Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 13, 2010

Jack and Marcel, Introduction

I started thinking about this subject while I did some background reading before our visit to Jack London’s place, Beauty Farm, up in Sonoma (which I wrote about, HERE). I have read some of London’s fiction, but I knew only the sketchiest details about his life: he grew up poor in the Bay Area, had a raucously wild life full of adventure, became wealthy through his writing at the same time he was embracing radical socialism, and died far too young. I can explain why I know so little about him: I got my university education in a day that was ruled by the “New Criticism:” only the work mattered; the details of an author’s life were regarded as irrelevant and not worthy of study by serious students of literature. If that sounds both bizarre and boring to you, I won’t disagree. I learned almost nothing about the lives of authors I read then, although curiosity has helped me fill in some of the details. But I was weak on London’s bio.

One of the benefits of living long enough to accumulate a reasonable amount of knowledge about anything is that, eventually, one can start looking for correspondences and contrasts. It helps compensate for not being able to run 7 minute miles or hit the cut fastball. Looking at the span of London’s life, I realized that he and our longtime companion across this year of Under Western Skies, M. Proust, were contemporaries (you can find my entries about M. Proust’s work in the “categories” link in the right-hand column).

Proust: b. 1871, d. 1922; London: b. 1876, d. 1916: Jack’s 40 years are contained within the 51 years of Marcel’s life.

Other writers, including Joyce, Woolf, Twain and Conrad, to name only a handful of those writing in English, were also working at the same time. In fact, Joyce and Woolf’s lives were EXACT contemporaries, having been born and died in the same years — 1882-1941 —  but that’s for another day.

What correspondences will Nixon reveal between these two literary giants who strode the earth simultaneously? Let’s see what we can uncover without any time-consuming study of the hundreds of graduate theses and other scholarly articles that surely have been written on this subject.

Mme. Proust was pregnant with Marcel in a Paris besieged by the Prussians, when the city’s rat population declined precipitously, having become food for a starving human population. By the time Marcel was two and before London was born, the Long Depression of 1873-79 had struck, impoverishing Europe and North America. However, that dire period affected the two boys and their families very differently. Marcel’s father, a doctor, did the first of his groundbreaking work in the treatment of epidemic diseases during and after the Depression. The Prousts were extremely respectable, well-established members of the bourgeoisie, occupying comfortable apartments, employing servants, and providing Marcel with a significant set of family and social connections, as well as a solid education (to which he applied himself indifferently).

Jack London’s early years were colored by poverty — though not starvation, as glorified accounts of his life sometimes claimed. His mother and his probable father — a man named Chaney — had a rag-tag association which Chaney ended rather brutally, resulting in London’s mother attempting suicide. She married John London, and the pair constantly struggled to make ends meet as they lived a peripatetic existence, moving the family from one set of straitened circumstances to another: Oakland to Santa Cruz, to Livermore, back to Oakland and San Francisco, sometimes barely subsisting. By ten, Jack was on the street, selling papers, getting odd jobs to contribute to the family’s slim budget, and his education was a hodge-podge driven by circumstances not always favorable.

Paris and San Francisco/Oakland in the last years of the 19th Century were obviously very different places, and both men’s work reflects those differences. However, one thing to bear in mind is that the San Francisco of London’s youth was not the Wild West; it was a sophisticated city, growing rapidly from commerce and transportation, a center of art and music. The grand and gracious Palace Hotel, where I stayed on my recent visit, originally opened the year before London was born, and was considered the equal of any grand hotel in America, as you see here:

Palace Hotel, pre-1906

There was wealth and times were booming prior to the Depression. The cable cars had been operating there since 1873. London’s life, however, was rough-and-ready as he worked as an illegal oyster fisherman or toiled at a variety of low-level manufacturing jobs and even, at the age of 16, sailed to the Bering Sea on a seal-hunting ship.

Marcel came slowly and rather langorously to his profession as a writer, devoting enormous effort to finding a cushy job that required no effort and, despite the easy circumstances, rarely showing up for work at the job he did manage to land. London, after a succession of menial jobs, hard labor, life at sea, and some time hoboing across the U.S., came to writing with an entirely different mindset. He was driven with a maniacal obsession to achieve and excel, and, having realized that any labor requiring work for others would be selling his efforts to the highest bidder, he embarked upon a hard-driving effort to form his own life on his own terms.

In other words, one might not find two contemporary writers of any era more different in terms of their life circumstances or their personal characters. I do think there is one powerful link between them, and that will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. CLICK HERE for part 2.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2016


  1. Thanks for the vignettes featuring two of my favorite cities. (Just got back from a day trip to S.F. yesterday, visiting family and the de Young museum.) Nice work on the “correspondence” between writers and places.


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