- Fictionalizing Jack London:Charmian London and Rose Wilder Lane as Biographers
Few twentieth-century American authors have been as frequently interpreted—and misinterpreted—by biographers as has Jack London. As Jeanne Campbell Reesman sums up the shortcomings of London biographies in a recent essay for Resources for American Literary Study, London's colorful life story attracted some "hero-worshippers" among those who knew him, notably his wife Charmian London, but also biographers such as Irving Stone, who was "obsessed with London's medical problems and personality flaws" (154) to the point of distorting facts about his life and death. The problems of writing Jack London's life did not begin with Stone, whose popular Sailor on Horseback (1938) enshrined a number of myths about London that persist in current biographies. In the years immediately following London's death, London's life became the subject matter for two women writers: Charmian London, whose The Book of Jack London appeared in 1921; and the journalist Rose Wilder Lane, who became London's first biographer with her serial "Life and Jack London," published in Sunset magazine from October 1917 to May 1918. In "Life and Jack London," by weaving incidents from London's autobiographical fiction with biographical details, Lane created a romanticized portrait essentially similar to the self-mythologizing that London himself practiced. Frustrated by Charmian London's refusal to authorize a book-length biography based on the serial, Lane published He Was a Man in 1925, a thinly disguised biographical novel based on London's life.
The reasons for Charmian London's refusal, and the conflict between Charmian London and Lane as Jack London's earliest biographers, have been discussed in essays by Richard Etulain, William Holtz, and, most recently and thoroughly, Clarice Stasz. Their findings establish that Charmian Kittredge London and Eliza Shepard, among others who cooperated [End Page 176] with Lane in her research, found her careless handling of facts and disregard for accuracy not only maddening but also nearly inexplicable, and Stasz has speculated that Lane's biography hastened Charmian's publication of The Book of Jack London. Lane's He Was a Man, however, has received little critical attention, and when read together with the serial "Life and Jack London" and The Book of Jack London, Lane's two fictionalized biographies form a poste-riposte set of responses to the problem of London biography. Taken together, "Life and Jack London," The Book of Jack London, and He Was a Man exemplify the difficulties in balancing accuracy and interpretation when writing about the lives of self-mythologizing subjects. More specifically, considering the three biographies together with the correspondence that the women exchanged reveals as much about the self-mythologizing of the writers themselves as it does about their perspective on London. Lane, a self-made writer whose early poverty caused her to identify with London, drew on her own background to dramatize London's struggles in ways that inevitably antagonized Charmian London, who was equally determined to fashion a portrait of her place in London's life that would obscure such sensitive issues as his drinking and their affair before their marriage.
Like London, who was ten years her senior, by the time she wrote "Life and Jack London" Lane was a popular professional author with a fluent, natural style for which she was celebrated. Well known in her own time as a journalist with the San Francisco Bulletin, Lane is best known today as the daughter ("baby Rose") of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), who wrote about her life as a "pioneer girl" in the Little House series of juvenile novels (1932-1943). Lane, like London, had worked her way out of a poverty-stricken background through self-education and a series of jobs ranging from telegraph operator to real-estate saleswoman; she had likewise taught herself the trick, or knack, as London believed it to be, of writing for a popular audience. After moving to San Francisco, although she and London never met, Lane shared with him a broad range of acquaintance in the socialist and bohemian circles of that city, among them London's friends Anna and Rose Strunsky, who shared an...