Jack London’s Electric Ghost

In a glass case at an historic northern California stone house lie pages of a typed manuscript by Jack London. I was struck by the lack of revisions. Only a few hand-scribbled pencil marks stood out on the otherwise clean sheet. The stone house was built by London’s wife, Charmian, after her husband’s death. It’s now a museum, dedicated to one of America’s great writers.

And why so few revisions on the manuscript? Was Jack London such a natural writer that essentially he didn’t make mistakes or need to revise? Or perhaps I was looking at a nearly finalized sheet after its predecessor pages had been scratched up and discarded. One thing is certain: London was a prolific writer. But how could a person with such an enormous literary capacity and the ability to monetize it die of alcoholism at age 41?

Jack London churned out 28 books, some masterpieces (and some not), before his death 1916. He traveled the world from Australia to the Klondike, fueling his creative tank with experiences from which he extracted rich prose. London logged time as a hobo, cannery worker, oyster pirate, and also fish patroller for the state of California. He was raised working-class; his stepfather was a farm worker. (His biological father abandoned the family before London’s birth and later denied paternity.) London excelled in self-promotion, and was one of the first American writers to amass a fortune. However, he firmly rooted himself in working class values and became an avid socialist. Herein lies the dilemma, according to many biographers, of the author’s discontentment.

The novel, Martin Eden, was written when London was 34, and critics consider it one of the author’s best. It is the partially autobiographical story of a man who rises into the celebrity class, yet still identifies with his working class upbringing. Martin Eden, the protagonist, finds himself unable to cope with conflicting personal and societal values and commits suicide at the height of his fame.

Eleven years before his death, London began buying tracts of land near Sonoma, which he eventually consolidated into his Beauty Ranch. The ranch was his passion, and he once commented that the primary reason he wrote books was to finance it. The museum in the old stone house has an eerie silent film clip of the author. His electric ghost awaits visitors, and animates at the press of a button. A laughing London tries to contain an armful of squirming piglets. One would never guess that the vital man in the film would be dead within days.

In 1911 London and his second wife, Charmian, started construction on a ranch home they had dreamed about even before they were married in 1905. Adjusted for inflation, they spent the equivalent of more than two million dollars. But before they could move in, the place burned down. As he watched the blaze, London bemoaned not the loss of money, but the loss of beauty. After the fire he continued to travel and write despite deteriorating health. Finally in 1916 he died “suddenly” of acute kidney failure.

And what about the lack of revisions on the manuscript in the glass case? Charmian London was an accomplished typist and editor. A measure of her husband’s success and enormous literary output can be attributed to her skills and devotion. Undoubtedly, she had a hand in polishing the manuscript.