- Nobody’s Renown: Plagiarism and Publicity in the Career of Jack London
When Jack London wrote, in an early letter to his friend Cloudesly Johns, “to satisfy my various sides I should be possessed of at least a dozen astral selves,” he couldn’t have anticipated the peculiar manner in which his fame would effect such a multiplication.1 Almost as soon as London became well known, people started to impersonate him, and he entertained a persistent fascination with his doubles. In 1906 London discovered that an imposter was using his name to cash checks in Billings, Montana, after convincing the local paper that Jack London was actually in town. In his letter to the bank president, A. L. Babcock, London claimed that he had long been plagued by doubles:
This double of mine is always getting me into trouble. Last year, while I was in Cuba, he was in Washington, entering into an engagement to deliver a lecture at the Congressional Library. Of course, he jumped the lecture, and I got the blame for being an “erratic genius,” from the newspapers. When I was East in January this year, he was making love to a married woman with two children in Sacramento, in my own State. And now I have his love-troubles on my shoulders, too. When I was in Boston last year, he was in San Francisco, my native city, entering into engagements with school-teachers to gather data for a volume on Education that he was writing. When I was in California, he was lugging away armfuls of books from the Astor Library in New York, on the strength of his being I. When I was in California, in 1900, he was in Alaska, and when I was in China, in 1904, I was meeting the people who had met him in Alaska in 1900. [End Page 529] These are only a few of the instances of this miserable double of mine. I don’t know what to do with him.(L, 2:609–10)
London acknowledges not only that his authorial personality—his “erratic genius”—is at least partly the result of the impersonations, a by-product of his fame, but also that his celebrity transcends the temporal and geographic limitations that normally determine the boundaries of the self. As an erratic genius, London can appear in two (or more) places at once. In fact, in this letter he chooses appearances that almost symmetrically straddle the frontiers of the United States—California, Alaska, Boston, New York, Cuba—as if unwittingly acknowledging how such impostures affirm his national notoriety. London henceforth made it something of a personal quest to track down his doubles.2 It took him four years from the date of the letter above to get an address. He promptly wrote this double, assuring him, “we’ve a lot of experiences to swap”; London claims, “I am dreadfully anxious to have you tell me the ins and outs of the game you have been playing” (L, 2:959). The famous author assumes his invitation will be accepted, since anyone impersonating him must have “read my stuff. I know it. I know you know it like a book; therefore, I am confident that you will know that this is a straight deal I am giving you” (L, 2:959). London’s invitation wasn’t accepted, but the terms of his offer are revealing. His desire to “swap” experiences only partly masks a literary profit motive. Four years later London wrote Edgar Sisson, editor of Colliers, claiming, “I have been pestered by ‘doubles’ from the beginning of my career. How would 50,000 words on the subject strike Collier’s? I assure you that it will be very human, intensely interesting, and most sensational” (L, 3:1327). Unfortunately, London never wrote what would surely have been a fascinating narrative. London’s desire to publish an account of his doubles is understandable, since he knows that such impostures become possible only through the familiarity bred by publication. Thus he can write, “you know who I am, and you know who wrote the stuff that has appeared above my name,” only because the name that appears...