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  • The Evolving Artistic Representation of Jack London
  • Steven Bembridge (bio)

November 2016 saw the centenary of Jack London's death, and the media on both sides of the Atlantic recognised the event. The Guardian (United Kingdom) provided a balanced account of London's life and described him as an author who "walked the walk and talked the talk" (Jordison), and SFGate—associated with the San Francisco Chronicle—referred to London as "one of the great-grandfathers of 20th century Californian literature" (Raskin). Frankfurter Allgemeine entitled its article about London with the far more contentious "Sozialismus im Mund und Rassismus im Kopf" (Socialism in the Mouth, Racism in the Head), and it also highlighted the "amoral cruelty of nature and the equally moral-free survival of the fittest" as "the great themes of Jack London" (Von Koppenfels). Regardless of the interpretations that these articles brought to London's life, they each saw fit to mark the death of the Californian naturalist—they each agreed that London and his work have an enduring cultural importance.

Earle Labor has recently addressed the legacy of Jack London: "at worst [London] has been portrayed as a rowdy hack who produced some popular adventures" and who "drugged and drank himself into oblivion at the age of forty" (ix). He also suggests that the most popular image of London to emerge has been one of "Jack London, Tough Guy" (x). Indeed, the image of London the tough guy has almost become synonymous with London's own explorations of the Nietzschean Übermensch, or superman, in works such as The Sea-Wolf (1904) and The Iron Heel (1908). Throughout the last century, then, artists who have responded to the legacy of London in their work have tended to create an image of London the superman, which has also encompassed a number of other qualities that include physical allure, health, and moral fortitude—qualities that London and his [End Page 69] fiction perpetuated in his own lifetime (Stasz, "Family" 40; Auerbach 41). Cultural attitudes change, though, and the image of Jack London as superman is not as secure as it once was. The centenary of London's death may have passed, but the artistic representation of London thrives and evolves in a society that is now more willing to reassess who London was and—informed by scholarly accounts of London's life—to reimagine the image of London the superman as a fallible everyman for a modern public. But the change is not absolute, nor should we expect it to be. London's brand has always been an evolving cultural legacy that has inspired—and continues to inspire—moviemakers, sculptors, cartoonists, authors, and digital entrepreneurs.

I. The Rise of the Superman

By the time he met Ninetta Eames in 1901 to pose for a series of photographs, London had already begun his writing career with a string of magazine articles and a collection of short stories entitled The Son of the Wolf (1900). Eames—editor of the Overland Monthly and aunt of Charmian Kitteridge (who would become Charmian London in 1905)—had decided that it was time to introduce London to the readers of the magazine, which, by this time, had published eight of his Klondike stories (Eames). What better way to do this, then, than to represent London dressed for a Yukon winter? Charmian even cites Eames's plans to meet with London in her biography, The Book of Jack London (1921)—"I'm to meet him at the museum in the Ferry Building, to pose him for a picture in Alaskan furs, to illustrate my article" (3).1

However, the period also marked the moment that London began to invest seriously in his own image as the masculine Klondike adventurer. He took the then unusual approach of viewing himself as a trademark and an agent in the expression of his own commercialisation and growing brand—London himself orchestrated his photographs and interview with Eames (Auerbach 25, 39). Indeed, Cecelia Tichi argues that "his signature style was crafted" for a readership "eager for every title that bannered the Jack London brand" (35), and Joseph McAleer further suggests that London "became a marketable 'brand'" as "readers looked forward to 'the...


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