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Part I of a Series
IN 1997, I began a thorough reading of Jack London's short fiction, all 197 of the stories in the three-volume The Complete Stories of Jack London, edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard (Stanford University Press, 1993).
Naturally, I had read all but about a dozen of the stories before; a hundred or more I had read and re-read over more than a half-century of interest in Jack London and all his work. But my 1997 readings were especially thorough -- each story "studied" and notes taken on each. I read slowly. I had my own writing to do to make a living, and I didn't finish the stories until the summer of 2000. By then I had 125,000 words of notes.
My aim in this effort was to see what I could find about Jack London's progress as a writer by reading his short fiction in its true chronological order (that is, when he wrote them rather than when they were published). I do not mean to say I expected to be able to gain some elevated literary insights from these readings. I am not trained for this and happily leave such exercises to the academicians who are presumed to know, and often do know, what they are doing. My intent was much simpler: I wanted to watch Jack London climb the ladder from the ranks of the hopeful amateur to the pinnacle of his profession (all in the astonishingly short space of a decade and a half) and learn something about how he learned his craft.
I studied the short fiction because I believe London's true métier was the short story. I see him as an uncomfortable novelist, that form too long for his natural impatience and the quickness of his mind; see him squirming over his novels and their requirements: a huge cast of characters to keep sorted out, an intricate plot with elements of suspense and action, long descriptive passages, long passages of time, pages of dialogue, and some meaningful denouement -- all requiring artful cohesion.
His novels, even the best of them, are hugely flawed. Martin Eden has tedious, repetitive passages. Much of the dialogue in The Sea-Wolf ranges from the impossible to the unlikely. The Valley of the Moon is burdened by the inertia of its plot and its wooden characters. Burning Daylight falters almost fatally after Elam Harnish departs the Klondike for the mean world "outside." The Iron Heel has rich and powerful moments but devolves into too egregious a socialistic preachment. White Fang, while often energetic and poetic, is overwritten and would have been infinitely better at the length of The Call of the Wild -- that oxymoronic "long short story." And no honest reader of London's novels needs to be reminded of the quality of Adventure, Little Lady of the Big House, A Daughter of the Snows, Jerry of the Islands, Michael, Brother of Jerry, The Mutiny of the Elsinore, and Hearts of Three.
(London's short novels have always seemed to me to work better than his longer ones: The Call of the Wild, Before Adam, The Scarlet Plague, even The Game, The Abysmal Brute, and Cruise of the Dazzler, seem better crafted because they are novellas -- that no-man's land between story and novel. And, shoring up my notion that he was more comfortable in the short form, consider: The Star Rover, that magnificent experiment, is actually a series of short stories connected by a unifying device, Darryl Standing, the San Quentin prisoner who experiences these out-of-body adventures while bound in a strait-jacket in solitary confinement; Smoke Bellew is a series of stories bound together in a novel-like form by their reappearing protagonist, Kit Bellew; and John Barleycorn, which is not really a novel at all but a strange mating of a partly true, partly fictional, autobiography, and a temperance treatise, is a synoptic series of short episodes.)
“...London's true genius lay in the short form, 7,500 words and under...”
Thus, it seems to me, London's true genius lay in the short form, 7,500 words and under, where the flood of images in his teeming brain and the innate power of his narrative gift were at once constrained and freed.
His stories that run longer than the magic 7,500 generally -- but certainly not always -- could have benefitted from self-editing, the kind of drastic cutting recommended by the editor of Black Cat who in 1898 spoke of London's "A Thousand Deaths" being "more lengthy than strengthy."
"Planchette," written and published in 1906 at just over 16,000 words, is a 3,500-5,000-word story with a pituitary condition while "An Odyssey of the North" (1900), at 10,000 words, is perfection. (Significantly, London had cut 2,500 words from the original version at the insistence of the Atlantic Monthly.) Close to "Planchette" length is "Wonder of Women," published in two parts(Cosmopolitan, May-June, 1912), when one would have done nicely. Other London stories running at 10,000 words or over are: "The Story of Jees Uck" (The Smart Set, September, 1902); "The Wit of Porportuk" (Times Magazine, December, 1906); "Finis" -- published as "Morganson's Finish" (Success, May, 1907); "Goliah" (Bookman, February, 1910); "The Seed of McCoy" (Century, April, 1909); "The Devils of Fuatino" (Saturday Evening Post, 29 July 1911); "The Mexican" (Saturday Evening Post, 19 August 1911); "By the Turtles of Tasman" (San Francisco Call Monthly Magazine, 19 November 1911); the Smoke Bellew story "The Town-Site of Tra-Lee" (Cosmopolitan, April, 1912); "The Red One" (Cosmopolitan, October, 1918); "On the Makaloa Mat" (Cosmopolitan, March, 1919); "Shin Bones" (Cosmopolitan, November, 1918); "The Kanaka Surf" (Hearst's Magazine, February, 1917); "Like Argus of the Ancient Times" (Hearst's Magazine, March, 1917); and "The Princess" (Cosmopolitan, June, 1918).
Which of these deserved their uncommon length is a purely subjective matter but personally I am I'm glad "The Mexican," "The Red One," and "Like Argus of the Ancient Times" are as long as they are while the others strike me as examples of wordiness: Jack London writing long for a bigger paycheck.
(Subjectively, I except "By the Turtles of Tasman" from my too-long list. I've always loved this romantic story. It strikes me as a poignant reflection of how Jack London saw himself in 1911, a time when his own lifetime, like that of his hero, Tom Travers, was running out. In the dying Travers I think Jack saw himself: smoking his brown-paper cigarettes, drinking his cocktails, going on picnics, clambakes, parties, and moonlight sails on the bay with his similarly gregarious friends. The strange men who came to visit Tom Travers -- some "with the reminiscent roll of the sea in their gait"; others "black-browed ruffians"; others "fever-burnt and sallow" soldiers of fortune, adventurers, freelancers of the world -- were the kind of men London knew and admired. And Jack, a notoriously soft-touch when it came to a meal and a few dollars for a grubstake for such vagabonds, had heard many times their "projects and propositions" -- a new guano island in South America, a nascent Latin American revolution, Siberian gold chases, prospecting the placer benches of the Upper Kuskokeem -- when he welcomed them to visit him at Wake Robin Lodge. And, Tom Travers's brother, Frederick, is the paradigm of the man London loved to caricature: rich, conservative, Puritannical, abstemious, colorless, "seriously groomed." He was a man who made fortunes in railroading, newspapers, salmon-packing, an oyster monopoly, a lumber combine, a man who dabbled in politics, had been president of the chamber of commerce and a state senator, and is considered a prime candidate for higher office -- in brief, a wealthy politician whose marriage, even, has been one of "policy.")
It was important to me to be able to read the stories in the order they were written and for this I owe an unpayable debt to the Labor-Leitz-Shepard volumes, among the greatest contributions to London studies ever conceived. Publication dates, while useful in bibliographies, are misleading in studying a writer's progress. In London's case, for example, "The Unmasking of a Cad," written in 1899, was not published until 1911; "The Grilling of Loren Ellery," also written in 1899, appeared in print in 1912; "Chased by the Trail," written in 1900, was published in 1907; the classic "Samuel," written in 1909, appeared in the Bookman in 1913. There are numerous other examples of stories that waited several years before publication.
(The best worst example of lag-time between the writing and the publishing is "The Devil's Dice-Box," written in 1898 and not published until 1976!)
Another benefit of the Stanford volumes was the information, when available, on story length -- that is, the "word-count."
I am accustomed to word-counts. (This article is 2,357 words long.) Professional periodical and book-writing requires it. Most magazines specify "word length," meaning how long an article or story they can accommodate, and book publishers gauge the physical size of a book -- and very often the sum of money paid to an author -- by the word-count of a manuscript. The common word-length of a magazine article runs from 2,500 to 5,000 words; short fiction, given much more latitude than nonfiction, from 2,500 to 7,500 words. The common length of a novel is 90,000-100,000 words.
(The Call of the Wild, at under 25,000 words, is thus either a very long short story or a very short novel, what publishers, usually with a sneer, call a "novelette" or a "novella." In London's day, as now, short novels were anathema to literary agents and publishers. They were difficult to sell, and were most often cleverly disguised as full-length novels and sold at the same price as a full-length novel, by increasing the type size, widening the margins, and using thicker paper. Look at Macmillan's treatment of The Game for an example of this.)
Jack London was word-count-conscious from the beginning of his career, lived by a "thousand words a day" credo, and urged this "stint" on the young writer-hopefuls who sought his advice. A thousand words is between three and four typed pages which may not sound like much of a day's work but the London "stint" is deceptive. His thousand words had to be good words, sellable, publishable words, and a thousand good words may have been the product of five thousand mere words, cut, added, rewritten, honed to sharpness, and polished to a shine.
Supreme professional that he was, London knew the word-count specifications of the magazines he wrote for, those who paid "by the word," and those who offered flat fees for works that met their word-length specifications. In June, 1906, as he prepared for the Snark voyage to Hawaii and the South Seas, he wrote to Albert Lee, managing editor of Collier's, one of the most prestigious magazine "markets" of the day. Lee offered ten cents a word for articles on the Snark voyage, a good rate for an established writer of the time. London responded: "I turn out each morning a thousand words of fiction. For this fiction I receive, American serial [magazine] rights, from ten to twenty cents per word....Now, it stands to reason that if I get paid far less for a news story than for a piece of fiction, that I'll do the fiction and let the news story slide....You paid me five hundred dollars for a 2,400-word earthquake story ["Story of an Eyewitness," Collier's, May 5, 1906] -- that is over double the rate of ten cents per word you now offer me."
In the end London agreed to the ten-cent word-rate but Collier's later increased it to fifteen cents.
In his introduction to The Red Hot Dollar and Other Stories from the 'Black Cat' (1911), London wrote that in his salad days he read in a Sunday supplement that "the minimum rate paid by the magazines was ten dollars per thousand words." Then, he wrote, he had an experience with "the magazine founded by Bret Harte" (the Overland Monthly). He sent a 4,000-word story, "To the Man on Trail," to the magazine and received notice from the Overland editor that they would pay $5 for it -- $1.25 per thousand words instead of $10 per thousand. ("That I did not die right there and then convinces me that I have a singular ruggedness of soul," London said of this in his 1903 essay, "Getting Into Print.") Then, in the same mail with the $5 news, The Black Cat offered him $40 for the 4,000-word story, "A Thousand Deaths," and ask permission to cut the story in half. "Give permission!" London wrote. "It was equivalent to twenty dollars per thousand, or double the minimum rate. Give permission! I told Mr. Umbstaetter he could cut it down by two-halves if he'd only sent the money along. He did by return mail."
It is instructive to see, as his craft improved, his celebrity grew, and his knowledge of the freelance "markets" increased, how his paychecks rose accordingly.
Skipping past the early Overland Monthly contributions, for which London had to threaten the editors to extract that $5, the rise in his fortunes is seen in his sales to national magazines.
"The God of His Fathers" (McClure's, May, 1901) is a 6,000-word story for which London received $120.00. Two cents a word.
The imperishable "To Build a Fire" (Century Magazine, August, 1908), ran 7,235 words in length and the check was for $400. Five-and-a-half cents a word.
The perishable "Captain of the Susan Drew" (San Francisco Call, Semi-Monthly Magazine, 1 December 1912) was a 7,374-word tale for which London received an astonishing (for a newspaper payout) $1,000. Thirteen-and-a-half cents a word.
(Compare this to "Which Make Men Remember, San Francisco Examiner, 24 June 1900. When he submitted it, London asked for a moderate four cents a word -- this early in his career he was shrewdly suggesting a word-rate. He got $40. A bit over a penny a word for the 3,800-word story.)
As to the aforementioned "Planchette," this bloated 16,000-worder London submitted to Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, Ainslee's, Frank Leslie's, Metropolitan, and Everybody's magazines before Cosmopolitan (June, 1906) kindly took it off his hands and payed $1,573 for it. Ten cents a word.
As late as 1913, London was corresponding with other professional writers asking for confidential information on what they were being paid for what number of words.
Copyright © 2002 by Dale L. Walker