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  • Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer by Iris Jamahl Dunkle
  • Zena Meadowsong (bio)
Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer, by Iris Jamahl Dunkle. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020. xii + 281 pp. Paper, $26.95; Ebook $24.95.

Iris Dunkle’s new biography of Charmian Kittredge London is a significant, accessible, and much-needed work of scholarship on a hitherto neglected literary figure. Though best known in her own time and since as the second wife of Jack London, Charmian London was an author in her own right— she published several books, including The Log of the Snark (1915), Our Hawaii (1917), and the two-volume biographical Book of Jack London (1921)— and an enterprising woman whose marriage gave her unusual scope for personal experience while also often limiting her to the role she assumed as “Mate-Woman” of a famous man. To date, Charmian figures importantly only in a few works, most notably Clarice Stasz’s Jack London’s Women (2001) and a special issue of the journal Women’s Studies (2017). Since the relaxation of restrictions on the use of the Jack London Papers at the Huntington Library, however, scholars have gained access to materials including Charmian London’s extant diaries, photographs, and letters, and it is on the basis of this archive that Dunkle has constructed her text.

As a scholarly biography, Dunkle’s book takes a relatively standard form, with a sampling of historical photographs in the center and chapters arranged— for the most part— chronologically. There is an early chapter on Charmian’s parents, Dayelle Wiley and Willard “Kitt” Kittredge, a minor poet and a soldier-turned-hotelier, respectively; a brief account of Charmian’s upbringing in Oakland, after her mother’s death, by her Aunt Netta; a discussion of her work as a stenographer and typist in San Francisco; and a description of her meeting— via Netta, who wrote for the Overland Monthly— with Jack London over lunch at Young’s restaurant in 1900. In substance, however, the biography is as unconventional as its subject. Raised by an aunt who, in addition to being a well-known writer and editor, was a vegetarian, free-loving feminist with unusual alliances (Netta’s first husband, Roscoe Eames, invented the stenographic system that gave Charmian marketable skills and vocational independence; her second, Edward Payne, was the founder of a Christian utopian community), Charmian was herself unusually autonomous and— having been instructed in birth control (then still illegal) by her aunt— sexually adventurous. Her relationship with Jack London (who had precipitously married his former tutor, Bessie Maddern, a few months after his meeting [End Page 242] with Charmian) began as an affair in 1903, helped cause his divorce in 1904, and resulted in their marriage in 1905.

Such are the contents of the first half of Dunkle’s biography, which shifts in the second to Charmian’s life with— and after— Jack London. In a swift but detailed series of chapters, she discusses their Caribbean honeymoon; their establishment of a farm at Glen Ellen (in Sonoma County, California) and the building of their yacht, the Snark (at the then-astronomical cost of $30,000); their voyage through the South Seas in 1907–08; Charmian’s loss of a baby, Joy, in 1910 (followed by the additional trauma of a postpartum operation and several miscarriages); her subsequent journey with Jack around Cape Horn on the sailing ship Dirigo in 1912; the destruction by fire of Wolf House (the home they were building in Glen Ellen) shortly before they planned to move into it in 1913; and Jack’s rapid decline and death— of renal failure, aggravated by alcoholism and possibly precipitated by a morphine overdose— in 1916. Turning then to Charmian’s life as a widow, Dunkle outlines her steady work on her own books, and her efforts to keep Jack’s in print, during the First World War; her late affairs, including one with Harry Houdini; and, finally, her decision to build the “House of Happy Walls”— a home of her own, made of local stone, that would “never burn” (qtd. in Dunkle 232).

Still standing today, the House of Happy Walls is a fitting closing...


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pp. 242-246
Launched on MUSE
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