What’s worse than watching your dream house burn down? Jack London could answer that: Having leprosy or some disease unknown.
By April 1909, it had been two years since Sonoma County had heard much about its most famous adopted son. New novels still appeared every year, but they weren’t being written around here; Jack and his wife, Charmian, were on a round-the-world “honeymoon” cruise on his 42-foot ketch-rigged sailboat, the Snark.
London had commissioned his custom-designed sailing ship not long after they were married in 1905 and happily settled in Glen Ellen. Construction took over a year, and their launch was further delayed for a few days when the Snark was impounded until an invoice for about $250 was settled. It was a trivial matter but it drew the attention of the Press Democrat, which penned an April 23, 1907 editorial implying London was trying to ship out without paying his bills: “Jack London failed to get away on his much advertised voyage Sunday as per printed schedule, a number of rude and unappreciative tradesmen having libelled [sic] his little vessel at the last moment for goods and supplies furnished. London appears to have the true literary disregard for things commercial….” Why the PD chose to give London such a nasty and unnecessary send-off is anyone’s guess.
Much has been told about the voyage of the Snark; both Charmian and Jack later wrote more than one book about the adventure. Little appeared in the news for the next two years except small items that the ship was overdue in Hawaii, and a few months later feared lost because it was more than a month late arriving in the Marquesas Islands. These false alarms aside, there were serious problems on the Snark that went unreported. It ended up as a hospital ship, with Jack London as its extremely enthusiastic and extremely unknowledgeable doctor in residence.
This chapter of London’s book “The Cruise of the Snark” is gruesome reading. While they were in waters around the Solomon Islands, everyone including London became seriously ill with something or other. A few had malaria, one of the crew with the deadly form known as blackwater fever; festering lesions and yaws were common, which London treated by wrapping wounds in a painfully-burning poultice made with mercuric chloride. When that ran out, he experimented treating injuries with boric acid and Lysol, but kept no record of what and how much of the toxic chemicals were used to treat anyone, including himself. Many believe this exposure contributed to his early death.
The deciding factor to end the voyage was when his arms and hands turned silver colored and the skin roughened and began peeling off. Fearing he had contracted an usual form of leprosy, they headed to Sydney, Australia for medical care, where London spent the first months of 1909. Doctors there reportedly said nothing in the literature described his condition, which included bizarre symptoms; he wrote later, “There were times when my toe-nails, in twenty-four hours, grew as thick as they were long.” Later, doctors presumed that his condition had been a combination of psoriasis, pellagra and malaria, but more recently it has been noted that his many symptoms fit a diagnosis of lupus.
Hoping that a return to California sunshine would provide a cure, he and Charmian departed on a tramp steamer after selling the Snark. News that London had abandoned his quest in less than two years brought cheer to the Press Democrat, which sneered in an I-told-you-so editorial: “The undertaking had an unpromising look from the start…It may have been, and probably was, the discomfort of his quarters that affected the stories he wrote while on his unfinished cruise; for they were certainly far below his previous standard.”
But while the ship with Jack and Charmian aboard was approaching the U.S., London discovered he was being accused of plagiarism. The trouble arose over his latest novel, “The Iron Heel,” about a dystopic future ruled by a super-wealthy oligarchy called, um, the “Oligarchy,” that believed in the “Divine right of Capitalists” (London larded it on thick at times). In chapter seven, the character Bishop Morehouse makes a speech denouncing the hypocrisy of the church for neglecting the poor while spending lavishly on itself. After the novel appeared, Irish journalist Frank Harris wrote in the London weekly “Vanity Fair” that the Bishop’s speech was almost a word-for-word copy of a piece he had written in 1901 for a humor magazine. Harris demanded a portion of London’s profits from the book.
London’s defense was, yeah, he had plagiarized, but he didn’t know anything about this Harris guy – he believed he was exposing an actual confession of pious guilt by the real Bishop of London. He stated the essay was found in an American newspaper where it was published as fact. “I was what we call a sucker,” London responded in a letter to the weekly. “But Mr. Harris, instead of gaily crying, ‘Sucker!’ gravely cried, ‘Thief!’…The laugh is on me. I confess to having been fooled by Mr. Harris’s canard.”
Many papers nationwide published something on the controversy, as London was such a popular figure. Almost all garbled the story badly, often in ways to incriminate London for his socialist leanings: He supposedly called himself a sucker for being caught in the act; that he believed he had the right to rip off the work of others; that he actually had plagiarized a speech made by the real Bishop of London. The local Santa Rosa Republican offered an oddly clueless defense that every writer plagiarizes, by accident or no. (In this era the Press Democrat – and especially the Republican – were shamelessly cribbing stories from each other.)
The controversy was forgotten by midsummer, but from posthumously published correspondence we learn that the matter wasn’t over. Harris called him a liar and demanded an apology for the plagiarism, while London demanded an apology for being called a liar. The feud didn’t even end when London died seven years later, as the bounder Harris wrote widow Charmian to claim the last word. Nice fellow.
Sick as he still was, Jack London was never a man lacking optimism, and now his focus was upon building a grand lodge. While on the steamer back to America, he wrote a friend in Glen Ellen, and the PD summarized the letter: “Upon his return he expects to carry out some notable improvements on the place, among them being the erection of a fine home for himself and wife…” What would be called “Wolf House,” of course, burned down as soon as it was completed, destroying that dream as well.
A chapter ends, a new chapter begins. The Press Democrat’s attitude towards London would soften after 1909, as he began establishing himself as a respectable local farmer and rancher. London wrote more about the Valley of the Moon and dipped into his Sonoma County life. Take this snippet of casual dialogue from “Burning Daylight,” the novel he wrote after returning from the voyage: “Say, it’s only twelve miles to Santa Rosa, and the horses are fresh…We’ll cut across by Bennett Valley…it’s nearer that way.” It’s a throwaway line that would be cut by most editors, although for those of us familiar with that landscape it evokes strong images of place. But even if the reader doesn’t know Sonoma from Sonora, Mexico, it works because the words are real, and something you can imagine he said a thousand times. More than anything else, what Jack London wrote was authentic.
(Obl. Comstock House connection: London and Wilson Finley, father of Helen Comstock, were drinking buddies, according to family legend.)
Jack London has just been charged with misappropriation of literary goods. Some such accusation has been made against London before, and it maybe that he is not over-squeamish as to where he gets the material out of which he weaves his tales. Yet this indiscriminate browsing about occasionally in other people’s fields is an imperfection from which few who write for fame or bread are free. All that there is to write about has been worked over and over again by generations of writings until there is nothing left that is not old and hackneyed. In fact there are no new ways of even treating old subjects any more. What a gullible public takes to be originality is only a clever and not very close imitation of that quality. In short, originality consists in being able to conceal the fact of your not having any. And this practice of rehashing goes back a good long distance, if we are to believe Kipling’s jingle verse, which tells how
“Homer smote his blooming lyre and sang from sea to sea.
And the stuff he used he went and took the same as you and me.”
This, of course, is done unconsciously, or rather subconsciously. Many a man exultantly proclaims to the world what he thinks is a new as slang, but which was in fact discovered for the thousandth time by some person whose carcass the very worms have had for years and years and years.
But this phase of plagiarism, if plagiarism it be, is universally indulged in, and hence a legitimate thing. The plagiarism, however, that is plagiarism, is the theft of another’s style or to put it more euphoniously, the copying of somebody else’s words verbatim without the acknowledgment of them by quotation marks. This is the one unpardonable offense that a writer can commit.
[..]– Santa Rosa Republican editorial, April 17, 1909
Jack London has abandoned his cruise of the southern seas, which had been planned to fill seven years. The undertaking had an unpromising look from the start. A twenty-five foot vessel is a small craft for any ocean voyage that is to last more than a day or two. London is an experienced sailor, and ought to have known better than to imagine he could live seven years in such a space with several other companions, and preserve enough of comfort and peace to make literary work possible, It may have been, and probably was, the discomfort of his quarters that affected the stories he wrote while on his unfinished cruise; for they were certainly far below his previous standard.– Press Democrat editorial, April 29, 1909
JACK LONDON WILL BUILD FINE HOMEWill Make a Number of Improvements on His Place Near Glen Ellen–Johnson Gets Letter.
Thomas Johnson, the well known resident of Glen Ellen, has received a letter from his old-time friend, Jack London, the novelist. During Mr. London’s long absence abroad he had sent Mr. Johnson frequent communications telling of the progress of his travels abroad.
The latest news Mr. Johnson has received comes from Panama, where London has been visiting for sometime on his homeward trip to this country. He expects to return home about July 1.
As is well known, London owns some land near Glen Ellen, which he purchased from Robert Potter Hill. Upon his return he expects to carry out some notable improvements on the place, among them being the erection of a fine home for himself and wife and several cottages for friends. He will also build a $5000 reservoir and pumping plant on the farm. London is very much infatuated with the beautiful Sonoma Valley. Near Glen Ellen is “Wake Robin Lodge,” the country home of Mrs. London’s aunt, Mrs. Ninetta Eames, herself a writer of some note. Upon their return to this state Mr. and Mrs. London will spend a considerable portion of their time on their place near Glen Ellen.– Press Democrat, June 3, 1909