If he had been born in 1976 instead of 1876, Jack London would be a prime target for a reality TV show. Certainly his pretty boy good looks and slightly bad boy reputation, along with his globe-combing exploits, would have made him tantalizing fodder for an entertainment press that adores a handsome rogue with both brains and brawn.
He-man and lady’s man, London even in his day was an object of admiration by both sexes, with a sizzling celebrity that he cultivated and that went far beyond his success as a best-selling writer.
A century after his death, he still draws ardent fans and scholars whose fascination for his writings, his politics, his magnetic persona and the many mysteries around his birth, his life and his death can border on obsession.
“We’re like Trekkies,” says Roberta Worth-Feeney, who was captivated by London even as a child, rediscovered him in midlife and now, at 60, finds herself caught up in a world of like-minded London followers who endlessly debate the smallest details about his life, his ideas, his writings and his legacy.
“We have a listserv, and someone will post some fact that someone has overlooked and we will correspond throughout the day. Every little thing we uncover is thrilling,” she said. “He’s really the gold standard for all things, even surfing and sports writing. He was so prolific and had such a variety of interests it’s hard to not identify with him, no matter what you’re doing in life.”
And, she sneaks in, “it doesn’t hurt that he was so attractive.”
Worth-Feeney is a biologist who works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency with a particular interest in London’s environmentally-sensitive farming practices. Every two years she attends the Jack London Symposium, a gathering of the London faithful — including many academics and scholars — who mine his works, his voluminous personal letters and papers, thousands of photographs, biographies and other research materials in search of clues to a man they know will remain an enigma.
London’s life was so large, his success so improbable, his writings so prodigious, his views so subject to interpretation that the true London is unknowable. The case will never be closed.
And that is what fuels his followers. The legions include Beat author Jack Kerouac, who said he was inspired to become a writer after discovering Jack London at age 17. His rambling 1957 classic “On the Road” was inspired by London’s 1907 memoir, “The Road,” about his time tramping the trains as part of a march on Washington of unemployed workers during the 1894 depression.
“The faithful just worship the ground he walked on. There is nothing wrong with that. It gives them something they love and enjoy doing and knowing about and nursing,” said Sue Hodson, curator of the literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, which houses the world’s largest collection of Jack London letters, manuscripts, ephemera and photographs.
“Charmian, Jack’s second wife, knew anything related to Jack London should be saved. Bless her for it. She’s the reason there is so much,” Hodson said. “Before her, Jack didn’t save a thing.”
Tending to the Huntington’s literary collections is her day job. But after 36 years, it seeps into her personal life. She spends her evenings and weekends doing her own research, sometimes to the chagrin of her husband. She’s currently working on a scholarly paper tracing London’s nonfiction study of the destitute “People of the Abyss” in the city of London’s East End through several great writers up to the contemporary travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux.
“What keeps me engaged is his connection with people, his humanity,” she said. “I’ve been particularly interested in his writing on poverty. He could reach people in a direct and personal way. People who read his stories and novels know he’s speaking to them. They find in him a kindred spirit.”
People come to London, as one scholar put it, from “many rooms.”
Cecilia Tischi, a professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and author of the book, “Jack London: Writer’s Fight for a Better America,” is drawn to London’s fight for social change and economic justice for the underclass.
“He’s different from other reformers in one crucial way,” she said. “His fiction could move the heart as well as the brain. Whether he was writing about children toiling or wage earners who could not make ends meet, he could touch the hearts and minds of upper class readers who had their hands on the levers of power to change things.”
As a young woman, Tischi worked in a unionized glass factory in West Virginia and relates to London’s defense of exploited American workers.
“He was the rock star of his era,” said Tischi, who has written a play about Jack London called “The House that Jack Built” that will be performed by Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse in September.
Richard Skull, a docent at Jack London State Historic Park, has been hooked since his mother brought him to the park’s opening in 1960 when he was 6. Within a year, inspired by the “romanticized life” of London, he had written more than 60 short stories of his own.
His passions kindled by London’s quest for adventure in “The Road,” he traveled the U.S. on a Greyhound at 13 and by 19 had visited 20 countries. A former faculty member at Humboldt State University, Skull has a particular interest in London as a sports writer and hosted a sports talk show, devoting two programs to London.
London, he said, “established many of the metaphors and tropes still used in sports media today and gave the genre a greater respectability and acceptance.”
There are two major organized groups of followers, “The Jack London Society,” which is comprised predominantly of scholars, and “The Jack London Foundation,” which is devoted to literacy and education and which sponsors an international writing contest for youth.
David Schlottmann has been attending the foundation’s banquets, held every year around London’s Jan. 12th birthday, since its founding in the 1970s and puts out an annual newsletter tied to the Sonoma event.
The retired accountant from Olympia, Wash., also is a collector, combing auctions, antique stores and eBay for whatever he can find. He has been in pursuit of Jack London since 1966 when, as a teenager, he shelled out $15 for a bibliography of London works, the start of a lifetime of collecting. He has several canceled checks signed by London and a shelf of three-ring binders filled with more than 500 different custom first-day covers of the 25-cent Jack London postage stamp. It was first issued in Glen Ellen in 1986 thanks to the dogged efforts of the ultimate London fan, Russ Kingman.
Charged with promoting Jack London Square in the late 1960s, Kingman became obsessed and devoted his later years to researching one of Oakland’s favorite sons. Fan central was his World of Jack London Bookstore in Glen Ellen, where he was a conduit for collectible books and London memorabilia.
He retraced London’s 40 years on more than 65,000 index cards, now housed in the Foundation’s research center in a mobile home in Sonoma. His meticulous recording, down to the minutiae of what London may have eaten on a given day, resulted in a definitive time line and a pictorial biography. He even provided a home by the bookstore for London’s youngest daughter Becky Fleming to live in during her last years.
Raleigh Peterson, a retired cop who grew up in Richmond, in the mid-’90s began regularly riding his motorcycle up to Glen Ellen to visit Kingman and the Shepards, descendants of London’s stepsister Eliza, who inherited the ranch when Charmian died in 1955. He remembers the precise moment when he was bit by the London bug.
He was a teenager, killing time in a parked car, enthralled with Irving Stone’s biography of Jack London, “Sailor on Horseback.” Fifty years later, he’s no less besotted, not only by London but by his “Mate-Woman” Charmian.
“She was like the total package for a guy,” he said. “She wanted to please Jack, but she was true to herself. She wasn’t pretty, but she would dress and create an air about her that men couldn’t resist.”
The Shepards maintained Jack and Charmian’s effects, but grand-newphew Milo Shepard, who oversaw London’s copyrights and literary legacy, often gave special totems to serious acolytes. He gave Peterson an engraved spoon that belonged to Charmian, several original bookplates with London’s signature wolf drawing and some beads the Londons brought home from The Marquesas on their celebrated cruise on The Snark.
“I live vicariously by holding this stuff,” Peterson said, “and imagining.”
Jay Williams is among a cadre of scholars who have devoted their careers to the study of Jack London. He edits a literary journal published by the University of Chicago and has just completed the second of a three-volume work, each some 700 pages, analyzing everything London ever wrote in chronological order. He spent last year holed away at the Huntington six days a week.
He has been at it for more than 30 years and, at 61, has not run out of enthusiasm for his intellectual quarry.
And even after initially rejecting all the debate about London’s murky birth, his drinking, his politics, the burning of the Wolf House and his mysterious death, Williams has come to embrace him and all his contradictions.
“We love that about Jack,” he said. “He lived so large and his flaws were so huge. In fact, everything about him was huge. He lived out loud.”
Worth-Feeney said the London well is bottomless for his fans and followers. “At the symposium, we sit around drinking wine and talking about Jack and the various people surrounding him. You’d think we actually knew these people and they were our group of friends. We all could talk for days.
“I don’t know why,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s all very exciting.”