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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 846-848
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Clarice Stasz. Jack London's Women. Amherst: U of Massachussetts P, 2001. xvi + 393 pp.
Jack London as an individual and as an author has come to represent a larger than life figure in American letters. Though he was one of the most popular writers of his time and the highest paid author of his generation, until the 1950s London was held in low esteem by most critics. Since then, London has been examined by a growing number of scholars and critics. According to Tony Williams's article on London, "Clarence E. Shurtleff Presents Jack London, 1919-1921," London's diverse output of writing reflects the tension between "Socialist ideals and individuality," which mirrors the popular and political struggles of his age. Jack London's Women, by Clarice Stasz, points out that this conflict permeated the domestic sphere of London's life where he held contradictory views about the roles of women in work, relationships, and marriage. Stasz's latest book is a controversial biography that challenges previous assessments and perceptions of London and the women who loved, nurtured, and inspired him. [End Page 846]
Stasz is a social historian who consults the archives of new and previously unavailable letters to examine the complex relationships between London and "his women," as well as the different relationships between the women themselves. There is a strong feminist perspective to the book, not just because this is a book about women, or due to Stasz's admission that she harbors a fascination for Charmian Kittredge, London's second wife, a spirited and talented woman who sacrificed much for the sake of her mate, but proved herself London's equal in their mutual quest for fame, adventure, and heightened states of experience. Stasz's objective is to tell the "truth" about these women and to reveal how dominant masculinist practices in the study of literary biography have served to diminish the women in London's life. To that end, she attempts to rescue these figures from the stereotypes and prejudices that she says have informed the representations of "London's women" in other biographies of London, representations that have perhaps not taken into account the women's social and political realities and constraints.
Of particular note is the attention given to the struggles of the women to carve out spaces and identities of their own in an often hostile patriarchal society. The author points out that there has been a tendency by biographers to demonize Flora Wellman and Bessie Maddern, two essential women in London's life while he was struggling to become a writer. Wellman, London's biological mother, is presented by Stasz as unswervingly devoted to her son before their fallout. Some previous biographies had depicted her as an uncaring social climber when, in fact, the author argues, Wellman was deeply committed to supporting her son's ambition to become a writer. Stasz's portrait of Wellman rescues her from obscurity, and she becomes the mode exemplar for the other women in the book when the author notes, "[s]o many misunderstood this woman, so radical for her day, so passed over in the circumstances of history and the fame of her son."
Jack London's Women also resurrects Jennie Prentiss, London's African-American nanny, as London's deeply committed surrogate mother, rather than the "mammy" figure with which she has been identified. Stasz establishes Prentiss as one of the key figures in London's life, a woman of tremendous energy and moral conscience who was a lifelong supporter of London and his family. She, in fact, lived with or near Flora Wellman for the greater part of Wellman's life and had a great hand in raising the two daughters of London and Bess Maddern: Joan and Becky.
Jack London's Women also reveals London's shifting attitudes toward women. It is interesting that an author most often identified with masculinity, individualism, and virile fiction was dependent on an intimate network of female cohorts and lovers, a coterie that he [End Page 847...