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The World of Jack London


By Lou Leal

Lou LealTHE OPERA, “Every Man Jack” was an event full of great performances by cast and musicians. Unfortunately, the libretto fails badly in depicting Jack London, the man. The opera would have been more accurately titled “Scenes From John Barleycorn,” for all it does is paint Jack London as a man drinking his way through life and dying of alcoholism. For most of the people who attended the performance, and who know very little of London's life, the opera will only add to the myth that he succumbed to alcohol.

Jack London's intent in writing the book John Barleycorn, aside from making money, was to help prevent young men of America from going down the path he had gone. In his book, London describes himself as having been a chronic drinker in the past, and is writing now in full control of his drinking. London began writing the book while sailing for five months from Baltimore to Seattle. During this period he consumed no alcohol and said he had no craving for it.

In writing about a real person I believe that the writer has the responsibility to do the proper research to avoid a one dimensional representation of that person. The opera was a non-stop drinking binge from beginning to end. The real man, Jack, who was depicted in the opera as staggering through life, actually wrote 51 books in his last seventeen years of life. He also spent almost two years sailing through the Pacific on a ship he helped design. He wrote many essays, delivered countless speeches, traveled widely, and began what was to be his greatest focus in life, the building of his Beauty Ranch, a model farm which at the time was at the cutting edge of agricultural development. This was Jack, the man, not the myth shown on stage.

In the past, the writer who did the most damage to London's image was Irving Stone with his Sailor On Horseback. Stone melded fiction with truth to add more impact to what started as a biography, but was quickly subordinated to “A Biographical Novel” in the second printing. Stone wrote that London had committed suicide without having any hard facts to back this conclusion. Because of this countless people around the world, even to this day, believe that London did indeed take his own life. The facts, for those who investigate, include London planning his next ranch projects on the night before he died, along with writing a letter to his eldest daughter informing her that he would get together with her and her sister before leaving on a trip to New York. This letter rested on his table ready to mail on the morning he was found in a coma. This information does not support the theory of suicide.

I have spent the last ten years interpreting Jack London history to visitors at Jack London State Historic Park. Dispelling myths has been part of my work. With this recent opera performance, and what has appeared in newspapers concerning the opera and “the dark side of Jack London,” I think that I will be extra busy for awhile.

This review appeared in the Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and Kenwood newspapers. Lou Leal is a Sonoma resident and a docent at the Jack London State Historic Park.
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