February 19, 2018

Jack London's Cash Flow

On this day in 1913, the flamboyant and very American Jack London wrote a letter to six of the most famous writers of the day -- a list which included Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells -- to ask them what rates they were paid for their "stuff." Fifteen years earlier, London had been a beginning writer with a stack of over 400 rejection slips skewered five feet high on a wire in his room. He was now a prolific, best-selling author, but it had been a decade since The Call of the Wild, and "Wolf" had a voracious lifestyle: a custom-built ketch for his round-the-world voyage; a 1400-acre "Beauty Ranch" in the Sonoma hills for the utopian agricultural community he was developing; a nearly-completed mansion, "Wolf House," and a policy of extending hospitality or hand-outs to all; a taste for venture capitalism, and the instincts of Mark Twain for hopeless schemes. London's own estimate was that he needed $100,000 a year to keep his projects, his philanthropy, and his personality going.

He would die ten books and not quite four years later, aged forty-two. At times he would say that he was worn out by use and disaster, but at other times he would rejoice that "my old-time punch" was still there. This was writing punch now, not the kind that lay behind telling Ambrose Bierce, just a few years before, "I'll tie your breastbone in knots if you start anything," or telling a California judge, in a letter reprinted across America, that "someday, somehow, somewhere, I am going to get you." Both of these taunts were drinking-related, and he continued to drink – less than before, though more than the hardly-at-all described in John Barleycorn. This autobiographical novel was the biggest hit of his last books, and the toast of the Prohibition movement for its chronicle of imbibing too much "white logic." The book also elegizes London's physical decline in golden, Buck terms:
    My lean runner's stomach has passed into the limbo of memory. The joints of the legs that bear me up are not so adequate as they once were, when, in wild nights and days of toil and frolic, I strained and snapped and ruptured them. Never again can I swing dizzily aloft and trust all the proud quick that is I to a single rope-clutch in the driving blackness of storm. Never again can I run with the sled-dogs along the endless miles of Arctic trail.
His wife, Charmian London, also elegizes the golden years and the full life in her two-volume, The Book of Jack London:
    In many minds, I am sure, still lives the vision of the hale, big-hearted man of God's out-of-doors, the beardless patriarch, his curls rumpled, like as not the green visor unremoved, pattering with that quick, light step along the narrow vine-shaded porch, through the screened doorway and the length of the tapa-brown room to his seat in the solid red koa chair at the head of the table. "Here comes a real man!" was the prevailing sentiment. How he doted upon that board with its long double-row of friendly faces turned in greeting, ever ready with another plate and portion! . . . And perhaps, while we fell to our portions, before his own was tasted he would read aloud newspaper items or newly received letters; or he might launch out in a fine rage of his eternal enthusiasm, upon some theme that claimed him, or strike into argument, whipped hot out of his seething brain and heart. . . .

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