Jack London: An American Life

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9780374534912: Jack London: An American Life

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.

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About the Author:

Earle Labor is the acknowledged major authority on the novelist Jack London and the curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport. He is also Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Centenary College of Louisiana.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
 
 
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.”
“Positively uncanny.”
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 ...

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