I parked at the visitor’s center of Jack London State Historic Park, awaiting the arrival of America’s—and the world’s—preeminent Jack London impersonator. We’d been telephoning and exchanging emails for six months, and I’d finally flown to San Francisco, rented a car, and driven up to Sonoma County, site of London’s Beauty Ranch and the place where in 1916 the author succumbed to a life of smoking, drinking, and hard living—and died at age forty. When a slick pickup glided into the lot, I saw a frame around the license plate that said Mike Wilson as Jack London. I knew I had my man.
The Call of the Wild was one of the first books I owned. It sat on the shelf beside four-legged weepers like Old Yeller, The Incredible Journey, and Where the Red Fern Grows. Informal polling among friends who consider themselves well read confirmed that while just about everyone could identify London as an author of dog stories for boys, only the rarest few had, since puberty, read any of his fifty books. Even fewer knew that the bulk of London’s work has nothing to do with dogs, or wolves, or any other creature. London churned out novels and essays—at the unwavering rate of a thousand words a day—delving into the turn of the century’s most contentious debates: poverty and class injustice; the threat of authoritarianism and the specter of a workers’ revolution; Darwinism and eugenics; prohibition and the plague of alcoholism; and the place of that American archetype—the freedom-seeking individualist—in an increasingly industrial and interdependent nation. He was the most successful writer of his era, his handsome mug so widely published in the nascent age of photography that some historians call him America’s first celebrity. And while his name remains nearly as iconic as canon standards like Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway, in my ten years of studying literature I was never assigned a single of London’s books.
In the months preceding my trip to Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon, I’d been gulping up his books—most of which, I’d learned, were not regularly stocked at the local bookstore. In them I was finding the origins of three strands of twentieth-century writing. In his stylization of action and pitiless depictions of death and violence, I heard the quintessentially American voice that would come to be called Hemingwayesque and that a century later echoes in the novels of Cormac McCarthy. London’s pugnacious political essays and gloomy futuristic fables seem the blueprint for anti-totalitarian works like 1984, Brave New World, and It Can’t Happen Here. And his loose tales of countrywide rambling, freight-hopping, and bohemian freedom surely inspired the Beats.
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, E. L. Doctorow pronounced London “the most widely read American author in the world.” That’s right. More than Twain or Hemingway or Melville. Something of a literary footnote in his own country, Jack London is considered an emblematic American author in Japan, Russia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. The Call of the Wild has been translated into eighty languages, more than any other American work. An Albanian anthology of American literature pictures Jack London along with Mark Twain on its cover. A collection of London stories in Russian sold 200,000 copies in the first printing. On his deathbed, Lenin asked his wife to read him a Jack London story.
But here in America, in lieu of literary acclaim, London gets his picture on a postage stamp and a pedestrian mall named after him in his hometown of Oakland, California. Once a decrepit port, Oakland’s Jack London Square is now, according to its publicity squad,“a dynamic destination buzzing with restaurants, shops, hotels, entertainment, recreation, outdoor markets, and special events.” For $350, patrons can sponsor a “Wolf Track,” a bronze marker laid down in the stone plaza embossed with a personal message—a sort of earthy, Northern Californian answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (My visit to Jack London Square yielded rows of brightly painted but vacant shops, a husk of a defunct T. G. I. Friday’s, and a few Wolf Tracks inscribed with epitaphs like: Peanut / A giant of a dog / Love Eddie.) A high school and a youth soccer league also bear London’s name, and each year Kenwood Vineyards bottles a “Jack London Series” sporting the author’s signature and a drawing of a wolf.The grapes are grown inValley of the Moon, on the former site of London’s ranch.
Shunned by the elites, Jack London’s legacy has been left to a ragtag army of hobbyists, autodidacts, marketeers, middle-tier academics, the self-published, and fanatics. Which pretty much explains what I was doing in a Sonoma parking lot waiting for a fifty-six-year-old Jack London impersonator, composer of Jack London–related songs, author and publisher of a book called Jack London’s Klondike Adventures, and not least, the 2005 Jack London Man of the Year, as decreed by the Glen Ellen, California–based Jack London Foundation. When I’d written to see if I could catch one of his shows, he replied: “No, unfortunately, at least as of this time, there are no Jack London performances scheduled for either of those dates; that is why I am available. So, if you don’t mind, I will come as Mike Wilson.”
I guessed I was lucky to get any time with him at all. Nonetheless, when Wilson stepped out of the truck as his mere self, I felt a pang of disappointment. Instead of the trademark costume—riding boots, white suit, a Stetson—he wore jeans, a tie-dyed T-shirt, and the kind of glasses that get darker under bright light. It was September, a sunny and dry California morning, the grasses brown and the trees not yet turning. Wilson pumped my hand, called me buddy, and said it looked like I’d worn the right kind of shoes for the hike.
Mike Wilson has been impersonating Jack London at schools, Masonic lodges, and historical festivals for eighteen years. He once performed for fifteen hundred children in a single day, and he was hired by Disney to consult on a movie version of White Fang. I asked when his next show was, and he said he didn’t have any confirmed just yet. This struck me as odd, considering the busy schedule he’d alluded to. Wilson seemed to sense my apprehension.
“Because of the Jack London thing, I’ve become a really serious writer,” he told me, throwing back the last of his coffee and returning the travel mug to his truck.“I used to just write articles, probably like you do, to make money. But in ’94 I stopped doing hack work.”
He asked if I was in good shape, and when I nodded, we started out along the asphalt, the last patches of dew vaporizing as the morning shadows receded. “Now I write what I want,” he said firmly.“That’s why I keep up a job as a hardware store manager.”
Twenty-five years after I read The Call of the Wild, my interest in Jack London was sparked by Sailor on Horseback, Irving Stone’s lurid 1938 biography. As Stone tells it, London’s life was as romantic and ruggedly American as any novel ever written. He was born poor in San Francisco in 1876 to an unwed spiritualist. His father was most likely an itinerant astrologist who never fessed up to paternity. Jack grew up in the crushing poverty of the Oakland slums, quitting school to work in a cannery at age thirteen. By fifteen he was a regular at the waterfront saloons, had bought a sloop called the Razzle Dazzle, and was cruising the bay as an oyster pirate. London shipped out to Japan on a seal-hunting ship at seventeen, worked in a jute mill and as a coal shoveler, then at eighteen traversed the country on freight trains, serving a month in a prison camp in upstate New York for vagrancy. Convinced that hard labor would kill him, London completed high school in a single year and then enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. He was proclaimed the “Boy Socialist” because of the soapbox oratories he delivered at Oakland City Hall Park. But Jack had already outgrown the college campus: “The life there was healthful and athletic, but too juvenile,” he would later write. “I had bucked with big men. I knew mysterious and violent things.” After running out of money during his second semester, Jack quit college and steamed north to prospect for gold, returned home empty-handed, determined to become a writer. In 1903, at the age of twenty-seven, he wrote The Call of the Wild, for which he was paid a total of two thousand dollars; the book brought immediate worldwide fame and over the next century would sell millions of copies.
In the span of the next thirteen years London wrote fifty books and hundreds of magazine pieces. He lived undercover in the East End of London to write People of the Abyss, a study of poverty and a critique of industrial capitalism. He covered wars in Japan and Mexico, and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Twice he turned down offers from U.S. presidential hopeful Eugene Debs to run as vice president on the Socialist ticket. He divorced his first wife and married a freespirited older woman named Charmian Kittredge, whom he called “Mate-woman.”
Disenchanted by his own success, in 1907 London attempted to quit the limelight. He designed and built a boat, the Snark, for which he planned a seven-year voyage around the world.The crew he’d enlisted turned out to be incompetent, so Jack taught himself to navigate along the Mexican coast before raising the sail for Hawaii. The Snark got as far as Australia before Jack came down with a rare tropical illness and had to cut the trip short.
Back in California, London continued to write his daily thousand words while pursuing his grandest plan yet: an agrarian utopia, applying sustainable and organic techniques to raise grapes, hogs, and other crops. The unemployed were welcome to hammer or plow in exchange for room and board. Around a grand dining table of writers, artists, statesmen, sailors, and hobos, London led fiery debates on philosophy and agriculture and art and politics. He began construction of Wolf House, a mansion built of local volcanic stone and redwood timbers, which he predicted would stand for one thousand years. But after three years of building, on the eve of completion, Wolf House burned to the ground. Scientists would later blame the spontaneous combustion of turpentine-soaked rags, but at the time London suspected sabotage by a political enemy or an ungrateful worker.
Jack was heartbroken. His drinking worsened. His muscled body sagged. He couldn’t kick the kidney disease he’d acquired in the South Pacific. In 1916 Jack London died of uremic poisoning—kidney failure— at the Beauty Ranch. In Sailor on Horseback, Stone describes the death as suicide:“On the floor of the room [the doctor] found two empty vials labeled morphine sulfate and atropine sulfate; on the night table he found a pad with some figures on it which represented a calculation of the lethal dose of the drug.” Stone’s version seemed to be foretold in the novel Martin Eden, in which Jack’s autobiographical hero, so disgusted with the bourgeois world that has accepted him, flings himself from a ship’s cabin window and sinks to the ocean bottom. In his memoir of a life of drinking, John Barleycorn, London obsesses over death in hallucinatory chats with “the Noseless One.”
But modern-day London aficionados—often the de facto defenders of the manly, show-noweakness faith—are quick to point out that Irving Stone was a liar. His book was so riddled with error and exaggeration that after its first printing the publisher changed its classification from biography to Biographical Novel. Still, the debate over Jack’s death fuels the cottage industry of Jack London hagiography.
This epicenter is Sonoma County, home of the state park and headquarters of the Jack London Foundation.The group was found- ed in 1976 by Russ Kingman: advertising executive, proprietor of the World of Jack London Book- store and Research Center, and a man acknowledged in his lifetime as “the foremost collector of Jack London books and artifacts.” In his 1979 A Pictorial Life of Jack London, Kingman debunked Irving Stone’s suicide theory:
Jack had taken morphine as any patient would who had renal colic. It was highly possible that in the throes of his terrible suffering he had taken extra doses of the morphine…. It was possible that the extra morphine was a contributory factor, but the coma was induced by retention of bodily poisons his inoperative kidneys could no longer release.
(Although widely regarded by London enthusiasts as the most ac- curate biography, the book is cur- rently in print only through a pub- lisher in the Czech Republic.)
In the decade since Kingman’s death, his protégés have carried the torch. In a recent post on the Foundation’s website (www.jack londons.net) called “A Comparative Study: How Jack London’s Death Was Depicted by Various Biographers,” the author reasons:“I do not believe it is necessary to calculate an overdose. The easiest action would be to take a large amount. I believe that without any hard evidence presented by any biographer that no one should claim to know that Jack London committed suicide.” Joining the chorus is Jack London International, a bilingual website (www.jack-london.org) whose hosts describe themselves as “a group of German Jack London aficionados and experts, along with direct descendants of Jack London and other members of Jack London’s family.” An essay by Reinhard Wissdorf called “Suicide? Nope!” recounts its author’s pilgrimage to Beauty Ranch, where he wept at Jack’s grave, and after viewing London’s death certificate, determined that the biographies he’d read were lies. And then there’s the impersonator Mike Wilson, who runs his own Londonalia site at www.get yourwordsworth.com. “His death certificate states that he died of uremic poisoning,” Wilson writes bluntly. The word suicide is not mentioned.
“A lot of people who don’t know any better consider this one of Jack’s great follies,” said Mike Wilson, as we passed into the shade of a eucalyptus grove that London planted a century earlier. “Actually it was common sense. They say that if you’re going to grow trees for lumber you shouldn’t plant them so close together. Jack knew that, but the people who criticize him don’t.”
Wilson explained that the trees were grown not for lumber but for pier pylons, and he went on to differentiate between the two camps of Jack London readers: the “academians” who just want to put Jack on a couch and analyze him and his books to death, and then the guys like Mike Wilson, “brass tacks kind of guys,” the “blue-collar scholars” who really appreciate Jack, the person.
“I consider my strong suit to be that I know his life better than anybody else I’ve heard of or run into. There are people who think they know better, but they just don’t know shit. I’m the workingman’s Jack London expert.”
Wilson is quick to note the similarities between himself and Jack. Both are from the working class and shunned college; both married middle-class college girls; both dabbled in ranching and farming in Sonoma County; both struggled between writing hack work and writing literature.Wilson told me that there were two basic facts to understanding Jack London: first, that he was America’s first successful blue-collar writer, and second, that he was a socialist.
“If you look up the word socialist in Webster’s dictionary it will tell you it’s a form of communism,” Mike said. “Well, that dictionary was bought and paid for, just like Webster, by capitalists. Jack defined socialist as anyone who endeavors to improve the society in which he lives. Mike Wilson’s definition is easier than that. Either you’re a socialist or an antisocialist. Either you care about people—or you don’t.”
Mike Wilson’s definition of impersonator is equally fixed. Despite his own re-creations of London, he believes there is a limit to the bodily empathy a living human can experience with the dead author. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who’ve declared to me, straight-faced, that they’re the reincarnation of Jack London.The first thing I do is bust up. They get offended. But neither Jack nor I believe in reincarnation in that sense.”
As we walked past the old pigpens and the grain silo, toward the cottage where Jack died, Mike told me that he’d first become interested in London when he came to San Francisco during 1967’s Summer of Love. “Might as well have called it the Summer of Sex,” he said. “Would have been a lot more honest.” Wilson discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore, where he was turned on to literature and first began hearing what he considered a lot of slander about Jack London—that he was a drunk, a homo, a lothario, a suicide. Years later, after Wilson had composed a folk-rock song about the author, he was invited to Russ Kingman’s bookstore in Glen Ellen. There, in the legendary smoky back room among London diehards, he discovered what he believed was the real, and often misunderstood, London.
“He wasn’t really a womanizer, like a lot of people like to carry on,” Mike assured me. “The ladies liked him because he was a gentleman.”
Citing the eloquence and compassion with which Jack wrote about women, Mike discredited rumors in academia that Jack was gay. Wilson scoffed at the suicide theories, noting that anyone who understood Jack’s personality would know that he was not a quitter.And as for Jack’s professed atheism, Mike rattled off a direct quotation: “‘My house will be standing, act of God permitting, for a thousand years.’ Now, does that sound like the words of an atheist? Not really. Not if you look up the definition. There’s one that Webster got right.”
Alcoholism is another touchy subject. In John Barleycorn, London recounts a life ravaged by suicidal benders, drinking alone, and hitting the bottle first thing in the morning—all the while insisting that he is not an alcoholic. Wilson agrees. “There’s a whole lot of hooey and nonsense about Jack London the alcoholic. Don’t buy a bit of it, OK? Jack London was not an alcoholic, not if you know what an alcoholic is. He’s a fellow who drank. But there’s a hell of a difference between a guy who drinks and an alcoholic.”
Wilson had a couple of anecdotes that sealed his case. For one, Jack once carried a bottle of whiskey all the way across the Yukon, and then instead of drinking it, gave it to one of the fellows for anesthesia before amputation. But perhaps the most ridiculous lie Mike Wilson has ever heard is that Jack used to ride a white horse from the ranch down to the saloon in Glen Ellen, where he’d drink himself into a stupor and amuse the townspeople by falling off that same white horse.
“Jack never even owned a white horse!” Wilson declared triumphantly. “His favorite horse was a sorrel! And Jack had a full bar up here! Why the hell would he ride down there? It’s not like he was aching for company.”
“Isn’t it possible—” I faltered, sensing some cracks in this reasoning, “that he just rode down on a different-colored horse, and that it was the memory that was mistaken, but that actually the rest of the story is true?”
Wilson looked at me as if I were a half-wit.
“Anything’s possible,” he said gently. “Cause I wasn’t really there, OK? And that’s one of the things that humbling about history: unless you were with Alexander, you’re not really sure what happened.”
Humbled by history, we pressed on toward the ruins of Wolf House. We walked past vineyards, still active and maintained by a distant relative of London’s, heavy with grapes in the autumn sun. But the bucolic scene did not soothe Wilson’s irritation.
“Here’s the thing that guys like me who have to work for a living in a hardware store really resent,” he said, his voice rising. “If I want money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, you can just kiss it goodbye, because I’m not in academia and I don’t have a professor standing beside me saying, ‘This is my boy. Make sure you take care of him.’ The only people who get those endowments are associated with universities. It’s that simple. You and me—Mr. John Q. Public paying taxes—we’re never going to see that money, because we’re not set up with tenure in a university. What really bugs me, what should bug you—sixty thousand dollars a year to be a professor over there at that university—OK, and then you get a leave of absence, with pay, and the National Endowment for the Humanities gives you money to write the book, and you still own it. Such a deal! I think it sucks.”
“Academians” are a perpetual thorn in Wilson’s side. He recently cut back his hours at the hardware store to devote more time to his two major works: one a biography of London and the other a full-length musical. But when I asked him the titles of the works, he wouldn’t tell me.
“I’ve been ripped off for more titles than any writer I know,”he said “It’s not that I don’t like you. But one of the titles has already been ripped off for at least two academic papers. Those two fools used it just for their damn theses. But since they were living in academia they didn’t get what it really meant.”
As we climbed a hill, Mike turned and walked backward. He invited me to try it, too, and told me that the technique allowed you to keep your breath better. “You see? It’s a whole different set of muscles.”
I nodded, paying close attention to the muscles that make my lungs contract. Maybe he was right: maybe it did feel different.
“This hill always reminds me of Chilkoot Pass,” he said, invoking the famous trail to the Yukon where London and all goldrushers began their trek.
“Have you been there?” I asked.
“I wanted to go up there for the Centennial. But I couldn’t find anyone to sponsor me. I was making seven dollars an hour at the time. I’ve got a wife and two kids. Just couldn’t do it.”
The keeping of the Jack London flame has not been wholly relegated to renegade non-academians. Jeanne Campbell Reesman, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, heads the Jack London Society, a coalition of dogged academics who publish a newsletter titled “The Call” and sponsor a biennial conference on Londonalia. But the undisputed godfather—the “big gorilla of academia,” according to Wilson—is Dr. Earle Labor, who for more than three decades has taught American literature at Centenary College of Louisiana, a Methodist school of about a thousand students. Labor first read a twenty-five-cent paperback copy of Martin Eden while in boot camp in the early ’50s. He decided right then to get a Ph.D. and write a dissertation on London. But when he arrived at the University of Wisconsin, the American lit specialist, Frederick Hoffman, declined to direct the dissertation, saying, “Jack London really isn’t a twentieth- century author—and besides, I don’t know that much about him.” Professor Hoffman, in his book The Modern Novel in America, had already dismissed London as “an interesting sideshow in the naturalist carnival.” Labor forged ahead, and in 1974 he published a biographical study of London. “His status as a great writer or as a major American author is yet to be established,” Labor wrote, noting that such an honor “must be won by fair election at the critical polls. My primary aim is to place London’s name on the ballot.”
Thirty years later it would seem that Jack London landed on the ballot. In 1977, 101 years after London’s birth, Andrew Sinclair’s biography, Jack, became a best-seller (published two years before Kingman’s bio, which aficionados prefer). In 1982 the Library of America delivered two collections, each exceeding a thousand pages. In 1988 Stanford University, with Labor as editor, published the three-volume Letters of Jack London. Five years later it followed with another three-volume set: The Complete Short Stories, all 197 of them, at a whopping 2,629 pages. In 1994, Viking trotted out The Portable Jack London, putting him in the company of Whitman, Mark Twain, and other canon staples. Since 1998, eight of his books have been reissued as Modern Library Classics. A new biography by Alex Kershaw was published in 1997 by St. Martin’s.
When I reached Labor by telephone, he was on summer break, trying to finish a biography that its publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has trumpeted as definitive. “I’ve been out in academia fifty years and I’m trying to write an honest book about Jack,” he told me. “Right now I’m ten years late on the contract, but I’m hoping to finish up this summer.”
Labor has contempt for the biographers who have come before him. “They’ve been worse than inadequate, but misleading, with everyone trying to make a buck off of Jack,” Labor told me. “His life is exciting enough; you don’t have to distort.”
Fighting sensationalism on one flank, Labor has spent his career fighting snobbery on the other. “In the ’40s and ’50s, with the New Criticism, they were elitist. They liked T. S. Eliot and Henry James,” he said. But Labor’s work seems to have cracked the barrier. “Stanford was weary because London had been an untouchable for so long in the establishment, so that was a breakthrough.” And adding Jack to the Viking series was no easy feat. “It took me thirty years to include London in that series, because the market wasn’t ready, but now they’re doing a second printing.”
Approaching his eightieth birthday, Labor still teaches undergraduate literature classes and has hosted four Jack London seminars sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (indeed), for students from all over the world. He tells of one young man, born fatherless into an African village, who moved to the city and learned French, and who credits his will to survive with his discovery of The Call of The Wild. And while he still won’t call London the greatest American author, he thinks London’s influence worldwide may be greater than any of his countrymen, so he’s come up with a slightly different accolade: Jack London, America’s Greatest World Novelist.With a hint of pride he told me that Susan Sontag’s recent obituaries noted that it was Martin Eden that inspired her to become a writer.
“Before you ring off,” he said, pausing as if suddenly struck by the most important thing. “You gotta know that he did not commit suicide. There’s no evidence whatsoever.”
I had some concerns about Mike Wilson as Jack London. For one: Mike is fifty-six, and Jack died at forty. But when I asked Mike about this discrepancy, he indicated that the communion he felt with Jack was deeper than I’d guessed. “We are brothers in a understanding that transcends time and space,” he said. “Jack’s a good friend of mine. I understand him, and he would understand me. You see?”
We were down at the ruins of Wolf House, a haunting and sprawling foundation of lava-stone blocks. After the fire, London lacked the heart to rebuild. So the stones remain, two stories high in some places, hemmed in by the en- croaching redwoods that each year block a little more sunlight. Wilson told me that when he does his tours with schoolchildren, Wolf House is their favorite place.
“Dressing up like Jack is like being Santa Claus, man. Kids have this weird thing where they automatically tune in to you. They love the fantasy. The first time I walked out there, it took me probably five minutes to get hooked.”
Mike Wilson said he never asked for accolades. “There’s a whole lot of people in the world of Jack London that are beauty contestants. I’m not putting them down. Everyone has something they want to be. But I never set out to be recognized for Jack London.”
But what, then, drives him to keep doing it? Surely the small fees and acclaim of second-graders is not enough.
“Sometimes I’ll be doing this stuff and I become so choked up with emotion that I just come apart. Afterward I am exhausted. I have to struggle to drive home, and then I collapse. I give it every ounce I’ve got. Even my wife says: Oh my god, it’s my husband—but you’re Jack London.”
It was more akin to the channeling of a spirit—a talent the demurring Wilson was forcing me to take on faith. This leap was additionally hard to take when the only proof I had of Wilson’s London-impersonation skills were, well, less-than-glowing testimonials. A few years back, when the local newspaper teamed up with the park for a gala celebration, instead of Wilson they chose a younger man, a profes-sional actor from San Francisco. (“He was better connected than me,” Wilson told me. “He was on the inside track with the park people, while I’m just a guerrilla out in the weeds.”)
What’s more, I had asked two separate park rangers to recommend an impersonator. Both, apologetically, and asking that I not use their names, advised me to go with the other guy. And I was struck with a terrible fear for Mike Wilson: what if, despite his years of devotion and his depth of feeling—what if he’s not even very good at it?
And so, dreading what I might learn, I decided there was only one way to find out. I sensed that this warm afternoon in the redwood shade of Wolf House might be my only chance to feel the soul of Jack London channeled into the pres- ent. So I asked Wilson if he’d recite a couple lines from his act. Now was the time.
I held out the tape recorder, pleadingly.
In early 2005, the town of El Segundo, a middle-class suburb of Los Angeles, expanded its public library with two new reading rooms. The librarians proposed to name each room after an author and chose Agatha Christie and Jack Lon- don. Expected to rubber-stamp the choice, the City Council instead roared up in defiance.
“I’m also a great fan of Jack London. I read all his books as a kid,” said Councilman John Gaines, joining with Mayor Kelly McDowell to vote down the proposal. “But quite frankly, he was a world- renowned communist.”
“From the modern-day perspective, Jack London’s political views would not be seen as mainstream, certainly not in my community,” Mayor McDowell told the Los Angeles Times. “This is a conservative city with traditional values.”
While Labor may be correct that London is rejected by the elites who keep the canon, it’s true that London gets no quarter from anyone. Yes, aesthetes still deny him because he lacks the artistry of James or Faulkner: in a new introduction to John Barleycorn, Pete Hamill writes, “Hemingway was a great literary artist and London was not.” But those seeking didactic tracts are equally put off, not by London’s sometimes clumsy style but by his politics. While his life epitomized the rags-to-riches fable of American social mobility that might appease the Babbitts squawking for traditional values in their library books, London’s writings condemned that very myth. It’s hard to imagine a librarian at a Jack London Reading Room counseling a twelve-year-old on what exactly London meant when, in The Iron Heel, the swashbuckling and heroic Ernest Everhard tells the daughter of a capitalist:
[T]he gown you wear is stained with blood.The food you eat is a bloody stew. The blood of little children and of strong men is dripping from your very roof-beams. I can close my eyes, now, and hear it drip, drop, drip, drop, all about me.
And those on the left who might teach his vision of class struggle are stymied, too, vexed to explain to freshmen London’s worship of “blond beasts” or Martin Eden’s opinion of a “clever Jew” who represents:
the whole miserable mass of weaklings and inefficients who perished according to biological law on the ragged confines of life. They were the unfit. In spite of their cunning philosophy and of their antlike proclivities for cooperation, Nature rejected them for the exceptional man.
London’s political tracts have the uncanny ability to offend just about everyone. And once we exclude them, we’re left pretty much with the dog and sailor stories. In a letter written just after London’s death, H. L. Mencken assessed him with a clarity that eludes many modern-day admirers:
I have often argued that he was one of the few American authors who really knew how to write. The difficulty with him was that he was an ignorant and credulous man. His lack of culture caused him to embrace all sorts of socialistic bosh, and whenever he put it into his stories, he ruined them. But when he set out to tell a simple tale, he always told it superbly.
Turns out that these superb, simple tales hit a nerve that still tingles a century later.
But for the true believers, the best way to reconcile Jack’s contradictions is to ignore them. Consider this poetic passage etched on signs in Jack London State Historic Park:
I ride out over my beautiful ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine… I have everything to make me glad I am alive. I am filled with dreams and mysteries. I am all sun and air and sparkle.
These lines from John Barleycorn are taken wildly out of context.They are culled from a brooding chapter that begins “I am oppressed by the cosmic sadness that has always been the heritage of man” and pivots quickly toward morbidity:
And yet, with jaundiced eye I gaze upon all the beauty and wonder about me, and with jaundiced brain consider the pitiful figure I cut in this world that endured so long without me and that will endure again with out me.
Many of those interested in remembering Jack London at all prefer to remember him in a certain way. They want an optimist, imbued with that homegrown individualism that many Americans cherish and claim as their heritage. They want an up-from-the-bootstraps success story, a fatherless wharf rat who without a college education transformed himself into the richest author of his times. They don’t want him fraught with doubt and mired in half-baked philosophies. To admit that our hero despaired, was addicted, that he abandoned his wife and children, or that he may have taken his own life, is simply too much for the romantic image to bear.
The longing for a noble Jack London is a longing for youth, not just our own youth, but our country’s youth—that bustling, innocent era before the first World War, when America was a budding tree, an agrarian democracy with a booming industrial economy, before adulthood had required the sacrifices of the World Wars, before we’d assumed the yoke of responsibility for enforcing our version of democracy around the world, before our adventures in Korea and Vietnam and Iraq had cast doubt on the righteousness of the American experiment. It wasn’t that we were stronger then—it’s that we believed in our own virtue the way a young man does. We believed that all our fights were for our own survival. The Jack London of myth embodied that adolescent and robust America, and he died just as that America shipped its boys to Europe and began its century of adulthood, no longer a carefree provincial Eden but now a superpower, with all the requisite moral compromises.
We believe in Jack London out on the trail—frostbitten in the whipping wind, driving the dogs toward adventure—with the same fervor that we believe George Washington stood bravely on the bow as he crossed the Delaware. We don’t want him disillusioned and drunk, hunched over a typewriter, despairing the fate of modern man and powerless to mend it.
But to idealize London’s youth and to ignore his suffering is to lapse into nostalgia and to miss the point—and the power—of his best work. My favorite Jack London scene is in The Call of the Wild when Buck, the dog-hero who has been stolen from California and enslaved on a Yukon sled team, is rescued by a stranger. Buck’s current masters are a trio of tenderfoots whose sled is packed with unnecessary luxuries. “The wonderful patience of the trail which comes to men who toil hard and suffer sore, and remain sweet of speech and kindly, did not come to these two men and women.” Their frivolous load weakens their dogs and delays their arrival at a frozen river crossing where John Thornton, whittling an axe-handle, warns them that the ice is beginning to thaw. The driver ignores him, but as he whips the dogs, they won’t budge.Thornton continues to whittle. “It was idle, he knew, to get between a fool and his folly; while two or three fools more or less would not alter the scheme of things.” But as the driver keeps whipping helpless Buck, Thornton leaps up in animal rage. “‘If you strike that dog again, I’ll kill you,’ he at last managed to say in a choking voice.” Thornton thumps someone with the axe handle, cuts the dog free, and in six lovely lines, the fate of the sled party is settled:
Mercedes’s scream came to their ears. They saw Charles turn and make one step to run back, and then a whole section of ice give way and the dogs and humans disappear. A yawning hole was all that was to be seen. The bottom had dropped out of the trail.
John Thornton and Buck looked at each other.
“You poor devil,” said John Thornton, and Buck licked his hand.
Fate is administered not by God or government, but by an indifferent natural order.
The prospectors are not punished for their hubris; rather, they reap the natural consequences of their actions. Buck’s life is saved not by man’s charitable intentions or his own pluck, but by the spontaneous, irrational, and violent spasm of a stranger. Stripping away myths of justice, salvation, charity, and self-determination, London insists nonetheless that our decisions matter profoundly. They are all that we have. In London’s world, even those who sink hardly noticed to their deaths are afforded a certain dignity, and I’ve come to believe that this respect for his characters—this love, even—is what keeps his books alive in the hearts of those unaware that such earnestness has fallen from literary fashion, that inspires some African villager to toil rather than despair, and that has brought me on this pilgrimage to a dusty ruin with an aging hardware man for whom dressing up like Jack London is a transcendent act of communion. Free from the judgments he can’t resist in his political work, London grants his characters the freedom toward which all people, real and imagined, eventually strive: the freedom to love and dream, to fight and suffer, and the freedom to die.
“I don’t know how visionary you are,” Mike Wilson told me, “but I’m extremely visionary.” We were sitting on a shady bench not far from Jack’s grave, and Mike was telling me about the original stage musical he was writing.
My attempt to coax Mike Wilson into Jack London had not succeeded. He had smiled awkwardly and said he couldn’t just slip into the role at the drop of a hat. It required preparation. Later I realized that my request had been callow, as unrealistic as encountering a swami in an airport and asking if he wouldn’t levitate for me, just for a sec. It’s not that Mike Wilson wasn’t up to the task; the problem lay with me. I was somehow inadequate as an audience.
Instead, Wilson told how he was endeavoring to tell the story of Jack’s generation through song. So far, the draft well exceeded a hundred pages, with two acts and eighteen original songs. Most of the music came to him in a series of dreams he described as “biblical.” He recounted the first scene he ever dreamt, in which a young man and woman emerge on the deck of a sloop. They whisper to each other and then embrace, and kiss, and start dancing.
“They dance around the deck,” Wilson said. “They dance up and down the mast, and they dance out on the edge of the sail. It’s this beautiful waltz.” Wilson took off his glasses and quietly sang the melody that arrived in his dream. “La-da, da-da-da, la-da, da- da-da. They’re singing. It’s so beautiful, and my wife wakes me up and says, Honey, are you OK, and I’ve got tears running down my cheeks.”
Wilson slid his glasses back onto his face. From where we sat in the eucalyptus shade, we could see the September sun beating down on the brown hills. With that we headed back up the slope toward Jack’s and Charmian’s graves, where we would finish our tour. I wanted to know how he did it. How did Mike Wilson maintain the inspira- tion after all these years? While his hero had self-destructed through a brutal life of indulging all appetites, Mike Wilson seemed to be aging mellowly. Unlike Jack, he’d curbed his drinking. Unlike Jack, he’d kept a marriage and family together for three decades.
“The thing that I have, that Jack never really allowed himself to have,” Mike told me, “was a complete surrender to the fact that God is running the universe. He didn’t have the personal hope that a man of faith has. Because he never really believed. Jack understood every iota of it—just like my wife does. I’m a Baptist deacon. I’ve told her about it a dozen times to the point where she said, ‘Shut up, I don’t want to hear about it anymore.’
“I’m sure Jack had come to that same point with friends of his who were ministers. And they really wanted in their worst way to save their friend Jack, who was a great guy, but who couldn’t seem to make that reach. And you’re trying for all your worth, with all your heart, to get him to, to say, Jack, make the reach. But he wouldn’t do it.”
I would never learn how well Mike Wilson could impersonate Jack London. Maybe he was brilliant. Maybe not. In his own peculiar way he was plodding one step at a time toward Chilkoot Pass with the frozen wind in his face. Year after year, school group after school group, Mike Wilson, man of faith, reached deep inside himself to channel this drunken atheist.
“I focus my mind,”Wilson said. “I say a prayer to the Almighty, because He is a good friend of mine. And I say, ‘Hey, let me portray my brother well.’ He’s never let me down. And I come up with stuff that I amaze myself. When I actually put on the costume and am there with all the young faces, I’m Jack London. And I don’t pull any punches.”