.Jack London

London, his wife, Bessie Maddern London (top left), and his first love, Mabel Applegarth, in the College Park neighborhood of San Jose, at the Applegarth home, July 1901. Geoffrey Dunn Collection

In the years that followed, London hoboed across the country, was imprisoned in Buffalo for a month, returned to Oakland High School, dropped out, went back to try college at the University of California, then dropped out from there, too, before embarking on his remarkable, year-long venture in search of gold in the Klondike—on which he met up with the unforgettable dog from San Jose.

By the summer of 1898, he had returned to California from the Klondike, essentially broke yet determined to become a writer. His discipline was as unyielding as his ambition. He wrote 1,000 words a day. By the spring of 1900, London had already landed several of his stories in leading literary magazines, including Harper’s Weekly, The Atlantic Monthly and McClure’s.

In addition to becoming one of America’s most celebrated magazine writers, London had also become an ardent advocate for socialism. He had joined the Oakland chapter of the Socialist Labor Party as early as 1896 and had become a well-known regional figure on the stump for socialist causes.

Handsome and charming, athletic and robust, London was also exploring the complex dimensions of turn-of-the-century romance. He would later recall many of his early encounters with women in his two semiautobiographical novels, Martin Eden (1909) and John Barleycorn (1913). By the end of the century, he had fallen in and out of love with a fragile, middle-class beauty of English descent, Mabel Applegarth, on whom he would base the character of Ruth Morse in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden.

Although London’s most reliable biographer, Clarice Stasz, contended that Applegarth had “moved to Palo Alto,” in fact, the 1900 U.S. census confirms that she and her family had moved to San Jose, where London visited them often on bike rides and sailing trips down the bay.

By the spring of 1900, London had forged a peculiarly utilitarian view on love and marriage. He had developed strong feelings for a brilliant young Stanford student with socialist leanings, Anna Strunsky, with whom he was to write The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903), in which he declared that “I am not impelled by the archaic sex madness of the beast, nor by the obsolescent romance madness of later-day man.”

Indeed, London kept his romantic feelings for the Russian-born—and Jewish—Strunsky in check (it is believed that their relationship was never consummated), and in April of 1900, he announced with sudden notice that he was marrying the self-effacing and undemanding Elizabeth “Bess” Maddern, only a few months his junior and also a close friend of Applegarth’s.

Bess Maddern had been a platonic friend of London’s for the past three years and had tutored him in math for his university entrance exams. As Stasz has noted in her intriguing Jack London’s Women, both London and Maddern “acknowledged publicly that they were not marrying out of love, but from friendship and the belief that they would produce sturdy children.”

In what was probably a delayed honeymoon excursion, the newlyweds rode on their bikes to San Jose—where they visited the Applegarths—and later continued on to Santa Cruz where they enjoyed the sunny beaches and swimming holes of the San Lorenzo River.

A year later, when he arrived back in San Jose for his 1901 lecture at “the Normal,” London was all the more successful and confident, even if his marriage was not the utilitarian ideal that he had envisioned. He was also now a father, Bess having delivered the couple’s first child, Joan, in January (and they would have a second daughter, Becky, in October of the following year).

London kept up with his writing and also was busy on the political circuit. In March, he had run unsuccessfully on the Socialist Party ticket for mayor of Oakland, and had given a series of political lectures throughout Northern California.

His speech in San Jose began with London’s Darwinian conceptions of human evolution. “In this sternest of struggles, man [sic] developed the greatest variability, the highest capacity for adaptation,” he contended. “Thus he became the favored child of the keenest competition ever waged on the planet.”

It is generally acknowledged that London was a talented, if not exceptional, speaker. He had honed his oratorical talents on the soapboxes and street corners of the Bay Area (he had even been arrested for so doing in 1897), and public lectures would remain an integral part of his life.

One account of his oratorical skills noted that his “smile is pervasive, his voice charming.” Another asserted that his “smooth face is guiltless of lines, and his eyes twinkle with boyish enjoyment. … With a gesture that is familiar to those who have seen him on the lecture platform, the author shakes his tawny hair from his brow as he speaks, and he is a fluent talker, ready with his words, and uttering them in a voice as flexible as a child’s.”

In San Jose, London laid out his critique of the “competitive system” (a euphemism for industrial capitalism) by pointing out the waste of the “middleman” in bourgeois commerce (“the drummer classes”); the additional costs to the collective by the devices of private property (he speculated that the cost of fences in Indiana alone at “two hundred million dollars”); and the ineffective organization of shop keeping into small, family-owned units.

Some of what London argued seems naive and simplistic a century later. But his observation about the “aesthetic loss” promulgated by industrial capitalism was profoundly prescient in regards to public art. He accurately noted that the privatization of artworks kept them away from the masses.

Art, to be truly effective, should be part and parcel of life, and pervade it in all its interstices. It should be work-a-day as well as idle-day. Full justice should be accorded the artist of the period; to do this the whole community should enjoy, appreciate and understand the work of one who has toiled at creating the beautiful.

Within little more than a year, his marriage to Maddern would be in shambles, and the ensuing divorce and transition would be devastating to both parties. He had fallen in love with another woman, Charmian Kittredge, the niece of a close friend and five years older than he, and they would eventually marry in 1904, immediately after the contentious legal battles that dissolved his union with Bess.

London would emerge from this period—what he called his moment of “black moods … and black philosophy”—with the publication of The Call of the Wild, which set his writing career in rapid ascendancy but which also raised a small literary controversy here in San Jose.

In March of 1904, the Mercury‘s gossip columnist and cultural critic, known by the pen name “Dollyward,” complained after reading “three-fourths” of Call that “a feeling of drowsiness began to creep over me.” She charged that some of London’s “thoughts” were “decidedly juvenile” and that London had tried to “couch” his story in “language too deep” for the average reader.

The following week, a retort appeared by one “Rosalind,” who declared that The Call of the Wild was “one of the most beautiful literary works of modern times” and, who, in response to the critic’s proposition that London’s prose was “too deep,” chastised Dollyward “not to read the last quarter, my dear, … but confine your reading to Alice in Wonderland.”

The following year, in January of 1905, London returned to San Jose once more for a lecture at “the Normal,” where he delivered yet another socialist address titled “The Class Struggle.” The Mercury‘s society columnist Mira Abbott Maclay noted that the “brilliant young writer” delivered a “virile talk,” but as he was nearing his conclusion, he became irritated by the shuffling of rain jackets and umbrellas. “Just wait two minutes and then and I’ll be through,” he uttered, a perfectly delivered admonition that elicited a ripple of approval that turned into a spontaneous “burst of applause.” London was San Jose’s literary darling.

During the next decade and a half, London would compose more than 50 books and hundreds of essays and stories. He would become the most widely published and wealthiest writer of his era.

London died in November of 1916, at the age of 40, of causes that are still clouded in controversy. His death certificate identified the cause of death as “uremia,” but others have wondered what role he played in his own demise. He drank heavily for much of his life, and had taken to self-injections of pain-killers—strontium sulphate, strychnine and morphine, among others—to curb the physical anguish from a variety of ailments that plagued him in his latter years.

According to the Mercury, his many admirers in the Santa Clara Valley mourned his early death.

For all of Jack London’s truck with San Jose, however, his local legacy has remained cloudy, as both of the region’s attempted commemorations of his legacy have been founded on faulty history. Historic markers at both the Jamison-Brown House in Santa Clara and the San Jose Labor Temple on North Second Street in San Jose have contended that London wrote portions of Call of the Wild at each location. He did not. Both claims are myths.

My favorite—and certainly unchallenged—homage to London’s history in the region is in the Mission City Memorial Park cemetery on North Winchester Boulevard in Santa Clara. There is a family headstone with the name Appelgarth atop it and a simple acknowledgement of his first love Mabel, buried with her parents and never to marry, who passed away at the age of 41 in the winter of 1915, a year before London did, both dying long before their time.

Writer and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn is the author of ‘The Lies of Sarah Palin’ (Macmillan / St. Martin’s) and is currently working on a book about George Sterling, Jack London and the Bay Area Bohemian scene in the early 20th century.


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