slocum, publishers of a new weekly called Common Sense, a “Journal of Live Ideas,” devoted to multifarious reforms and freethinking, including spiritualism. While Chaney’s own idealistic penchant stopped short of spiritualism, he found in Common Sense a handy forum for his political and philosophical essays, and in Flora Wellman, a willing partner for his personal and social career.
The two apparently lived happily together for nearly a year—Flora keeping up with her tutoring and her spiritual exercises while assisting Chaney with his lectures and various reformist diatribes—until one evening in early June the next year, when she told him she was carrying his child. Chaney was indignant and furious in his denial. After a hotly contested verbal war that lasted for hours with apparently no winner, he pulled out—to what would be a timeless misfortune for both of them but a timely fortune for the local tabloids. The incident made headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 4, 1875:
A DISCARDED WIFE
WHY MRS. CHANEY TWICE ATTEMPTED SUICIDE
The newspaper reported that, after attempting to take her life with laudanum, Flora had borrowed a neighbor’s pistol and shot herself in the forehead: “The ball glanced off, inflicting only a flesh wound, and friends interfered before she could accomplish her suicidal purpose.” If Flora’s alleged suicide attempt was a failure, her attempt to gain the sympathies of the community was an unqualified success:
The married life of the couple is said to have been full of self-denial and devoted affection on the part of the wife, and of harsh words and unkind treatment on the part of the husband … The wife assisted him in the details of business, darned his hose, drudged at the wash-tub, took care of other people’s children for hire, and generously gave him whatever money she earned and could spare beyond her actual expenses … She says that about three weeks ago she discovered, with a natural feeling of maternal pleasure, that she was enceinte … Then he told her she had better destroy her unborn babe. This she indignantly declined to do, and on last Thursday he said to her, “Flora, I want you to pack up and leave this house.” She replied, “I have no money and nowhere to go.” He said, “Neither have I any to give you.” A woman in the house offered her $25, but she flung it from her with a burst of anguish, saying, “What do I care for this? It will be of no use to me without my husband’s love.”
Chaney gave a different account of the affair. Twenty-two years later, London wrote two letters searching for the truth of his paternity. Chaney replied to both, fervently denying that he was Jack’s father. He insisted that he had been impotent at the time of the child’s conception and attested that Flora had been sexually involved with two other men. In his first letter, postmarked in Chicago and dated June 4, 1897, he explained that neighbors had gossiped about an affair in the spring of 1875 between Flora and a young man she had known in Springfield, Ohio, but added he knew nothing himself of the liaison. He also mentioned a married businessman for whom he had written a “nativity” and with whom Flora was rumored to have had an affair.
“There was a time when I had a very tender affection for Flora,” Chaney continued, “but there came a time when I hated her with all the intensity of my intense nature, & even thought of killing her and myself … Time, however, has healed the wounds & I feel no unkindness towards her, while for you I feel a warm sympathy, for I can imagine my emotions were I in your place.”
The tone of Chaney’s letter hardly resembles his attitude as a younger man—it is the voice of a broken old man: “I am past 76 & quite poor,” he laments after recounting the disgrace and misery wrought by Flora’s public accusations. Even his family, except for one sister, had disowned him as a disgrace, he confesses. Oddly enough, he kept the door open, offering to send further information about himself to the address given in Jack’s letter: 402 Plymouth Avenue, Oakland, California.
Four hundred and two Plymouth Avenue was the address of Edward “Ted” Applegarth, the close friend with whom London had discussed the discovery that Chaney might be his biological father. To avoid any embarrassment to his family, particularly to Flora, Jack had asked Chaney to reply in care of Applegarth. Still unsatisfied after reading the June 4 letter, he wrote again, and received a second, twelve-page handwritten apologia dated June 14. Here, Chaney detailed more specifically the circumstances that caused his rupture with Flora:
Flora was known as my wife, in the same lodging house, Mrs. Upstone’s, where she had passed as the wife of Lee Smith & we stayed there a month. It was a very respectable place, & one day when I came home I found all the lodgers moving away & great excitement throughout the house. As soon as I entered our room Flora locked the door, fell on her knees before me & between sobs begged me to forgive her. I said I had nothing to forgive. Finally, after much delay & pleading she confessed about Lee Smith & said the lodgers were leaving on account of her being known as “Miss Wellman,” “Mrs. Smith” & “Mrs. Chaney,” all at nearly the same time.
Chaney explains that “a very loose connection of society was fashionable” at that time in the City, and “it was not thought disgraceful for two to live together without marriage,” but San Franciscans drew the line at promiscuousness. Members of the boarding house were scandalized that “Mrs. Chaney” was also having sexual relations with a fellow lodger named Lee Smith. Because of his own atypical romantic history and his self-confessed impotence, Chaney says he was willing to make allowances for Flora’s adultery. What had finally roused his ire, however, was her claiming he was the father of her unborn child. “This brought up a wrangle that lasted all day & all night,” he wrote, adding that “her temper was a great trial & I had often thought before that time that I must leave her on account of it.” The battle reached its dramatic climax the next morning, when she rushed out to the backyard of a neighbor’s house and returned with blood streaming down her face, a double-barreled pistol in one hand and a box of cartridges in the other.
“This little woman has been trying to kill herself & made a bad job of it,” she cried to her startled neighbor.
Her outcry sounded an alarm to the entire neighborhood, as Chaney describes the scene, “A great excitement followed [and a] mob of 150 gathered, swearing to hang me from the nearest lamp-post … believing her story of my cruelty & that I had turned her out of doors, penniless, because she would not submit to an abortion.”
According to Chaney, a detective assigned to the case reported that no one in the neighborhood had heard a pistol shot and that his examination of the alleged suicide weapon revealed the smell of oil but not of gunpowder. The major injury caused by the gun was not Flora’s superficial cut but the damage to Chaney’s reputation, a wound from which he would never fully recover.
“My own life had been a very sad one, more so than I think yours will be,” he prophetically concluded.
This was the last letter London received from Chaney, and presumably the last he wanted.
Regardless of Chaney’s denials, Flora entered the name “John Griffith Chaney” on the birth certificate when her child was delivered—and “Chaney” remained the infant’s surname for the first eight months of his life.
That Flora had been serious in her alleged suicide attempt is questionable, but the hearts of San Franciscans went out to this helpless mother-to-be, especially the hearts of her spiritualist friends. She was taken in by the Slocums for the next year. An accomplished seamstress, she was able to earn some money for herself by sewing and by giving piano lessons, but she was not vigorous enough to nurse her newborn child. On her doctor’s advice she entrusted the infant into the care of a wet nurse, Daphne Virginia Prentiss, known as Jennie.
Mrs. Prentiss, destined to become one of the most important individuals in London’s life, had been born a slave on a Tennessee plantation in 1832 and named Daphne Virginia Parker by her owners, John Parker and his associates, James West and T. M. Isbell. As a worker in the “Big House” on the plantation, she had learned to read and write. Free at the age of thirty-three, she left the Parker plantation and, two years later, married Alonzo Prentiss, a former Union officer in the Civil War. They moved from Tennessee to Chicago and, then, to San Francisco, where Alonzo worked as a carpenter.
The Prentisses prospered in San Francisco, living in a handsome redwood house with a garden in the Nob Hill area. Their happiness was shattered when Jennie’s third child was stillborn, but what was a tragedy for them proved to be a godsend for Flora and her newborn son. The same physician had delivered both infants, and in consideration of Virginia’s painful condition and Flora’s inability to provide enough milk to keep her son alive, he arranged for the baby to live with the Prentiss family, with Jennie serving as his wet nurse—and, for all practical purposes, his mother—until he could be weaned.
The arrangement gave the infant the physical nourishment he needed to survive. Beyond this, it provided the emotional nurturing so essential during his first year. A vital connection was established during those early months between this loving caregiver and her “Jackie,” as she named her little “Jack-in-a-box.” The Prentiss home provided a wholesome environment for the baby. The two older Prentiss children, Will and Priscilla, welcomed their new “brother.” Jennie read the Bible daily to the children, sang, and told them stories. Many years later, Jack nostalgically recollected the lullabies with which she soothed him to sleep each night. Although he left the Prentiss home when he was weaned (probably between the ages of two and three), he visited the family frequently during his younger years, and his bond with Jennie lasted a lifetime. Jack’s daughters fondly remembered her as “Aunt Jennie,” and snapshots from the London albums include a number of pictures of her with the two London girls. “I loved her deeply, with the same quality of devotion I had for Mother,” exclaimed Joan. It was Joan who gave Jennie the courtesy title of “Aunt” in place of the less dignified “Mammy.”
The Prentiss family may also have provided more than a surrogate mother for the child: possibly a foster father as well. One of Alonzo Prentiss’s acquaintances was a fellow carpenter named John London. John London had been born January 11, 1831, on a farm in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. His father, Manley London—the grandson of Sir William London, who had renounced his wealth and British citizenship to fight with General Washington for American independence—was a farmer and lumberman. One of John’s two older brothers, Joseph, was a carpenter. From his father, John acquired his agricultural expertise; from Joseph, his carpentry skills.
At the age of nineteen John London left the farm to become boss of a construction gang for the Pennsylvania Railroad. While working on this job he met and married Anna Jane Cavett, daughter of one of the railroad’s officials. The young couple initially set up housekeeping in the Cavett mansion but moved out a few months after the delivery of the first of the eleven children Anna Jane would bear before dying of consumption on December 19, 1873. After leaving the Cavetts, the Londons moved to Wisconsin, then down to Illinois, where John farmed until enlisting in the Union Army at Quincy on November 9, 1864.
Army records reveal John London to have been average in height and weight: five foot eight and 155 pounds. A few weeks following his enlistment, he was stricken with pneumonia after standing guard duty at night in cold weather. This was “followed by measles, resulting in a second attack of pneumonia in April 1865.” Eight months after his enlistment, he was discharged from the army, having spent more than half his tour of duty in the hospital. His lungs were so badly damaged that he was never again capable of performing sustained strenuous manual labor.
John London’s brief army career was less than spectacular; however, his subsequent history was more impressive. Frank Atherton, Jack’s closest boyhood chum, recalled how the elder London loved to regale the boys with stories of his adventures as a scout and Indian fighter: “Surely, he must be the bravest man in the world, I thought. And in my boyish fancy I again viewed the great battle fields literally strewn with the vanquished savages.” John had stretched the truth in entertaining the boys, but in view of his physical condition, his post-army career was courageous.
Following his discharge from the army, he moved his family to Moscow, Iowa. Here he superintended the building of a bridge across the Cedar River. From some accounts he also served as sheriff and deacon of the local Methodist church. Here were born Anna’s two youngest daughters: Eliza on October 13, 1867, and Ida on February 28, 1870. Shortly after Ida’s birth, the family moved onto a section of government land outside Moscow. However, when it was discovered that Anna had contracted consumption, they decided to fulfill “their mutual dreams to play at gipsying,” so that John could devote himself full-time to her care.
For the next two years they adventured across the western plains in a prairie schooner. Instead of fighting the Indians, John befriended them. “Play fair with an Indian,” he insisted, “and you can trust him with anything, anywhere. It’s wrong treatment that’s made sly devils of ’em.” He shared his hunting, trapping, and bee-hunting skills with the Plains Indians—and, unlike his neighbors, he never lost a single head of stock to marauding Pawnee. One of his favorite Indian stories was recorded by Charmian London in The Book of Jack London:
John had loaned to an old brave fifty cents and a musket, but forgot to mention the little transaction to his wife. It happened that she was alone when the chief came to redeem his obligations, and being very ill, she was badly frightened when his gaunt frame filled the doorway. In round terms she ordered him away; but the Indian, when she refused to touch the fifty cents, strode furiously in, grandly threw the coins into the middle of the floor, and stood the well-cleaned gun carefully in the corner. Stalking as furiously forth, he met his benefactor coming home, to whom he clipped out that the white-face squaw was no good—too foolish even to take money or guns offered her.
Despite the rigors of bearing eleven children and the hardships of frontier living, Anna was, from all reports, happy in her marriage. “No one ever saw [her] angry or disagreeable,” Charmian records, “nor John London cross or harsh. He was always protecting some one.” He was devastated by his wife’s death from consumption the week before Christmas in 1873, and his suffering was compounded a few months later when Charles, their youngest son, was hit hard in the chest by a ball while playing baseball. The blow was a serious one, causing severe internal injuries. On their doctor’s advice that ocean air might be therapeutic, John left for California, taking Charles as well as the young girls Eliza and Ida with him. The boy died eleven days after arriving in San Francisco. The girls were placed in the Protestant Orphan Asylum. John was able to pay for their room and board from the money he was earning as a carpenter, but he wanted a home and a mother for them. Eliza later recalled that period in the orphanage as one of the happiest of her life and hoped that her father would propose to a teacher she adored. He proposed, instead, to Flora Wellman Chaney.
Biographers differ concerning the exact circumstances of the first meeting between John and Flora. Charmian suggests that John was invited by one of his friends to attend a spiritualist meeting at which he became entranced by Flora. Joan London reports something more mundane: John admired one of Alonzo Prentiss’s beautifully sewn shirts, asked him who made it so that he could order one for himself, thereby being introduced to Flora. It is possible that they had already become acquainted, as their marriage license, dated September 4, 1876, lists them both living at the same address (946 Harrison Street, San Francisco). Recalling the neighbors’ gossip about the scandalous relationship between Flora and the “young man from Springfield” alleged in Chaney’s first letter to Jack, one scholar has speculated that the man might have been John London from Springfield, Illinois, rather than Springfield, Ohio.
There is no question about the marriage between Flora and London. The official wedding document certifies “That on the Seventh day of September In the Year of Our Lord 1876 John London and Flora Cheney [sic] were by me united in Marriage at San Francisco according to the laws of the State of California,” signed by James C. Perrine, Justice of the Peace.
Theirs was a marriage of convenience. John London needed a wife and a mother for his daughters; Flora needed a husband and a father for her son. Their mutual needs seemed to be ideally met—except for two major problems: Flora was obsessed with the idea of regaining her lost social status, and John possessed neither the physical stamina nor the psychological toughness to achieve this kind of success.
When a diphtheria epidemic broke out in 1879, little “Johnny” and twelve-year-old Eliza were seriously stricken, and lapsed into comas. Eliza later remembered rousing long enough to hear Flora ask the attending physician, “Can the two of them be buried in the same coffin, doctor, to save expenses?” Many years afterward, Eliza asserted that Flora had saved her life with this question by shocking her into recovery, but major credit is due John London, who refused to accept the attendant physician’s dire prognosis. Having heard of an Oakland doctor who had cured several diphtheria victims, he ferried over and persuaded the man to treat Jack and Eliza. The doctor managed to remove the choking cankers from the children’s throats and thus save their lives. He also advised John to move his family out of San Francisco, to a more healthful location.
As soon as the two children recovered, the Londons moved across the Bay, to Oakland, where John started a business in truck farming. Using his savings to lease and cultivate a parcel of land near Emeryville, a suburb of Oakland, he grew corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables. Because he sold only the finest produce, giving the culls to poor neighbors, he gained a reputation as the best farmer in the Bay Area. One of Eliza’s childhood memories was the musical sound of peddlers hawking their vegetables with “J. L. Corn! J. L. Corn!”
This new venture was succeeding until Flora persuaded her husband to set up his own grocery store in partnership with a man named G. H. Stowell. A few months afterward, in 1881, John London found himself back on the farm. He had made the mistake of leaving the job of running the store in Stowell’s hands while he went to outlying districts contracting and taking orders. One weekend, arriving back from a trip, he discovered he had been sold out and cleaned out. As Charmian observes, “Stowell must have been a clever crook and known his man well, for John was quite unequal to the tangle in which he found himself when he appealed to the law. Fight he did, and manfully; only a pitiful few dollars remained to him at the end of a legal battle.” Many years afterward, Jack remarked, “My father was the best man I have ever known—too intrinsically good to get ahead in the soulless scramble for a living that a man must cope with if he would survive in our anarchical capitalist system.”
With what few financial resources he had left, John London moved his family to Alameda, where he worked a twenty-acre tract for a man named Matthew Davenport. The family history becomes somewhat clearer at this time, for the 1881 records show “Johnny London,” along with Eliza and Ida, enrolled in the West End School in Alameda. Once again John London seemed to prosper, and once again Flora could not stand modest prosperity. She felt they could do better on a bigger farm. On Jack’s seventh birthday, in 1883, the family moved to a ranch in San Mateo County. As Jack later described their move, “We had horses and a farm wagon, and onto that we piled all our household belongings, all hands climbing up on the top of the load, and with the cow tied behind, we moved ‘bag and baggage’ to the coast in San Mateo County, six miles beyond Colma.”
Jack remembered this place along the coast as “bleak, barren and foggy.” He also recollected that it was here that he had experienced his first traumatic encounter with alcohol: “It was a wild, primitive countryside in those days, and often I heard my mother pride herself that we were old American stock and not immigrant Irish and Italians like our neighbors.” Flora was especially hard on the Italian immigrants. “My mother had theories,” he recalled:
First, she steadfastly maintained that brunettes and all the tribe of dark-eyed humans were deceitful. Next, she was convinced that the dark-eyed Latin races were profoundly sensitive, profoundly treacherous, and profoundly murderous … I had heard her state that if one offended an Italian, no matter how slightly and unintentionally, he was certain to retaliate by stabbing one in the back. That was her particular phrase—“stab you in the back.”
Young Jack’s fears almost cost him his life at the age of seven. The episode occurred when a group of Irish youths, promising to take him to a dance, lured him to a neighboring Italian ranch—“a bachelor establishment.” Here, fearful but fascinated, the boy watched while the high-spirited young men and women drank and danced. One mischievous Italian youth named Peter approached, proffering a half tumbler of new wine. “My faith was implicit in my mother’s exposition of the Italian character. Besides, I had some glimmering inkling of the sacredness of hospitality. Here was a treacherous, sensitive, murdering Italian, offering me hospitality … What could I do?”
Fearing “a stab in the back” at any moment, he gulped down the wine. Peter, impressed, poured another half tumbler to see the feat repeated, then invited others to watch as the frightened youngster downed several more tumblerfuls. By the time the ordeal was over and the crowd had lost interest, the boy had consumed enough wine to knock out a full-grown man—more than enough to suffocate a child. As the crowd left the party, little Jack, thoroughly inebriated, staggered out and fell into a ditch. He was rescued by a group of the young women who pulled him out and became alarmed when they noticed his half-paralyzed, glassy-eyed condition. Without realizing how close to death he was, they managed to drag and carry him four miles back home and put him to bed. Here he writhed in delirium, envisioning himself in the evil dens of San Francisco’s Chinatown:
I wandered deep beneath the ground through a thousand of these dens, and behind locked doors of iron I suffered and died a thousand deaths. And when I would come upon my father, seated at table in these subterranean crypts, gambling with Chinese for great stakes of gold, all my outrage gave vent to the vilest cursing … All the inconceivable filth a child running at large in a primitive countryside may hear men utter, was mine; and though I had never dared utter such oaths, they now poured from me, at the top of my lungs.
“The child will lose his reason,” cried Flora, thinking his brain permanently seared. “My mother had been dreadfully shocked. She held that I had done wrong … that I had gone contrary to all her teaching. And how was I, who was never allowed to talk back … to tell my mother that it was her teaching that was directly responsible for my drunkenness?”
Jack attributed other childhood traumas to his mother. One episode involved John London, whom Flora forced to spank the youngster when neither the man nor the boy thought he deserved it. Another involved a less corporeal kind of punishment. The culprit was “Plume,” the alleged Indian chief who occasionally seized control over Flora during her séances. Jack never forgave her making him stand on a levitating table in what his schoolmates called the London “spook-house” while she whooped loudly in Plume’s guttural voice.
London’s memories of his boyhood in the country were a far cry from the pastoral dream he would realize twenty-five years later in the Valley of the Moon. “Everything was squalid and sordid … I took a violent prejudice—nay, it was almost a hatred—to country life at this time.” Yet in John Barleycorn he says that in the near-fatal drinking episode he saw “a bright and gorgeous episode in the monotony of life and labor on that bleak, fog-girt coast … The Irish ranchers twitted me good-naturedly on my exploit, and patted me on the back until I felt that I had done something heroic.”
Except for this episode, he remembered nothing heroic in his boyhood on the farm. “My body and soul were starved when I was a child,” he wrote to Mabel Applegarth in 1898:
When I was seven years old, at the country school of San Pedro, this happened. Meat, I was that hungry for it I once opened a girl’s basket and stole a piece of meat—a little piece the size of my two fingers … In those days, like Esau, I would have literally sold my birthright for a mess of pottage, a piece of meat. Great God! when those youngsters threw chunks of meat on the ground because of surfeit, I could have dragged it from the dirt and eaten it; but I did not. Just imagine the development of my mind, my soul, under such material conditions.
That he was emotionally deprived is believable. However, most of his physical deprivations were more likely imagined than real. His mother was especially quick to react when she read about his version of boyhood hunger: “Here Jack has written that he didn’t have enough to eat,” she exclaimed to Eliza. “Do you remember any time when we did not set a good table? I can’t. He didn’t go hungry in our house!… Why, you know, his father always had vegetables, and if meat was ever scarce, there were plenty of chickens.”
Still, chickens were not the good red meat Jack hungered for. “I was a dreamer, on a farm, but early, at only nine, the hard hand of the world was laid upon me,” he later confessed to Anna Strunsky. “It has left me sentiment, but destroyed sentimentalism. It has made me practical, so that I am known as harsh, stern, uncompromising. It has taught me that reason is mightier than imagination; that the scientific man is superior to the emotional man.”
What was “the hard hand of the world” that changed the young dreamer into the tough, practical realist at the age of nine? It might have been chickens. If so, Flora served as catalytic agent. She decided that John’s modest but real prosperity with his produce business was not enough. They would get rich and rise more quickly in the world if they added chicken raising to their farm ventures.
“One unversed in such matters can have no notion of the many and tragic things that can happen to a chicken,” Sherwood Anderson explains in “The Egg,” his poignant story of broken American dreams:
It is born out of an egg, lives for a few weeks as a tiny fluffy thing such as you will see pictured on Easter cards, then becomes hideously naked, eats quantities of corn and meal bought by the sweat of your father’s brow, gets diseases called pip, cholera, and other names, stands looking with stupid eyes at the sun, becomes sick and dies … Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned.
Neither Flora nor John had an inkling of such “tragic things.” Within months, their flock had been wiped out by an epidemic. Unable to make mortgage payments, the family was forced to move back into the city, leaving farm life behind. It would be two decades before Jack realized the bountiful agrarian legacy John London had left him.
Copyright © 2013 by Earle Labor
Posted February 28, 2014
A great book about a brilliant and interesting man. I now have a new found admiration for this intriguing American. Highly recommended.
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