If he had been born in 1976 instead of 1876, Jack London would be a prime target for a reality TV show. Certainly his pretty boy good looks and slightly bad boy reputation, along with his globe-combing exploits, would have made him tantalizing fodder for an entertainment press that adores a handsome rogue with both brains and brawn.
He-man and lady’s man, London even in his day was an object of admiration by both sexes, with a sizzling celebrity that he cultivated and that went far beyond his success as a best-selling writer.
A century after his death, he still draws ardent fans and scholars whose fascination for his writings, his politics, his magnetic persona and the many mysteries around his birth, his life and his death can border on obsession.
“We’re like Trekkies,” says Roberta Worth-Feeney, who was captivated by London even as a child, rediscovered him in midlife and now, at 60, finds herself caught up in a world of like-minded London followers who endlessly debate the smallest details about his life, his ideas, his writings and his legacy.
“We have a listserv, and someone will post some fact that someone has overlooked and we will correspond throughout the day. Every little thing we uncover is thrilling,” she said. “He’s really the gold standard for all things, even surfing and sports writing. He was so prolific and had such a variety of interests it’s hard to not identify with him, no matter what you’re doing in life.”
And, she sneaks in, “it doesn’t hurt that he was so attractive.”
Worth-Feeney is a biologist who works for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency with a particular interest in London’s environmentally-sensitive farming practices. Every two years she attends the Jack London Symposium, a gathering of the London faithful — including many academics and scholars — who mine his works, his voluminous personal letters and papers, thousands of photographs, biographies and other research materials in search of clues to a man they know will remain an enigma.
London’s life was so large, his success so improbable, his writings so prodigious, his views so subject to interpretation that the true London is unknowable. The case will never be closed.
And that is what fuels his followers. The legions include Beat author Jack Kerouac, who said he was inspired to become a writer after discovering Jack London at age 17. His rambling 1957 classic “On the Road” was inspired by London’s 1907 memoir, “The Road,” about his time tramping the trains as part of a march on Washington of unemployed workers during the 1894 depression.
“The faithful just worship the ground he walked on. There is nothing wrong with that. It gives them something they love and enjoy doing and knowing about and nursing,” said Sue Hodson, curator of the literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, which houses the world’s largest collection of Jack London letters, manuscripts, ephemera and photographs.
“Charmian, Jack’s second wife, knew anything related to Jack London should be saved. Bless her for it. She’s the reason there is so much,” Hodson said. “Before her, Jack didn’t save a thing.”
Tending to the Huntington’s literary collections is her day job. But after 36 years, it seeps into her personal life. She spends her evenings and weekends doing her own research, sometimes to the chagrin of her husband. She’s currently working on a scholarly paper tracing London’s nonfiction study of the destitute “People of the Abyss” in the city of London’s East End through several great writers up to the contemporary travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux.
Special Section: Jack London Centennial