Jack London's many sides emerge in James L. Haley's Wolf.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 15 2010 6:59 AM

Jack London's Dark Side

A new biography confronts the good, bad, and repellent.

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The United States has a startling ability to take its most angry, edgy radicals and turn them into cuddly eunuchs. The process begins the moment they die. Mark Twain is remembered as a quipster forever floating down the Mississippi River at sunset, while his polemics against the violent birth of the American empire lie unread and unremembered. Martin Luther King is remembered for his prose-poetry about children holding hands on a hill in Alabama, but few recall that he said the U.S. government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

But perhaps the greatest act of historical castration is of Jack London. This man was the most-read revolutionary Socialist in American history, agitating for violent overthrow of the government and the assassination of political leaders—and he is remembered now for writing a cute story about a dog. It's as if the Black Panthers were remembered, a century from now, for adding a pink tint to their afros.

If Jack London is chased forever from our historical memory by the dog he invented, then we will lose one of the most intriguing, bizarre figures in American history, at once inspiring and repulsive. In his 40 years of life, he was a "bastard" child of a slum-dwelling suicidal spiritualist, a child laborer, a pirate, a tramp, a revolutionary Socialist, a racist pining for genocide, a gold-digger, a war correspondent, a millionaire, a suicidal depressive, and for a time the most popular writer in America. In Wolf: The Lives of Jack London, his latest biographer, James L. Haley, calls London "the most misunderstood figure in the American literary canon"—but that might be because he is ultimately impossible to understand.

Wolf: THe Lives of Jack London.

London nearly died by suicide before he was even born. His mother, Flora Chaney, was a ragged, hateful hysteric who reacted to anyone disagreeing with her by screaming that she was having a heart attack and collapsing to the floor. She had grown up in a 17-bedroom mansion, but she ran away as a teenager and ended up joining a religious cult that believed it could communicate with the dead. She had an affair with its leader, William Henry Chaney, who beat her when she got pregnant and demanded she have an abortion. She took an overdose of laudanum and shot herself in the head with a—fortunately—malfunctioning pistol. When the story was reported in the press, a mob threatened to hang Chaney, and he vanished from California forever.

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When Flora delivered Jack in the San Francisco slums in 1876, Flora called him "my Badge of Shame" and wanted nothing to do with him. She handed him over to a black wet nurse (and freed slave) named Virginia Prentiss, who let him spend most of his childhood running in and out of her home. She called him her "white pickaninny" and her "cotton ball," and he called her "Mammy," no matter how many times she told him not to.

"I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak," he wrote years later. As soon as he left primary school, he was sent to work in a cannery, stuffing pickles into jars all day, every day, for almost nothing. For the rest of his life, he was terrorized by the vision of a fully mechanized world, where human beings served The Machine. The shriek of machinery pierces through his fiction, demanding that human beings serve its whims.

He didn't get a toothbrush until he was 19, by which time his teeth had rotted. London grew up into America's first great depression, slumping from one unbearable job to another. He shoveled coal until his whole body seized up with cramps. He tried to kill himself for the first time by drowning, but a fisherman saved him. He began to notice the legions of toothless, homeless men on the streets, broken by brutal work and left to die in their 40s and 50s. He responded, at first, with a cold Nietzschean individualism, insisting he would escape through his own personal strength and courage.

But in the despond of the depression, new ideas were emerging in America. London said they were "hammered in" to him, against his will: "No lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom."

When the tramps organized a march across America to demand jobs in 1894, London hit the road with them—only to be arrested at Niagara Falls for "vagrancy." When he asked for a lawyer, the police laughed in his face. When he tried to plead not guilty, the judge told him to "shut up." He was shackled and jailed for a month. London had always known the economic system was rigged against him, but now he came to believe even the law was rigged.

When he was released in 1894 at the age of 18, he began to deliver impassioned speeches on street corners, and soon he was on the front page of San Francisco papers as "the Boy Socialist," urging the workers to rise up and take the country from the robber barons.

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