Time to Honor San Francisco's Controversial Literary Son Jack London

Time to Honor San Francisco's Controversial Literary Son, Jack London

By Jonah Raskin

Just weeks after his shocking death, The San Francisco Examiner ran an article, on December 14, 1916, entitled "The Mysterious Disease that Killed Jack London." The author, Dr. William Brady, noted that, "Jack London, the most original and forceful, novelist of our day, who has just died suddenly at the age of 40, is stated to have been the victim of uremic poisoning."

In fact, four doctors gathered at London's deathbed. One of them, Alan Thomson, who lived in Sonoma County not far from London's Beauty Ranch, concluded that the author died of an overdose of morphine, which he had injected into his own veins to keep his pain at bay.

Thomson claimed that when he arrived on the scene he found a piece of paper on the night table that contained calculations for a lethal dose of the drug. When three other doctors including London's personal physician arrived the story promptly changed.

A few scholars have suggested there might have been a cover-up.

Jack London's mysterious death has never been solved, though that hasn't prevented fans from snapping up his books and turning him into a literary god.

One might say that Jack London is busting out all over and more so now than ever before. On the 100th anniversary of his death, on November 22, 1916 at the age of 40, faithful readers are celebrating his dramatic life and his best selling books, including The Call of the Wild, and The Sea-Wolf, which begins in San Francisco Bay and that features a local writer and sissy named Humphrey van Weyden who is reborn a he-man on a schooner in the Pacific.

London aficionados are coming out of the woodwork every which way: from Oakland, which boasts Jack London Square, to Glen Ellen, home of the Jack London State Historic Park, and all the way up to Dawson City in the Yukon, where as a young man he prospected for gold and collected yarns he turned into stories about life and death itself.

The only major place on the London map that hasn't jumped on the bandwagon is San Francisco. That's surprising since he arrived in the world, near the corner of Third Street and Brannon in a house that burned down in the 1906 earthquake and fire. London himself documented that cataclysmic event with black-and-white photos he took with an early Kodak.

He also wrote about the 1906 earthquake and fire in a riveting account entitled "The Story of an Eyewitness" that was published in Collier's magazine and that ends on a note of hope: "The bankers and business men are already set about making preparations to rebuild San Francisco."

The city of San Francisco has what no other place has: a plaque that reads, "To mark the birthplace of the noted author, Jack London, January 12, 1876." The California Historical Society placed it there in 1953. On the website "Found SF," historian John Trinkl wrote that, as a "life long socialist, London would find it ironic that his birthplace is now a bank."

He added, "but then his whole life is full of contradictions."

London had a contradictory relationship with San Francisco. While he loved its nightlife and its restaurants, he often described it as a dark, menacing place that gave him nightmares.

In turn, the city has had a complex relationship with its famous literary son. In 1901, when he first went to work for The Examiner, the paper hailed him as a "young man who has made fame for himself and California in the world of letters."

London's first piece for The Examiner extolled the power of the battleship, the S.S. Oregon, which had just steamed through the Golden Gate. "Ah, yes, tomorrow, when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, we shall beat our Oregons into automobiles and electric railways; but today it were well that we look to our Oregons and see that they may be many and efficient," he wrote.

Part Bernie Sanders and part Donald Trump, Jack London called himself a socialist, but he also wanted to keep immigrants out of the United States and wrote about "The Yellow Peril," as he called it, and warned about the rising power of China and Japan and the threat to the hegemony of the U.S.A.

After London's death, his body was sent by railroad from Glen Ellen to Oakland for cremation and a funeral ceremony attended by close friends and family. Then, George Sterling, the poet and lifelong friend, brought London's ashes back to Glen Ellen where they were interred in the ground, a sacred spot for readers of his books.

No memorial service was held in San Francisco, the city that birthed him and that helped to shape his development as a writer.

Curiously, the City by the Bay consigned London to a kind of literary limbo from which he has never entirely escaped. Unwilling to grant him unconditional love, and at the same time unable and unwilling to ignore him completely, San Francisco has held him at a distance and yet never disowned him.

In an obituary published in 1917 in The Masses, the San Francisco literary luminary, Anna Strunsky, compared London to Emile Zola and described him as a genius. She also observed that, "He believed in the inferiority of certain races and talked of the Anglo-Saxon people as the salt of the earth and inclined to believe in the biological inferiority of woman to man." That perspective, which has never gone away, has counted against him.

Then, in 1937, Irving Stone, in a fictionalized biography titled Sailor on Horseback, argued that London committed suicide. To this day, scholars are still hard at work combatting Stone's allegations and arguing that London died of natural causes.

The most recent biography by Earle Labor -- who has devoted his entire life and career to the rehabilitation of the author of The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden and 50 or so other books -- casts London as an American original who deserves to be included in the Pantheon of great writers. Perhaps so, but that's an uphill battle.

As a Californian, a socialist and a popular writer for slick magazines, the East Coast literary elite has never accepted London as a major writer on a par with Henry James and Edith Wharton.

By the time that London arrived on the scene at the end of the 1890s -- and wrote for San Francisco's premiere literary magazine, The Overland Monthly -- the city had already fallen in love with Mark Twain. Twain had fallen in love with the city by the Bay. In 1864, he noted that the San Francisco's Occidental Hotel, where he slept and ate, was "Heaven on the half shell." Oysters were Twain's not so secret vice.

London never saw San Francisco as a heavenly place. After all, he was born on a back street and out-of-wedlock to a single mother who was at her wit's end when her son arrived in the world. London's biological father, William Henry Chaney, abandoned his common-law wife, Flora Wellman, after she refused to heed his command to abort the child she was carrying, and whom she named John Griffith Chaney.

One might call Jack London a "bastard son of San Francisco."

A sensational account of the events that took place between Wellman and Chaney near Brannon and Third Street was published in The Chronicle on June 4, 1875. The Chronicle also carried an announcement of her son's arrival in the world on January 12, 1876, though the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the record of his birth, along with thousands of others.

When Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London, she promptly renamed her son. Before long, he dubbed himself Jack as a way to declare his independence from his stepfather. For his entire life, he published under the name Jack London and achieved fame early on with short stories about the arctic. Later, he would immortalize the tropics. He went from one extreme to the other and not surprisingly wrote, "I always was an extremist."

Still, for all his ambivalence about San Francisco, London wrote some of his best work about the city's geography, history, culture and its colorful characters especially in and around the Bay itself. Tales of the Fish Patrol, published in 1905 the same year that he gave an incendiary talk titled "Revolution," celebrates the men on both sides of the law who made a living as fishermen, pirates and law enforcement officials.

Perhaps the best place to begin to explore London's San Francisco would be Martin Eden, the 1909 novel about a sailor who, like London himself, becomes a famous author. Curiously, Martin Eden, the anti-hero, commits suicide by going out to sea and sinking beneath the waves.
London also wrote about his own experiences in and around San Francisco in the memoir John Barleycorn, in which he recounts his bouts with the demon alcohol.

In two brilliant short stories, "The Apostate," which is dark and menacing, and "South of the Slot," which is charming and upbeat, he created two memorable Bay Area characters: the boy Johnny who rebels against his mother and runs away from home; and Freddie Drummond, the Berkeley professor, who rejects his academic career and his socialite fiancé, travels across the Bay, joins the revolution and runs off with a socialist.

"Old San Francisco, which is the San Francisco of only the other day, the day before the Earthquake, was divided midway by the Slot," London wrote in the opening sentence of "South of the Slot." A writer who was profoundly divided, he drew upon his own emotional and psychological divisions to make his art. Moreover, he explored the divided nature and personality of the city itself.

On the 100th anniversary of his death, young readers who would like to learn about Jack London might turn to his San Francisco-inspired works. Die-hard fans might reread the books that brought them joy as youngsters.

Jonah Raskin is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution and the author of Burning Down the House: Jack London and the
Wolf House Fire of 1913.