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Finally, the necessary permission from the State Department was granted. The train ran along the coastline of the Pacific. The ocean was on our right. It was calm, quiet. The mountain range was to the left of us. The mountains were at times angular and chaotic and, at other times, grand and triumphant, crossed by deep shadows. The mountains rushed to step aside, opening to us a view of valleys with singular houses and small beds of fertile land. Here, everyone struggled with nature for her resources. Damp land could bring people generous harvests of subtropical fruits: citrus fruits, avocado, and olives.
Not far from there, behind the mountain range, a wide valley stretched from North to South. Jack London and his contemporary writer, Frank Norris, wrote about this valley. Both wrote with sadness about a place that symbolized conditions of life characterized by scarcity. They both wrote with great respect of those who strained their backs in hard labor and who gave their lives to an unequal struggle with capitalism. I crossed the hollow on the way back. Our train traveled without any stops. From my window, I saw a valley bathed in sunlight, wheat fields, rare towns, and a few houses — one or two houses with buildings for cattle and chickens and sparse groups of trees.
The train rushed through towns with houses, big and little, some wretched hovels. The train passed a "one-storied America." This was not an America that impressed tourists. This was an America where her workers lived: those who tilled the soil and sowed grain as well as those who produced smart machinery and splendid bridges. The train brought me to one of the largest cities in the world: Los Angeles. It was obvious that Americans enjoyed everything in superlative form: the biggest, the best, the only, and the unique. The best beer was being advertised together with the best shaving cream and dishwashing detergent. A gigantic poster advertised "incredibly fresh meat." While traveling, one discovered that the best beer in the world was "Schlitz." Then, ten miles down the road, a girl smiling from a big sign told everyone about the best beer in the world, "Ambassador." Again five miles later, there was another sign saying: "You are lucky you live in America: you can drink 'Lucky Lager'!"
In making use of the superlative to describe Los Angeles, Americans were also creative. While talking about L.A. they included all the neighboring towns and regions that have their own names and claimed self-sufficiency. One of those little towns was San Marino, where the Huntington Library is located.
I stood in the park of Huntington Library. Magnolias were blooming with their huge white candles; fragrant roses flamed in the shade of gigantic palm trees. Light green cacti stood stretching their needles outward under the burning California Sun.
The library, built in antique style, stood in a bed of green grass surrounded by scattered palm trees and numerous bushes. The grass and bushes would have died long ago were they not watered properly, three times a day, by a sprinkler system delivering lifesaving water.
An irony of life: manuscripts of a socialist writer ended up in the library founded by the railroad magnate, Henry Huntington. Philanthropy is not a rare phenomenon in the United States. Those clever capitalists who were lucky enough to earn millions had contributed many hundred thousands of dollars to the founding of museums, libraries and theaters. Such investments saved much of their earnings from taxation. Newspaper magnate, Hearst, for example, financed the building of Greek Theater at the University of California-Berkeley, while oil king, Rockefeller, gave money for the International House, also located at Berkeley.
Henry Huntington amassed his wealth by the hard labor of workers brought from China to build railroads. He then donated part of his estate and a portion of his income to the art gallery and the library that collected unique works of American, British and German literature.
I immersed myself in London's papers. I read his business correspondence and letters to his friends. I looked through manuscripts of his novels, stories, sketches, notes, unscrambling his remarks. There were letters to Mabel Applegarth, written before London became a famous author, expressing his dissatisfaction with himself. Then, more letters — tender, defensive attempts to justify himself, written to his daughter Joan ten years after his separation with the family. "You don't come to see your father; you do not love him. . . ." And there were letters to Charmian—long and filled with passion.
Carefully, I turned the yellowed pieces of paper, which described and more episodes of the writer's life. I ran across a request from a New Zealand socialist to grant permission to publish The Iron Heel. London's notebooks gave a careful account of where and when he sent his works. Often, he worked on the returned manuscripts using the editors' recommendations. In other cases, he just put the returned manuscripts into another envelope and sent them to a different publisher, to another magazine. According to those notebooks, in the first five years of his writing career London's works were rejected 664 times. Works that told about the life of the poor were the ones that received the most negative criticism. Such masterpieces as "An Odyssey of the North" and "Love of Life" had been returned to London more than once. "The Story of Keesh" was rejected 16 times. "Love of Life" traveled from one magazine to another for almost two years. Imagine what great faith in himself and incredible persistence this man must have had!
I saw piles of documents in the library — more than 70 boxes. Some had not been sorted and organized. I worked with 2-3 boxes at a time, but still could not look through everything. I went through letters to the readers, friends, to the poet George Sterling. There was a response to a young writer, Cloudesley Johns, who supported London's talent. Johns compared London to the Russian writer Turgenev. There was another interesting piece of information: from a letter to George Sterling dated November 16, 1910, I learned that one of the stories included in London's selected works, "The First Poet," was written by George Sterling. Sterling asked London to publish that story under his name because he, Sterling, was unable to get it published himself. I read London's correspondence with Sinclair Lewis. This was how I learned that Lewis, before becoming a famous writer, sold his plots for stories to London. London used those ideas in writing his novel The Abysmal Brute and in his stories "The Prodigal Father" and "Winged Blackmail." Also, here, among others, I found a letter to the prominent English author, Joseph Conrad. It was an enthusiastic response to Conrad's works. I went through hundreds of letters written to London by his brothers-in-arms in the cause of socialism. Some praised London's works; others asked for a critical response to their writing, and still others invited him to speak on a certain topic. Many asked for advice. Frequently, London's responses began with a warm greeting: "Dear Comrade!" and concluded with "Yours for the Revolution." London was especially active in the years of 1905-06, which was at the rise of the Russian Revolution. After the bloody events of January 9 1905, London, with the Socialist Party Leader Eugene Debs, addressed Americans with a request to support Russian Revolutionaries and to collect funds for them. London tried to raise an interest among young people in Socialism and in the events in Russia. "Russian Universities," he said in his speech at the University of California-Berkeley on March 20, 1905, "are firing up flaming with the Revolutionary spirit. And I tell you, university students full of life, men and women, this is the thing for you to do. This is the deed for your romantic aspirations. Wake up! Answer this invitation for action!"
I held in my hands an issue of Socialist Voice dated March 25, 1905. It was London's article in that publication which eventually became a preface to a collection of non-fiction works, War of Classes. On a page with classified ads, under a big photo of the writer, I read: "Jack London will lecture in Alhambra Theater (San Francisco) Sunday, April 16th at 8 p. m. Topic: 'Revolution!'" A week later, the same ad was published once more, and then again in another issue. This ad continued to run in the publication until the day of the lecture. Then, following London's appearance at the Alhambra, there were articles about the success of the lecture. Two weeks later, a new ad about another speech appeared. This time, London was to read from his then-unpublished books. In July of 1905, the mayor of Oakland, California refused to renew the permit for organized street meetings for the Socialist Party. On July 22nd, The Socialist Voice published a letter from London, in which the already famous writer expressed his readiness to be arrested if this would help fight the outrageous decisions of the government.
I happened to find an outline of a lecturing tour London had done at the end of 1905. He toured about ten cities telling people about the Russian Revolution and the growing number of socialists all over the world. At a Business Club meeting, he declared: "The Revolution is here, now! Stop it who can!" He referred to Russian Revolutionaries as his brothers, which caused an angry backlash from the bourgeois press.
I read in one of the publications that London was elected President of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. London signed the Address by Friends of Russian Freedom Society, which actively supported the Russian Revolution of 1905, and joined its Executive Committee. It was in that time that he wrote The Iron Heel. However, the publisher, afraid for his life, did not dare to publish it. London assumed all responsibility for its publication. In a courageous letter, he declared that he was ready to spend six months in prison to get this book published: "There, I'll write a couple more books and will have plenty of time to read."
After reading The Iron Heel, revolutionary activists saw a social utopia and an accurate forecast of Fascism that the world would face three decades after the publication of this book. The Iron Heel was an example of a political novel. It has whole, distinct characters, emotional tremors, exposing the flaws of the existing social order, and tragic pictures of a crushing defeat of the revolutionary movement. The novel still presents a relevant issue: dangers of totalitarian society.
Naturally, I grew interested in the writing modus of the writer; in the way he produced his works. Usually, Jack London did not have a particular outline for his novels and stories. He made short notes on the topic and wrote down certain features of a particular character. Often, he would get some elements of the plot from articles he had read earlier. London would cut out an article he hoped to use in the future and clip it with a pin to the piece of paper with notes on the topic. Then, he would sit down at the table and develop the plot into a larger work.
The writer was convinced that poetic inspiration did not exist. Instead, everything was achieved by hard work. He did not write rough drafts, did not rewrite or revise his writing. He took his time and wrote slowly and thoughtfully. Among his manuscript drafts, it was uncommon to find words that had been crossed out. The only time London edited his manuscripts was while typing them on a typewriter. However, with time, he rarely did any of the typing himself. Most of the later editions and corrections were made by Charmian.
London had a very exact understanding of the nature of fiction writing. "Don't write that a company treats people in a certain manner or that it cheats them in a particular way," suggested London in his letter to Cloudesley Johns. "Let the reader look at the question through the mentality of characters, through men's eyes." London rejected the theory of "art for art's sake," which urges a writer to worry about the form of a work and not its content. On the other hand, he thought that even the most humane motives and ideological content did not justify a poor literary form. The best works of Jack London, such as "The White Silence," "Love of Life," "The Apostate," "The Mexican," the novels The Call of the Wild and Martin Eden, were characterized not by the outside richness of form or embroidery of adventure, but by the inner intensity of action and drama of the conflict through which a character revealed his or her true qualities, strengths, and weaknesses. The writer always tried to portray a person in the extraordinary and often extreme, critical moments in life.
An element of tragedy was essential to London's style. He was convinced that the strength and magnificence of the greatest works of world literature depended on the existence of tragic and fearsome elements. Only about half of the world masterpieces talk about love. And, even in these, the true value comes not from love itself, but from what is tragic and fearsome about love. Only extreme experiences touch the very depths of human nature. It is for this reason that we remember Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Paolo and Franchesca. London also gave as an example the terrifying stories of Edgar Allan Poe. London wrote in detail on this topic in his article "The Terrifying and Tragic in Fiction" (1903).
Oftentimes, the facts from the author's biography, edited and fictionalized, became the beginning of a plot. Examples of such works were those that talk about the days of his wanderings all over the United States. In his short sketch "Pinched," the writer told of his arrest and unjust conviction. In the tale "The Pen," he wrote about a month-long imprisonment in an American prison. The story "Confession" belongs in the same category of writings.
London's novel Martin Eden was autobiographic in many ways as well. A number of his sea stories were also based on personal experience. London's first published story, "Typhoon off the Coast of Japan," and other stories like "The Run Across" and "That Dead Men Rise Up Never" reconstructed the episodes and experiences of a 17-year-old Jack. With detailed exactness, these works described his first experiences of being a sailor during his trips into the Pacific. On the first page of the manuscript of Martin Eden, which I saw at Huntington Library, the title was written in pale ink by someone else's hand. The text of the manuscript was written by London himself in his distinct manner with black ink. This fact, not important in itself, actually had a logical explanation. In a note to the editor, Jack suggested three variants: Success, Star Dust, and Martin Eden. The publisher chose the most neutral. London entered into polemics with the "business novel," which spread the fame of entrepreneurial success. The hero perished in the end. Thus was the fate of the artist in a capitalist society.
London wanted to devise a cycle of stories that would trace the various stages of the history of human society. Among them would be books about the Middle Ages, class conflict, the future, and interplanetary flight.
Mr. Hansen, curator of manuscripts, brought me the burned manuscript of The Sea-Wolf, which burned in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake. Wolf Larsen, who symbolizes evil, perishes in his attempt to force his will on crew members. Unlike Melville, London was opposed to individuality.
While in Los Angeles, I learned that the writer Upton Sinclair lived nearby but I was unable to see him as he was in the process of moving out of the state. I also established that the article "Revolution" was written in 1905, not in 1908. This article supported the first Russian Revolution of 1905.
When Maxim Gorky visited the United States in 1906, he spoke favorably about London. He said, "Soon the time will come for the great masterpieces of progressive literature. Jack London will be honored for giving a start to this new tradition. "Similarities between London and Gorky's lives and their literary works were evident now more than ever. Both writers had a difficult childhood, spent in need and hard labor. Both experienced a period of wanderings and years of self-education. Finally, both, under the influence of particular circumstances, turned to socialist education.
Both of them read romance novels about strong, wonderful heroes. Later on, the two writers were describing lives of people on the very bottom of social hierarchy, which come to us in the form of such books as On the Bottom (Gorky), The People of the Abyss (1903) as well as books Mother and The Iron Heel (1908). There was an incredible coincidence in the publication dates of these works.
London introduced to American literature the spirit of contemporary social and scientific problems. To the question of whether London was popular in Russia, Gorky replied: "Very much. He exerts a huge influence on Young Russia."
Copyright © 2004 by Vil M. Bykov