Shakespeare at 400, Jack London at 100: Genius Lives

In William Shakespeare's comedy, "As You Like It, a traveler named Jaques waxes poetical in lines that have achieved literary immortality.
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In William Shakespeare's comedy, "As You Like It, a traveler named Jaques waxes poetical in lines that have achieved literary immortality.

"All the world's a stage," he says. "And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts."

Three hundred years later, Jack London, another melancholy traveler, might well have spoken nearly the same lines and meant them to be about himself. Indeed, he once observed that he had half-a-dozen different "selves" and proved it in a short, brilliant life that spanned the end of the nineteenth and the start of twentieth century.

A writer, vagabond, sailor, farmer, public speaker, playwright, playboy, war correspondent, and a Bernie Sanders-like socialist, Jack London was born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco in 1876. He died in Glen Ellen, California in 1916 at the age of 40. (London ran for mayor of Oakland twice and twice lost.)

Around the world this year, theatergoers and thespians, are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 1616, his age unknown.

There's another big literary anniversary afoot, as well. In 2016, fans of Jack London, one of the most popular American authors of his day, are celebrating the 100th anniversary of his death.

Both anniversaries are well worth celebrating.

Indeed, if Shakespeare's plays illuminate the Elizabethan Age better than the plays of any other writer, Jack London's novels, including "The Iron Heel," illuminate the Gilded Age and its aftermath better than most of the novels of his contemporaries, including those of Henry James.

To many, it will sound like hyperbole, but to the faithful London was the Shakespeare of his day. Like the Bard, he wrote tragedies as well as comedies.

Like the Bard, he was exceedingly prolific; in 17 years be wrote more than 50 books. Like Shakespeare, he created immortal character: Buck, the dog who devolves into a wolf; White Fang, the wolf who evolves into a dog; Wolf Larsen, the brutal sea captain who reads Shakespeare and analyzes his most famous character, Hamlet.

There's also Martin Eden, the sailor who becomes a famous writer. And perhaps London's best character of all: himself. As the literary critic, Alfred Kazin famously observed, "the greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived."

For one hundred years, biographers have tried repeatedly to capture his elusive identity and to fix the nature of his nature as well as the nature of his art. Dozens and dozens of biographies have been written about him, including "The Mystery of Jack London" by his friend Georgia Loring Bamford.

Rose Wilder Lane beat Bamford to the typewriter. "Life and Jack London," her fictionalized biography, in which she borrows from Jung and Freud, appeared in "Sunset Magazine" in eight installments in 1917 and 1918.

More biographies are on the way; conferences are forthcoming.

Biographers know more about London than they do about Shakespeare; thousands of London's letters survive, along with voluminous documents, though as in the case of Shakespeare there's no known birth certificate. With London as with Shakespeare mysteries abound.

Fans may never know all they would like to know about London's biological father, William Henry Chaney, his mother, Flora, or what it meant to be a white boy raised as he was in the Bay Area's African American community by an African American ex-slave named Virginia Prentice.

The evidence suggests that London felt like an orphan in the world and that he also had an abiding fear of falling into a kind of abyss, both physical and psychological, that derived in part from the poverty and emotional insecurity of his early years.

London himself embraced mystery and in his best work produced poetry worthy of Shakespeare. "Men, mere motes of light and sparkle," he wrote in "The Sea-Wolf," "ride their steeds of wood and steel through the heart of the mystery, groping their way blindly through the unseen."

Like the archetypical man that Shakespeare's Jaques describes in "As You Like it," London was "Jealous in honor, /sudden and quick in quarrel,/ Seeking the bubble reputation."

One hundred years after his death, the bubble hasn't burst yet.

Jonah Raskin is the editor of "The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution."

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