The Life of Jack London #10: Ashes

Jack London was a writer and adventurer who has gone down in history as one of the most influential authors around. He wrote some amazing books, notably “The Call Of The Wild,” which is now considered to be an integral part of American literature. But it wasn’t all sunshine for Jack: he had his dark moments too, including working on the docks at age 12 and being taken prisoner by natives during his adventures through Borneo.

Jack London was an American author and journalist. He wrote many novels, including “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”. London died in 1916 at the age of 40 from a combination of pneumonia, pleurisy, and peritonitis. Read more in detail here: how did jack london die.

This article is part of a series on Jack London’s life, particularly his use of the Ancient Greek idea of thumos.

Jack London might have lived a long and happy life, living comfortably off the benefits of his literary triumphs, dedicating himself to making his ranch a success, creating new works only when and if he felt like it, enjoying his family and friends, and traveling the globe. However, his cravings — his dark horse — would keep this type of healthy, balanced future a long way off.

In the Hole Forever

Jack did not become a writer because it was his major love; rather, he wanted to do something creative with his profession, and writing provided him with both an outlet and the financial freedom he desired. While he wasn’t a slave to the methods, he struggled to manage the ends:

“I’m writing for a living… To me, more money equals more life. I’ll always despise the duty of collecting money… I’d rather be out in the open, going around pretty much anywhere. As a result, making money will never be one of my vices. But the propensity of spending money, my God, I’ll always be a victim to it.”

There was virtually never a point in Jack London’s life when he wasn’t in debt, however this wasn’t completely owing to his extravagant spending. Throughout his life, he had felt obligated to look after his family members and acquaintances. His mother, his old wet nurse Mammie Jenny and her family, his nephew, who had been abandoned by his stepsister, his ex-wife and their two girls, as well as Charmian and himself, were all supported by him. Every vagabond and old sailor London had ever crossed paths with in his boyhood were weighed at Beauty Ranch. Jack was renowned for his kind heart and welcoming nature, and he provided all guests with a free night’s lodging, a hot supper, and a few bucks before they left. Then there were the letters — demands for money for this or that cause, charity, or necessity – that anybody who achieves notable success gets in droves. Such demands were nearly never refused in London.

Jack, though, relished wasting money on all the wonderful things in life in addition to these allotment of his earnings. After a childhood of scraping by, buying the greatest, top-of-the-line versions of everything from boxing gloves to saddles brought him enormous joy. He sank a lot of cash into the yacht he planned to sail around the globe, employing an inadequate building manager to oversee the project, which resulted in everything costing many times what it should have. He expanded his ranch by purchasing additional acreage and diversifying his businesses, even if the ones he had previously begun were not yet successful. Then there was the building of Wolf House, Jack’s vision for the ranch’s centerpiece: a four-story, two-million-dollar stone house with 15,000 square feet of living space. The home was designed to have the sense of a huge cabin or lodge, and the jewel of the house for Jack was to be his spacious study, which was located off from the rest of the house, providing him with a quiet hideaway where he could write without interruption. The culmination of Jack’s childhood dream: a big library where he could keep his enormous collection of books would be found below it, linked via a spiral staircase.

 

As he watched the Wolf House take form day by day, Jack was filled with pride and excitement. However, paying the bills for it, as well as the other of his obligations, was a never-ending struggle. He pleadingly wired his New York publisher for an advance on his next book on a regular basis.

Vintage man sitting on the chair and looking at front.

London had to continually generate revenue by creating fresh books in order to avoid slipping too deep into debt. While writing had always been a business for him, it had progressively become a drudgery out of necessity as he produced pot-boilers and hackwork he hoped would sell soon. His thumos’ drive needed a break, but he felt compelled to keep beating his white horse day after day, pressuring it to keep producing. His fiery thumos had been game for such unremitting work for a decade, but the never-ending toil started to take its toll.

Extinguishment of a Spiritedness

Vintage man in white shirt and wearing hat looking at front.

Thumos is the seat of a man’s emotions and high, noble aims in Plato’s chariot metaphor, and it is the source of sensations of joy and wonder. Thumos and Reason are intended to work together to help a man grow through life — intelligence tempered with passion. However, when Jack’s white horse drew to a halt, his Reason started to work in isolation, without the necessary balancing.

Some individuals may go to the depths of knowledge and experience much of what the world has to offer while maintaining their principles, while others find that such research and horizon-widening renders them cynical and jaded. One of the latter was Jack. “That time I gripped the veils of Truth and rented them from her, I burnt my fingers,” he remarked. After being exposed to Nietzsche, Spencer, and Darwin’s harsh realism as a child, and reading many more books of science and philosophy over the years, a vision of existence as simply biological – a question of basic survival of the fittest – had come to dominate his worldview.

During his “Long Sickness,” Jack came to see his youthful ideals – belief in the importance of recognition, the power of dreams and goals, the nobleness of sacrifice and altruism, the ineffable beauty of art and culture, the unique nature of human love, and so on – as nothing more than “fond illusions” that “keep the world spinning round.” These illogical, artificial facades — the Good, the Just, and the Beautiful – capital-letter Truths that Plato championed – were veils of farce worn by modern society to cover the bare biological fact of life. Sentimentalists who believed in the immortality of the soul and an universe of meaning clung to such illusions because they were too afraid to confront the truth that there were no “higher” purposes or morality, and that people were just animals driven entirely by self-interest.

Jack might even concede that his cherished socialism, like the rest of them, was a ruse. He opted to cling on to it, as well as other “illusions,” because he “knew the illusions were correct” and that their uplifting influence on his view and attitude had helped bring him out of his Long Sickness. However, hanging on to ideals while admitting that they are illusions is an effort that cannot be maintained for long. As London’s hold on his values weakened, he began to agree with his Sea-Wolf, who said that life is “piggishness”:

 

“I feel life is a shambles,… It’s like yeast, or a ferment, or anything that moves for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but eventually stops moving. The strong devour the weak so that they can maintain their strength, while the large consume the tiny so that they can keep moving. All the fortunate people do is eat the most and move the most. “How do you feel about those?” He made an irritated motion with his arm toward a group of sailors working on something rope-related amidships. “They move, and the jellyfish do as well. They move in order to eat so that they may continue to move. That is all there is to it. They live for the sake of their stomachs, and the stomachs live for them. It’s a circle, and you’ll never go anywhere. They don’t either. They eventually come to a complete halt. They are no longer moving. They’re no longer alive.”

As Jack grew older and his Reason overtook his aspirations, he sought to limit his reading and studies to lighter topics in the hopes of alleviating, or at the very least not deepening, his cynicism:

“I chased Truth with less zeal, refusing to pull her last veils apart even as I grasped them in my hand. I didn’t want to gaze at Truth nude any longer. I refused to allow myself to view what I had already seen a second time. And I carefully wiped out the recollection of what I had witnessed at the moment.”

But hiding from knowledge was not an option, and the cat could not be placed back in the bag; Jack’s zeal and burning curiosity had vanished.

John Barleycorn enters from the left side of the stage.

Jack had drunk on and off throughout his life, partaking while fraternizing with other men on the “adventure road,” but not feeling the need for it when it wasn’t accessible, such as onboard the Sophie Sutherland or during the long Klondike winter. And he didn’t feel the need to drink while he was pursuing a new goal and reveling in the challenge of learning and writing. “I owned too many great beliefs, was living at too high a pitch… drink could not offer me the fervors that were mine from thoughts and aspirations,” he stated of such times.

But, when Jack’s ideas and thumos faded and his spirits dwindled, John Barleycorn grasped the reins of his black steed and prodded her on. His initial step was to position himself as an antidote to Jack’s social dullness, which had become rather unpleasant and intense as a consequence of his cynical attitude toward life in general:

“Perhaps I’d climbed too high among the stars, or perhaps I’d slept too little.” But I wasn’t frantic or overdone in any sense… I was just bored. I’d watched the same program too many times, listened to the same tunes, and laughed at the same jokes. I had much too much information on the box office revenues. I was so familiar with the gears of the machinery behind the scenes that no amount of posing on stage, laughing, or singing could drown out the creaking of the wheels.

 

When I was in a group, I was less delighted, less enthusiastic about what was said and done. It was a torture to listen to the insipidities and stupidities of women, to the pompous, arrogant sayings of the little half-baked men; and it was a torment to listen to the insipidities and stupidities of women, to the pompous, arrogant sayings of the little half-baked men. It’s the price one pays for reading too many books or being a knucklehead. In my instance, it makes no difference whatever problem I had. The issue was the reality itself. I was in charge of the factual situation. The vibrancy, brightness, and glitter of human interaction were decreasing for me.”

“And now we begin to come to it,” Jack said, referring to the lack of a solution outside the bottle. How do you deal with social encounters now that the glitz is gone? “Barleycorn, John!” He was able to enjoy himself more and be a more pleasant host and guest as a result of the alcohol.

Vintage man sitting and looking his right side waring hat.

For a long time, Jack’s drinking was restricted to social circumstances, but his mind ultimately made the leap: if John Barleycorn could enjoy parties and dinners more, why couldn’t he enjoy other aspects of his life as well? He describes this terrible turning moment in his life:

“I recall Charmian and I taking a lengthy horseback ride over the mountains one day. We returned late at night to a lively chafing-dish lunch after the staff had been discharged for the day. Oh, it felt nice to be alive that night, the two of us alone in the kitchen making dinner. I was at the pinnacle of my career. There were no such things as literature or ultimate truth. My body was in great shape, and I was exhausted after the lengthy ride. It had been a beautiful day. The evening was fantastic. I was picnicking with my pal, and we were having a great time. There were no issues for me. All of my bills had been paid, and I had an excess of cash. The horizon in front of me became progressively wider. Delightful things bubbled in the chafing dish, our laughing bubbled, and my stomach was acute with a most delicious edge of hunger right there in the kitchen.

I felt so fantastic that an unquenchable need to feel even better emerged inside me. I was so ecstatic that I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. And I knew how to get there. Thousands of encounters with John Barleycorn have taught me a lot. I went out of the kitchen many times to check on the drink bottle, and each time I returned, it had shrunk by one man’s size cocktail. The overall outcome was fantastic. I wasn’t jingled or lit up, but I was warmed, shined, and my joy grew exponentially. As wonderful as life had been for me, I had contributed to it. It was a fantastic hour—one of my all-time favorites. But, as you will see, I had to pay for it afterwards. Such memories are difficult to forget, and human folly prevents us from seeing that there is no immutable rule dictating that the same things yield the same consequences. They don’t, because else the thousandth pipe of opium would elicit identical pleasures as the first, or one drink, rather than many, would give an analogous glow after a year of cocktails.”

 

London first restricted his drinking to his free time, keeping his mornings when he worked and wrote clean. However, he started to enjoy a drink during his writing sessions, and eventually found himself craving a cocktail as soon as he awoke. It wasn’t long until he was always inebriated. London was dissatisfied with his increasing reliance on drink and the growing power of his black horse. Despite the illusions of pleasure and high living that alcohol brought him, he understood there would be a cost:

“This isn’t a world where freight is free. For every strength, there is a balanced weakness; for every high, there is a comparable down; and for every illusory god-like moment, there is an equal period in reptile slime. Every achievement of shrinking lengthy days and weeks of existence into frantic glorious instants comes at a cost of shorter life and, often, terrible usury.”

Jack would debate with the “White Logic” – the soothing voice that alcohol created in his brain – in an attempt to resist its seductions:

“I recognize you for who you are, and I am not frightened of you.” You are the Noseless One behind your hedonistic mask, and your path goes to the Night. Hedonism is meaningless. It, too, is a falsehood, at best the arrogant compromise of a coward.”

Despite this, the Noseless One – death – continued to triumph.

A Superman is knocked out and lands on Earth.

Vintage man smiling and wearing hat.

Jack was in his late forties when he had a run of bad luck. He and Charmian attempted to have a child together; the first died shortly after birth, and the second resulted in a miscarriage. Weather and insects wreaked havoc on his property. He was diagnosed with appendicitis. And, in a cruel twist of fate, his gorgeous, recently completed Wolf House – which had taken two years to build – burnt down only days before he and Charmian were to move there. All of these disappointments were taken in stride by London. But each one shattered his soul further more.

London’s physical condition also worsened. The powerful, ready-for-anything physique of his youth, in which he had taken such pride, had turned fat and creaky by the time he was 37 — old before its time. His once trim waistline had ballooned, his rheumatoid joints hurt, and he was diagnosed with uremia, or kidney failure. Doctors begged with him to change his ways, but he was adamant in his refusal. He proceeded to chain smoke 60 Russian Imperials a day, feast himself on two practically raw ducks every day (his favorite meal), and hang out with John Barleycorn on a regular basis. He was exhausted and in pain all of the time, and when kidney stones developed to add to his misery, he added morphine to his self-medication arsenal.

London’s black horse had gained charge of his spirit as he reached forty, and his vanquished white horse had fallen back. Thumos had always led the way throughout his youth, taking him on wonderful experiences and to the pinnacles of achievement while taming his cravings. The black horse was now in command, and the white horse was compelled to perform its bidding. Jack’s desires forced him to spend above his means, forcing him to write incessantly to get money and pushing an already weary thumos to the brink of collapse. The dark horse’s aspirations for short-term numbing and pleasures of alcohol and drug gained center stage without the power of thumos propelling him towards exploration and lofty goals. Meanwhile, without thumos’ company, Jack’s Reason functioned in isolation, constantly reverting to its own ideas and failing to notice and control the black horse’s urges. Jack’s chariot, which had previously soared to great heights, became dangerously imbalanced and crashed to the ground.

 

Vintage man sitting in the office and looking his left.

On the night Jack died, Charmian recalls their last conversation:

“He hoisted two wooden box-trays of reading material that he had taken with him to the table on which sat his almost-untouched meal.”

‘See what I’ve got to read tonight,’ he muttered, his voice low and lifeless.

‘But you don’t have to do that, friend,’ I tried to persuade him. ‘Remember that you are the one who creates all of this labor and overwork for yourself, and it must be because you choose to do it rather than relax. You’re aware of my old argument!’

After a brief discussion about relative worth, he quickly sprang up, walked around the tiny table, and hurled himself on the sofa into my arms.

‘Mate-Woman, Mate-Woman, you’re the final straw for me to hold to, my last enticement for surviving,’ she says. You’re aware. I’ve already told you. You must comprehend. I’m lost if you don’t understand. ‘You’re the only one I have.’

I sobbed, ‘I do understand.’ ‘I realize that you have a lot on your plate and that you’re working too hard to get it all done. Are you so glued to the steering wheel that you can’t take a break from both working and thinking? You’re moving too quickly. You’re much too perceptive. You’re also sick. If you don’t pull up, something will break. You’re exhausted, dangerously exhausted, exhausted to the point of death. What are our options? We can’t keep going in this direction!’

I couldn’t see his eyes since the green hue covered his whole face. The corners of his lips, though, drooped pitifully. “Dear child, my poor boy—he was really exhausted.”

Jack London died on November 22, 1916, after never waking up from his slumber that night. He was 40 years old at the time. London committed suicide, according to common belief. No one will ever know for sure what killed him. The doctor who examined him listed “uremia” as the cause of death on the death certificate. A morphine overdose may have contributed to or caused his death, but it’s hard to establish whether it was purposeful or unintentional. Some researchers believe lupus was the cause of his death.

After studying and writing about the individual for the last several months, I do not believe he committed suicide. He was also unconcerned about clinging to life, and consciously extending it was not a priority. After all, he was the guy who said, “I’d rather be ashes than dust.” He informed Charmian that he wished to live to be 100 years old, but he had never been afraid of death and would not have lamented his premature death. He considered death as a “sweet rest” for someone who had pushed himself so hard in life, urging Charmian, “Think of it!—to rest forever!” I swear to you that I will welcome Death with a smile whenever and wherever he comes to meet me.”

 

Read the Jack London Series in Its Entirety:

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)

Sources:

James L. Haley’s Wolf: The Lives of Jack London 

Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: A Life

Charmian London’s The Book of Jack London, Volumes 1 & 2 (free in the public domain)

Jack London’s Complete Works (You can download London’s hundreds of papers all in one spot for $3, which is just plain great)

 

 

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Jack London was born on February 24, 1876. He was a prolific author of many genres including adventure and science fiction. His most famous work is “The Call of the Wild.” London died at the age of 40 from pneumonia and tuberculosis. Reference: jack london born.

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