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"South of the Slot" (Saturday Evening Post, May 22, 1909), written in the South Seas early in 1909, seems quaint after passage of a century but its socialist message of labor vs. scabs and monied interests, and the "class cleavage of Society," had some punch in its time and remains worthwhile today.
(Arthur Calder-Marshall says the story shows the split in London's nature, the conflict between the call of the wild and the domestication of civilized man seen in terms, not of the dogs Buck and White Fang, but of an academic sociologist and a militant trade union leader, combined in one person. See Calder-Marshall, The Bodley Head Jack London, Vol. I; London: The Bodley Head, 1963).
The slot, the iron cable-car crack along the center of Market Street in Old San Francisco from which "arose the burr of the ceaseless, endless cable that was hitched at will to the cars it dragged up and down," was a physical and symbolic metaphor. North of this "slot" were the banks, theaters, hotels, the shopping district and business houses; south of it lay factories, slums, laundries, machine-shops, boiler works and the "abodes of the working class."
Freddie Drummond was a courageous professor of sociology at the University of California who worked both sides of the Slot. He crossed over to the labor-ghetto south of the slot for six months and there wrote The Unskilled Laborer, hailed everywhere as "almost as immoral as the far-famed and notorious 'Message to Garcia,' whilst in its pernicious preachment of thrift and content it ran 'Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch' a close second."
(Here London writes tongue-in-cheek. There was nothing "immoral" about "A Message to Garcia" by Elbert Hubbard, published in his magazine The Philistine in March, 1899, and later as a pamphlet that sold an astonishing 40 million copies world-wide. This brief preachment praised an exploit in Cuba in the Spanish-American War in which a U.S. Army officer, Andrew S. Rowan, volunteered as courier to carry an official message deep in the jungle to an insurgent general, Calixto Garcia. Hubbard celebrated Rowan's unquestioning obedience to his army superiors, "the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer...The world cries out for such: he is needed, & needed badly — the man who can carry a message to Garcia." And, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, published in 1902, was a best-selling novel by Kentucky writer Alice Caldwell Hegan about a poor Kentucky family with a collective heart of gold and a nearly unintelligible hillbilly dialect.)
Drummond was a freak among workers at the Wilmax Cannery for working too hard. He was beat up for making the others look like sloths; malingerers despised him, and as a result he slowed down and studied the art of shirking. He had few friends, disdained tobacco and beer, was inevitably correct in comportment and dress, had a strong handshake and sincere blue eyes. He earned a doctorate in sociology at age 27; he was not a deep thinker — his prose was dry and dead — and therefore was able to write and publish such leaden works as Mass and Master, The Fallacy of the Inefficient, Women and Work, and Labor Tactics and Strategy.
Below Market Street Drummond became known as "Big" Bill Totts (not "Big Bill" Totts but "Big" Bill Totts), who smoked, drank, fought, danced, liked girls and late hours and saloons, hated scabs, was class-conscious, was a dues-paying member of the Longshoreman Union, and ate sausages and bacon. They were two different creatures, Drummond and Totts, with desires and tastes and impulses running counter to one another.
Drummond realized his dualism would have to cease, that he could not continue as both personalities. In this he became further convinced after he, as Totts, met Mary Condon, a fiery Irish strike organizer, and fell in love with her. Hereabouts the story gets murky and even more highly improbable, but basically Freddie Drummond realized that if he did not get married, Totts would and so he, Drummond, woo'd and won Catherine Van Vorst, a college woman whose wealthy father served as head of the Philosophy Department of an unnamed university.
Still, Freddie could not quite shake off the "call of the underworld" and had to pay one last visit south of the slot as "Big" Bill Totts. There he met Mary, treated her to oysters and kissed her on the lips.
In the months that followed, with San Francisco torn by labor strife, Freddie devoted himself to Catherine. With the wedding two weeks distant, she picked him up in in her brother's chauffeured motor car and whisked him away to visit a club. At Kearny and Market the car was stopped by a mob of strikers, scab laborers and policemen. In this worrisome situation Freddie Drummond became Totts, the bellicose union working stiff, and leaped into the fray, fighting the cops protecting the scabs, and had his scalp laid open for his efforts as Catherine fell faint at the riot and sight of blood.
In the end Catherine saw a woman throw her arms around Bill Totts and kiss him on the lips and watched as the two walked down the sidewalk laughing and talking, arm in arm, crossing Market, crossing the Slot, and disappearing into the labor ghetto.
There were no more lectures by Freddie Drummond, no more books, but there arose a new labor leader, William Totts, married to Mary Condon, President of the International Glove Workers' Union No. 974.
"The Sea-Farmer" (The Bookman, March, 1912) made the rounds of 21 periodicals before finding a home with The Bookman and a small $75 check to the author. This story, and two of his best and most memorable tales — "Samuel" and "A Piece of Steak" — were written in May, 1909, during the voyage of the Tymeric, "a rusty leviathan of a Scotch collier," as Charmian London described the vessel. They were making their way to Guayaquil and Quito, Ecuador, and on to New Orleans and home after ending the Snark adventure. "We were forty-three days on this passage," Charmian wrote, "seeing land but twice, and upon two successive days; first, fair Pitcairn Island of Bounty fame, on the southernmost edge of the far-flung Paumotus whose northernmost edge we had skirted when westward-bound; and next, the low isle of Ducie, its tropic scents of blossom and cocoanut borne out across the water on the warm breeze."
The Tymeric was commanded by Capt. Robert Mcllwaine of Newcastle, New South Wales, and, Charmian wrote, he "proved a mine of interest to Jack, who wrote a brace of his most thoughtful stories, 'Samuel' and 'The Sea Farmer' (in The Strength of the Strong) from notes made from the canny skipper's yarns. I worked up a County McGee, North of Ireland, vocabulary for Jack, often reporting the quaint speech under the table at meals. The Skipper caught me at it, I know; but he continued generously unabated in reminiscence."
“There was bug seas thot time.”Actually, it was very likely this "quaint speech" of Charmian's invention that proved a hindrance to a quick sale of the story. Jack's slavish adherence to the dialect requires the reader to pause and mentally translate it to English. Thus, when Captain Donald MacElrath returns home to Ireland after farming the seas for twenty years, lastly as skipper of the Tryapsic, a 3,000-ton cargo ship, he is garrulous with stories of his experiences on the seven seas and tells them in a dialect that has no respect for vowels: "There was bug seas thot time. They was uncreditable bug. And thot buggest one dud the domage. . . .Thungs was lively for a but. Ut finished the mate. He was on the brudge wuth me, an' I told hum tull take a look tull the wedges o' number one hatch. . .I was fuggerin' maybe tull heave to tull the marn."
MacElrath is a North-of-Ireland Irishman, a Presbyterian of the Island McGill "where seven thousand of his kind lived in such amity and sobriety that in the whole island there was but one policeman and never a public house at all." He never liked the sea, merely "wrung his livelihood from it," the same as a mill or shop. "Romance never sang to him her siren song, and Adventure had never shouted in his sluggish blood. He lacked imagination. The wonders of the deep were without significance to him. Tornadoes, hurricanes, waterspouts, and tidal waves were so many obstacles to the way of a ship on the sea and of a master on the bridge. . ."
He rose from ship's boy and forecastle hand to mate and master of sailing ships, thence into steam vessels as second officer, first, and master, from small commands to larger.
Now his dream is of a farm and farm-house, straw-thatched out-buildings, children playing in the sun, good wife at the door — "the goal of all his effort, the high reward for the salt-plowing and the long, long furrows he ran up and down the whole world around in his farming of the sea."
Twenty-eight months ago he had said goodbye to his wife at Cardiff and sailed for Valparaiso with 9,000 tons of coal. In all, the trading voyage took him from Australia to the Mediterranean and Black Seas, from Baltimore to South Africa, Rangoon to Buenos Aires — 850 days, two and a third years, by the log.
Now, back from the seas, he is reunited with Annie, his wife of ten years, and with his child he has never seen. After paying off the crew the family takes the train north from Dublin toward Island McGill. During the journey he tells her of his experiences in gales and hurricanes and she tells him of the gossip of the island and of the Wekley farm up for sale soon, a farm adjoining his father's. Of the farm Captain MacElrath says, "We wull be buyun' ut."
At the end Annie leans toward him and as the train stopped "they kissed each other across the sleeping child."
"Samuel" (The Bookman, May, 1913) is another Island McGill story, but with such an unforgettable protagonist it survives the exasperating dialect inundation of "The Sea Farmer" to become widely regarded as a London classic. It is a long story (nearly 9,000 words) about one of the most memorable woman in all of London's fiction, told by a nameless narrator who saw her and heard her story and "was impressed by the enormous certitude of her." He is a passenger on a Glasgow tramp who learned of the island from the skipper, took a letter to Mrs. Ross' house for bed and board and from Mrs. Ross and her daughter Clara learned of the island and its most fascinating resident.
Island McGill folk, 7,000 souls, mostly Presbyterian, are a hybrid seafaring and farmer breed, Scotch people claiming to be of North of Ireland. Their island is separated by a narrow loch from the Irish mainland. It seems to pay no allegiance to Ireland, has no Fenians, wears no green, seems to be without a history.
Margaret Heenan, age 72, was once the belle of Island McGill. The narrator sees her first wearing heavy brogans, carrying sacks of grain from a cart-trail to a stable to a grain-bin, then lighting a clay pipe. She is gray-haired, with a broad, wrinkled forehead, eyes clear as a girl's and well-spaced, mummy-like lips and a toothless mouth. She lives alone in a straw-thatched, commodious house, on seventy acres of land. "O, ay, a bug but, suvunty acres, " she says. "Ut kept me old mon buzzy, along wuth a son an' a hoired mon, tull say naught o' extra honds un the harvest an' a maid-servant un the house."
Daughter of a well-off farmer, she married Thomas Heenan, also well-off, and had four sons named Samuel, all of whom died, while her other children lived. Her first son Samuel died of croup, the next named Samuel died falling into a tub of scalding water ("an' just cooked tull death," Mrs. Ross says dispassionately, as neighbors with no tragedies of their own often do.) Her third child was a girl and her fourth a boy who she again named Samuel. Margaret "was fair lunatuc on Samuel," Mrs. Ross says and as a result of her stubbornness, Margaret's mother disowned her, she was shunned by the church and had to take the baby to Belfast to get him christened.
The boy grew and prospered, escaped even childhood diseases, broke school records in scholarship and athletics, became a paragon, and meantime Margaret had other children — Jamie, Alice, Sara, Nora, Timothy, Florence, Katie (her eleventh and last child, born when Margaret was 35). Nine healthy children were hers and "It seemed her ill luck had shot its bolt with the deaths of her first two. Nine lived, and one of them was named Samuel."
Samuel tried farming, then teaching, studying navigation in secret, and eventually shipped before the mast and with barely two years' experience was taken from the forecastle and made a second mate. Two years later he sailed from Liverpool as mate of the Starry Grace and was lost at sea, drowned at the wheel in a "God-Almighty gale."
“...a great, awful monster eediot.”Margaret was age 47 when she learned of Samuel's fate and soon after she was with child again. It was a boy and again she named him Samuel and took him to Belfast for christening. The child, she said, was "Oz good oz gold," never fretted, sat in the sun for hours and made no sound, was in "the punk o' health." Even so the boy was slow to walk and talk, so much so that the doctor was suspicious. Of "Little Sammy," Mrs. Ross says, "He was a eediot--a great, awful monster eediot."
The boy was three when Tom Heenan returned from ploughing and was sitting on a bench outside the kitchen, fitting a handle to a pick-axe when Sammy crawled to the door and began "waggin' uts bug head an' blunkun' an' brayun' like a great bug ass ut was," Mrs. Ross tells the narrator. Heenan could take no more, jumped his feet and beat the pick-ax handle on the boy's head again and again, then went to the stable and hanged himself to a rafter.
Margaret, in reflecting on her four Samuels, wonders, "Do a wee but of a name change the plans o' God? . . . . be God a weak, shilly-shallyun creature thot ud alter the fate an' destiny o' thungs because Margaret Heenan seen fut till name her bairn Samuel?"
If she had born another son? "Ut would ha' been hus name."
Says the narrator, "I went down the dark road between the hawthorne hedges . . . repeating Samuel to myself and aloud and listening to the rolling wonder in its sound that had charmed her soul and led her life in tragic places — Samuel! There was a rolling wonder in the sound. Ay, there was!"
Two of the greatest prizefight stories ever written are by Jack London — "The Mexican" (1911) and "A Piece of Steak" (Saturday Evening Post, November 20, 1909).
It is remarkable that "Samuel" and "A Piece of Steak," among London's finest short fiction, were written back-to-back at the end of 1909, even more significant considering that the author produced only five stories in 1909 (compared to seventeen in 1908).
In "A Piece of Steak" we meet Tom King, an over-the-hill Australian fighter, so poor his two children go to bed without supper and he has only a plate of flour gravy to eat before a big fight in which he hopes to earn enough to pay his bills.
“If it's a win, its thirty quid ...”He is solid-bodied, stolid-looking, with "all the marks of the fighting beast. . . .the face of a man to be afraid of in a dark alley or lonely place." Twenty years ago he faced the Woolloomoolloo Gouger and broke the Gouger's jaw in the ninth round, but that was twenty years ago and King tires easily now, can no longer fight hammer and tongs as when a youth, has no sparring partner, and thinks how much he wishes he had a piece of steak.
He is to fight Sandel at the Gayety Club in Sydney and his wife Lizzie says, "You gotter do 'im . . . . If it's a win, its thirty quid — an' I can pay all that's owin' with a lump o' money left over," so he walks the two miles to the Gayety and recalls the palmy days when he was heavyweight champion of New South Wales and rode in a motor-car like Tommy Burns "and that Yankee nigger, Jack Johnson." Now he was good for nothing but "navvy [menial labor] work," the last of the old guard, and Sandel, over from New Zealand was strong, handsome, blonde, deep-chested, heavy-thewed, Youth incarnate.
In the fight, Tom is methodical while Sandel is dancing and clever and wins the first round with an avalanche of punches while King lands none, indeed lands no punch at all until the third round, then throws a hook with all his weight behind it, catching Sandel on the side of the jaw and flooring him "like a bullock."
Tom has tricks to conserve strength: working the fight to his own corner where he can just sit down at the gong; loafing slowly out of his corner; clinching and driving his shoulder into Sandel's ribs, laying his weight on Sandel in the clenches. In the sixth round he floors Sandel again, thrice in the ninth within a minute, and again in the tenth and eleventh.
But "Youth will be served!" and Tom King's legs grow heavy, his strength waning, knuckles hurting, as Sandel goes down but rises again and Tom's body deserts him. Finally, Sandel delivers the knockout blow and as for Tom King, "He had not a copper in his pocket, and the two-mile walk home seemed very long. He was certainly getting old" and the thought of Lizzie waiting up for him is almost impossible to face.
A product of London's visit to Ecuador en route to New Orleans and home from the Snark adventure in the South Pacific, "The Madness of John Harned" (Lady's Realm [London], October, 1909) is told by Manuel de Jesus Patino, a wealthy and proud descendent of one of Pizarro's captains. He had met the Harned at the Tivoli hotel in Panama. The big American, blue eyes like cold steel, was en route to Lima until he met Patino's cousin, Maria Valenzuela, the most beautiful woman in Ecuador, at the Tivoli and fell in love with her. She spoke many languages, sang like an artiste, and so he followed her to Quito where Maria said she would show him the bull-fight, "brave, clever, magnificent!"
“It is brave. It is magnificent!”Maria chides Harned for being a savage. "You prize-fight. . . .it is barbarous, no?" He counters, pointing out that the bull is compelled to fight, then is killed, and she says the "toreador" is clever, skillful, romantic, facing a wild bull and killing the animal with one thrust of the sword. "It is brave. It is magnificent!" (NOTE: "Toreador" is not a Spanish word. A bullfighter in the Spanish language is a torero or a matador.)
Luis Cervallos, owner of cacao and sugar plantations, oil and rubber interests, occupies a box at the bullring with Harned and Maria, next to which is the Presidente's box, filled with generals and other Ecuadorian army officers. The bulls run out and Ordonez, the matador, makes the kill. Harned defends the bull, who he says has no fighting chance, whilst Maria and Carvallos speak of the art, skill and courage of the men. Harned cheers for the bull while those in the presidente's box curse the dog of a Gringo.
Ordonez brutally kills — slaughters — the next bull and Harned says, "The bull does not count for much" but says the spectacle does: it is degrading to look upon, teaches people to delight in animal suffering. It is cowardly for five men to fight one stupid bull, he says, therefore those that look upon the spectacle learn to be cowards.
But it is the blindfolded horses that push Harned over the edge. When these screaming animals are impaled on the bull's horns, Harned stands, blue eyes aflame, and when Cervallos tries to get him to sit down, Harned strikes his host, and when a guest in the President's box hits Harned with his cane the American explodes in rage, takes a rifle from one of the soldiers guarding the Presidente's box and clubs them with it. Ultimately, Harned, fighting with many bullets in him, kills seven Ecudorianos before they kill him. "More men were killed that day because of John Harned than were ever killed in all the history of the bull-ring of Quito," the narrator states, Maria Valenzuela did not move throughout the ordeal and afterwards traveled to Austria where she married an archduke or some such high nobleman.
Luis Carvallos says at the end, "Why the horse? Why should he watch the bull and say that it did not count, and then go immediately and most horribly mad because a horse screamed? There is no understanding the Gringos. They are barbarians."
While "John Harned" is a pulp-level tale, London's heart was in the right place. Few who witness a corrida de toros for the first time do not emerge shaken at the barbarity of the spectacle. When John Harned says, "There would be some sport if a toreador were killed once in a while," he speaks for all who are sickened by the routine animal torture and murder called a bullfight.
"The Night-Born" (Everybody's Magazine, July, 1911) is a good grit of women story told at the Alta-Inyo Club in San Francisco by an old sourdough named Trefethan, a bachelor mining engineer who made a fortune in the Klondike. He tells of '98, after making his strike, when he portaged over the Rockies, angling across to the Great Slave Lake into unknown and unexplored lands. In a valley shut in by high canyon walls, his dogs sore-footed and played out, he saw smoke and heard barking, made his way into an Indian camp and there met Lucy. She occupied a big moose-skin "fly" (tent) the floor covered with furs and a robe of white swan-skins. She sat on this robe — a nut-brown woman with deep blue eyes filled with a "wild unrest, a wistful yearning."
She had a sharp, Western tang of speech "like the stab of a flatted note," and was clearly in charge of the tribe of 500 Indians, a "regular She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" [after H. Rider Haggard's 1887 novel, She], "a white woman at the head of a tribe of savages a thousand miles the other side of No Man's Land."
Trefethan, the first white man in her valley, stayed a week at her invitation, after Lucy promises to fit him out with dogs and Indians to guide him to the best pass in the Rockies.
Lucy was frontier-born, of poor settlers who had removed to Seattle where she worked in a factory and a cheap restaurant as a "hash-slinger." She was eighteen when she married a man going up to Juneau to start a restaurant. She cooked in it for four years, reading a few Seaside Novels and dreaming of knights and Arcady, romantic palaces and fountains — these romantic reveries invariably interrupted by her husband Jake asking "Why ain't you served them beans?"
She happened on a scrap of newspaper quoting Thoreau's Cry of the Human and the line, "The Society Islanders had their day-born gods, but they were not supposed to be of equal antiquity with the. . .night-born gods."
To Lucy the words were a life's declaration: "'I knew right away, as soon as I read that, what was the matter with me, I was a night-born. I, who had lived my life with the day-born. . . .I hankered to run naked in the moonlight," she said.
She packed her clothes, told Jake she was "headin' for tall timber," and at age 22 lit out for Dyea. Somewhere on the Yukon mainland she found a tumble-down cabin with the skeletons of eight horses tethered to a tree and a quarter-million dollars of placer gold in moosehide sacks. She cached the gold, taking enough back to Dyea to buy an outfit, and crossed over Chilkoot Pass in '88, eight years before the Klondike strike.
She wandered several years over the country to the place Trefethan found her, hooked up with the Indians, doctored them, gained their confidence and gradually took them in charge.
She wore a small buckskin pouch like a locket on neck with the Thoreau newspaper scrap in it and told Trefethan she wished the Thoreau man would happen along so she could marry him. She revealed to Trefethan that she wanted only to mate with her own kind. "Why not settle down? I'll make you a good wife," she said.
He lied, said he was married, that his wife was waiting for him.
They kissed there in the snow, in that valley by the Rockies," Trefethan relates, "and I left her standing by the trail and went on after my dogs. I was six weeks in crossing over the pass and coming down to the first post on Great Slave Lake."
His friends tell him it is not too late to return to her but Trefethan says he is 47 and "the thought of the keen frost in the morning and of the frozen sled-lashings frightens me . . ." He takes a drink: "Well, here's to the Night-Born. She was a wonder."
NOTE: Everybody's Magazine became among the most frequently visited markets for London's short fiction but actually published only four of the author's stories: "Brown Wolf" (August, 1906); "The Heathen" (August, 1910, after first appearance in London Magazine, September, 1909); "The Madness of John Harned" (November, 1910, after first appearance in Lady's Realm [London], October, 1909), and the present story.
Fiction was not the preferred literary form for Everybody's Magazine, founded in 1899. The magazine reached a circulation of 150,000 by 1903 and survived through the March, 1929, issue.
"The Benefit of the Doubt" (Saturday Evening Post, November 12, 1910) was cobbled together in July, 1910, after the death of his new-born daughter, named Joy, on June 21. London got into a saloon brawl in the Tenderloin district of Oakland near the waterfront that resulted in an appearance before an apparently prejudicial police judge. London's revenge was this story, for which he received $724 on September 5, 1910. Since the characters of the story are thinly disguised, London, in a letter to Churchill Williams of Saturday Evening Post (October 4, 1910), instructed the editor to ". . . consider this letter a legal contract or agreement to same. I hereby guarantee and pledge myself to stand for and pay all damages in any way whatsoever incurred by any suit or 'come back' that anybody may bring against The Saturday Evening Post on account of said story." (Earl Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard, eds., The Letters of Jack London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988, II, 934).
Carter Watson, independently wealthy, writes about social conditions, has "the ethical bee in his bonnet," is "a reformer of no mean pretension" and author of 27 cleverly written books on the slum-dwelling working classes such as If Christ Came to New Orleans, The Worked-Out Worker, Tenement Reform in Berlin, The Rural Slums of England, The Cave Man of Civilization.
At the Vendome saloon in an unnamed city Watson encounters Patsy Horan, proprietor of the place, who sees the magazine under Watson's arm and thinks the man is about to tack up advertisements. He confronts Watson about "defacin' me walls" and the two argue and "go to the floor" with Watson holding on, never striking a blow, until the police arrive.
Watson is arrested. The newspapers come out with lurid stories of his drunken brawl with the proprietor of the notorious Vendome — one headline read Eminent Sociologist Jagged and Jugged — and appears in Police Judge Sol Witberg's court. There he is opposed by police, the political machine, the press, and a hostile presiding judge, while Patsy Horan and his cronies give a "most colossal aggregation of perjuries." The trial ends when Judge Witberg quotes the axiom of law that the defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt and orders Carter Watson and Patrick Horan discharged from custody.
Out of this minuscule incident Watson writes a book, Police Court Procedure: A Tentative Analysis, and a year later finds a man strolling on his property despite the prominent No Trespassing signs. The trespasser, quite fortuitously, is Judge Witberg. Watson is able to remind the judge that "Politics is a dirty trade" and thereupon takes some stones and cuts and bruises his face. "You did that. . . .You hit me twice--biff biff. It is a brutal and unprovoked assault. I am in danger of my life. I must protect myself," Watson says and in so saying he punches the judge in the nose, then in the eye.
After the judge limps back to his hotel he is arrested by a village constable on a charge of assault and battery preferred by Carter Watson.
At court, Watson says he was picking flowers when Witberg rushed him and biff biff knocked him down. "He must have been drunk," Watson says. "And thus was Sol Witberg given a liberal education in the art of perjury."
The judge gives the benefit of the doubt to the defendants and dismisses both of them.
"'Let us have a nip on it,' Watson said to Witberg as the two leave the courtroom, "but that outraged person refused to lock arms and amble to the nearest saloon."
The spring of 1910 marked Jack London's tenth year as a professional writer. He had an astonishing 23 books behind him: ten novels including The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, White Fang, Before Adam, The Road, The Iron Heel, and Martin Eden and the epistolary exchange titled The Kempton-Wace Letters; four nonfiction books, one play, and eight short fiction collections.
He was at the peak of his career but he was brain tired and plot fallow and, with only six more years to live, had run out of ideas.
That spring he wrote some checks to 25-year-old Sinclair Lewis, as yet unknown as a writer (twenty years before he became the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature), who was living in Carmel as secretary to the author Grace McGowan Cook. Lewis, awash in story ideas, seems to have met London when the famous writer came to Carmel to visit his close friend, the poet George Sterling. Out of the circumstance of their meeting London purchased fifteen story plots from Lewis for $70 cash. Two other transactions followed in which London bought in all 27 plots for $137.50. Five of the plots were used in published stories. One became the short prize-fight novel The Abysmal Brute (1913), another The Assassination Bureau, unfinished at London's death (published in 1963 with an ending provided by mystery writer Robert L. Fish). Three of the Lewis plots resulted in London short stories: "Winged Blackmail" (Lever, September, 1910), "The Prodigal Father" (Woman's World, May, 1912), and "When the World Was Young." The latter story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on September 10, 1910.
NOTE: For details on the London-Lewis transactions, see Franklin Walker's "Jack London's Use of Sinclair Lewis Plots, Together with a Printing of Three of the Plots," Huntington Library Quarterly (November, 1953), and Sinclair Lewis: An American Life by Mark Schorer; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
"When the World Was Young" opens with Dave Slotter, a would-be burglar in Mill Valley, California, entering a walled property at night with an "electric night-stick" and stumbling upon a huge, naked, muscular, blonde, bearded man wearing a goat-skin around his middle. The thief throws his flashlight at the man and hightails it, getting his bicycle from hiding and fleeing the scene. A short time later he catches a glimpse of the naked man chasing a coyote, sees the man as he "leaped into the air, caught the branch of a roadside tree, and swung swiftly upward, from limb to limb, like an ape."
Slotter goes to the office of James Ward, senior partner of Ward, Knowles & Co., gives a false name and tells Ward he was at Ward's Mill Valley estate, intending to break in, knowing Ward lived there alone except for a Chinese cook, and "found a wild man. . .a regular devil" loose in the grounds. Ward gives Slotter $20 for his trouble but when Slotter says the wild man resembled Ward, Ward takes the money back and Slotter "found himself gazing into the same unspeakably ferocious blue eyes of the night before." Ward holds the burglar's biceps in an iron grip, "the large white teeth exposed, for all the world like a dog's about to bite."
Ward is forty, a successful businessman who all his life has been burdened with a dual personality — two men, several thousand years apart, occupying one physical body. "He was not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, nor was he like the unfortunate young man in Kipling's 'Greatest Story in the World.'" (Actually, the title is "The Finest Story in the World.") The primary James Ward is a man of rearing and education, the other a savage and barbarian. The problem of his split personas dates from his childhood when he became somnolent in the forenoon, active at night, when he heard a thousand voices whispering to him through the dark.
He was educated by private teachers, could outswim, outrun and outdevil any of his peers, and was a great athlete in football and track. All strenuous endeavors, however, were occasioned by Berserker rages, barbaric chants and songs.
When he meets Lilian Gersdale he vows never to see her later than eight p.m., and makes a heroic effort to control the night excursions by exhausting himself with work and exercise during the day.
Then he dares to hold a house party at his Mill Valley estate, with Lilian, her mother, brother and half a dozen mutual friends in attendance. As it happens, a grizzly bear named Big Ben escapes from the Spring Brothers' Circus and appears — where? Why on Ward's estate, of course, and "The first Mr. Ward knew was when he found himself on his feet, quivering and tense, the surge of battle in his breast and on his lips the old war-chant."
“...chanted a triumph in an unknown tongue.”He fetches a big knotty club and Lilian and Mrs. Gersdale watch horror-stricken as the young blonde giant calmly and furiously battles the huge grizzly: "Then the human brute went mad. A foaming rage flecked the lips that parted with a wild inarticulate cry, as it sprang in, swung the club mightily with both hands, and brought it down full on the head of the uprearing grizzly. . . .[leaped] squarely upon the body, where, in the white electric light, resting on his club, he chanted a triumph in an unknown tongue. . ."
The early Teuton in him dies that night and he becomes wholly James J. Ward. He is now afraid of the dark and has many innovative burglar-proof devices in his home and property. But "His bravery is never questioned by those of his friends who are aware of the Mill Valley episode."
NOTE: In 1970, I wrote an article titled "How Sinclair Lewis Sold Jack London the Idea for 'Tarzan of the Apes'" for a Burroughs fan magazine (ERB-dom, No. 37, August, 1970). The story aimed to show the ease by which cases can be made for literary antecedents — showing that Burroughs might have read "When the World Was Young" in the months before he introduced Tarzan in the pages of All-Story Magazine in 1912, and was inspired by London's (actually Sinclair Lewis's) idea of a civilized-man-turned-primitive.
I made my "case" by showing that Burroughs, in Chicago working as an agent for a lead pencil sharpener company, was studying the fiction markets and had become familiar with the great magazines of the day, most of them carrying Jack London stories--McClure's, Munsey's, Leslie's, Everybody's, Collier's Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Red Book, Saturday Evening Post.
Burroughs, on several occasions, mentioned Jack London as one of his favorite authors, and also admired Kipling and Paul du Chaillu, writer of books on Africa, authors who were also among London's favorites.
And I provided parallels between Tarzan of the Apes and "When the World Was Young," some of them pretty starting in similarity.
In Robert W. Fenton's biography of Burroughs, The Big Swingers (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1967), the author mentioned that London might have been the "inspiration" for Tarzan, but thought the Burroughs-Tarzan connection had its source in London's The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf which, Fenton said, "deal with approximately the same theme. In The Call of the Wild, it is the 'civilized' dog returning to the primitive life of the wolf-pack; in The Sea-Wolf, a sophisticated man is forced to adapt to primitive living."
For a mind-boggling annotated list of Burroughs-London connections see ERB-zine: Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site and the article, "The ERB ⁄ Jack London Connection" by Bill Hillman at http://www.erbzine.com/mag12/1272.html
"Winged Blackmail"' (Lever, September, 1910), another Sinclair Lewis plot, another bad idea resulting in a bad story, involves Peter Winn, a San Francisco financier and developer, who is being blackmailed by a passenger pigeon dispatched by an unknown person. Winn answers "Go to hell" when the first message arrives, but has his country house blown up as a result. San Francisco detectives arrive. The next message demands more money, $5,000 and when he fails to pay his sister's house is burned to the ground.
The ante is raised to $10,000 and Winn is about to pay it when his son Peter, Jr., 26, comes to the rescue. He is an aeroplane expert and offers to follow the pigeon. He takes a gun with him. The bird's leg has half a yard of bright ribbon tied to it to keep it visible. Peter "reefs" the monoplane, shifts the angles of his wing-tips, depresses the horizontal rudder, and follows the pigeon to the Contra Costa hills where he spots a small cabin on a hillside clearing. He glides in and comes to rest a few feet from a young man reading a newspaper, levels his pistol at the man and when the man starts to run shoots him in the leg.
"I want to take you for a ride in my new machine," Peter Winn Junior says. "Believe me, she is a loo-loo."
He takes the fellow, so adept at winged blackmail, to his father. Winn Senior fondles the bird which his son apparently brought back in the cockpit, and says "Exhibit A, for the People."
While not a Sinclair Lewis plot, "Bunches of Knuckles" (New York Herald, December 18, 1910) might well have been since it has so little to recommend it.
Boyd and Minnie Duncan are sailing their thirty-ton yacht Samoset, a former trading schooner he bought in San Francisco, in the South Seas, three days out of Attu-Attu, and she is preparing a Christmas meal for them. Duncan is wealthy but instead of being comfortably inert he has elected to travel the world and has the perfect mate for his wanderings. In their six years of marriage, Minnie and Boyd have climbed Chimborazo, made a 3,000-mile winter journey with dogs in Alaska, ridden a horse from Canada to Mexico, and cruised in the Black Sea.
Boyd, Minnie and Captain Dettmer are the only white persons on board the Samoset. Lorenzo, "the small and greasy engineer," is a Portuguese half-caste; a Japanese serves as cook, a Chinese as cabin boy, islanders from Easter, the Carolines, Paumotus, and Samoa, serve as crew.
Dettmer is the problem. After an argument, Boyd tells Dettmer that he will be put ashore at Attu-Attu. But before this can happen, a squall strikes the Samoset and Dettmer takes advantage of the storm to shove Minnie Duncan over the rail. Boyd instinctively dives in to save her and the two cling to a buoy as Dettmer takes the Samoset to sea. Boyd says if he gets the chance he will beat the erstwhile skipper, not with a belaying pin but with two bunches of naked knuckles. Minnie says she wants to be there when he does it.
After a day in the water they are rescued and at Attu-Attu tell Consul Langford the story. Soon after the Samoset comes in, its flag at half mast. As Dettmer (with Boyd and Minnie hiding and listening) tells a cock-and-bull story about trying to rescue them, Boyd Duncan erupts from hiding and beats the daylights out of Dettmer with his bunches of knuckles.
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