Did Jack London set fire to Wolf House?

Jack London Ranch 2010 033In this month’s Valley of the Moon Magazine, Jonah Raskin says, well, maybe he did.

http://www.vommag.com/january-2016/

Background for this excerpt: Wolf House, the ruins of which still stand in Jack London State Park, was London’s dream home, designed with his input and built from California materials. After citing a 1995 forensic investigation that found oily rags and spontaneous combustion to be the cause, Raskin continues:

Still, not everyone was convinced, including Greg Hayes [Jack London State Park Ranger and London expert]. Even Robert Anderson [forensic investigator] wasn’t entirely convinced of his own argument, especially when I pointed out to him that Jack had written in an essay published before the fire, “It will be a happy house–or else I’ll burn it down.” Just what did Jack mean when he made that provocative remark? Just how unhappy was he in 1913 when his doctors told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, alcohol would kill him.

There was no investigation of the fire that year, not by London’s insurance company, not by law enforcement and not by the fire department, since there was no fire department in Sonoma County in 1913. . . .

Whatever the cause, one thing seems clear. It wasn’t one big happy family on Beauty Ranch. Jack’s second wife, Charmian Kittridge, whom he had married in 1905, typed his manuscripts, followed him most everywhere he went and put up with his philandering. Often depressed, he drove her crazy, and she continued to love him.
According to a witness who overheard an argument in Wolf House shortly before it burned, Charmian told Jack, “You’ll never live here.”

Raskin goes on to discuss other suspects, including jealous neighbors.

What to make of this evidence? A few thoughts:

  1. London’s “or else I’ll burn it down” sounds a lot like London being London to me. That melodramatic note is a fairly characteristic pattern in some of his writing, and holding him to it as a threat, which may work in a police procedural drama, probably means less than you’d think.
  2. “How unhappy was he in 1913”–London’s legion of biographers can sort that one out. He was devastated when Wolf House burned down, as numerous witnesses attest. A brutal letter to his daughter Joan upbraids her for not writing to him to sympathize with its loss.
  3. “You’ll never live here”–Again, in the heat of an argument, the participants say things for effect rather than as actual threats. 1913 was a fraught year for the Londons (see The Little Lady of the Big House), but the two months spent in New York City in 1912 rather than the events of 1913 were a low point in their relationship. If Charmian had to “put up with” a lot from London and his depressions, would she be inclined to burn down a house, knowing that it would send him into a further depth of despair and that, since she’d be there, she’d have to bear the brunt of it?

You can read the article on pp. 46-47 of the issue, which is online at the link above.

Naturalism Panels at ALA 2016

Stephen Crane Society  http://stephencranesociety.wordpress.com

Chair: Paul Sorrentino

  1.     “Falling Stories: Disability and Cinematic Naturalism in Stephen Crane’s City Sketches,” Donna Campbell, Washington State University
  1. “‘In this awkward situation he was simply perfect’: Awkwardly Unsettling Minstrel Humor and Lynching Apologetics in Crane’s “The Monster,” Ambar Meneses-Hall, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  1. “’‘Well, now, yer a hell of a t’ing, ain’ yeh?’: Collective Shaming and Individual Punishment in the Sexual Economy of the Bowery in Stephen Crane’sMaggie: A Girl of the Streets,” Eliza Wilcox, Winthrop University

Theodore Dreiser Society http://www.dreisersociety.org/

Panel 1: Theodore Dreiser, Open Topic
Chair: Linda Kornasky, Angelo State University
1. “The Science of Crime in Dreiser’s Fiction,” John Dudley, University of South Dakota
2. “Dreiser Weaving: Patterns, Designs, and Female Labor,” Craig Carey, University of Southern Mississippi
3. “Economic Colonization in An American Tragedy,” Andrew Spencer, Virginia Commonwealth University
4. “Cityscape as Literary Space: Representing Turn-of-the-Century American Cities in Theodore Dreiser’s Novels,” Heather Yuping Wang, Nanjing University of Science and Technology

Panel 2: Global Dreiser
Chair: Linda Kornasky, Angelo State University
1. “Local Color and the Picturesque in Dreiser Looks at Russia” Gary Totten, North Dakota State University
2. “Russia Looks at Dreiser,” Katerina Kozhevnikova, University of Copenhagen
3. “‘Not dead and scholastic but living like the smell of violets’: Literary Criticism and Social Change in the Correspondence between Theodore Dreiser and Sergei Dinamov, 1926-37,” Jude Davies, University of Winchester

Frank Norris Society http://franknorrissociety.org/

Panel Title: Frank Norris and American Literary Naturalism

Chair: Eric Carl Link, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

  1. “’It Faces Every Child of Man’: Readers, Imagined Violence, and Culpability in American Literary Naturalism,” Adam Wood, Salisbury University
  2. “’Erotic Economy’: Domesticity, Desire, and the Women of McTeague,” Nicole de Fee, Louisiana Tech University
  3. “Foodways & Nation-Building: The Domestic Decline of The Octopus,” Lauren Navarro, LaGuardia Community College
  4. “Frank Norris and the Legacy of Higher Biblical Criticism,” Steven Bembridge, University of East Anglia

So long, Academia.edu: articles posted at WSU Research Exchange

I’ve removed the few uploaded articles I had at Academia.edu, in part because of its attempts to monetize content.   Like Google apps, which changes features all the time (remember the Google equivalent of Bloglines?), Academia.edu is going in a direction that doesn’t look trustworthy because, as Timothy Burke suggests, sooner or later it’s going to start charging authors for content posting.

The Academia.edu excuse of “well, it’ll be like paying to publish in an open access journal” is a complete nonstarter for several reasons. First, paying to publish in the humanities, where we don’t have the STEM community’s access to grants in the seven figures (or, let’s be honest, the four-figure range), is something that most of us not only won’t but can’t consider. Second, we have a well-established and entirely rational distrust of organizations (looking at you, Yelp) that allow paid sponsorship to trump authentic ratings, as this new Academia.edu model would. Third, why would you need Academia.edu with the ability to put, publicize, or find your work in other places?

Did I delete the Academia.edu account? Why bother? The links all now lead elsewhere (Research Exchange). But now it’s just one other place to identify work, and it’s no longer primus inter pares.

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

Biography Corner: Unsensationalizing Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate
hughes
As a counterpoint to reading for work, my reading for pleasure tends to be nonfiction on either subjects (British literature), disciplines (history), or time periods close enough to be interesting but with enough distance to provide an escape. In practical terms, these tend to be biographies (John Hay, Jack Kerouac) or popular nonfiction (The Bully Pulpit, Stephen Crane Remembered).

Since these are reading for pleasure, I don’t pretend to have any special insight into the subjects they cover but thought that this blog might be a good place for thoughts about them.

The most recent book is Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life by Jonathan Bate. The press surrounding this book has tended to sensationalize its revelations (go read them if you want to) and has earned the condemnation of Janet Malcolm, whose The Silent Woman on Sylvia Plath and the perils of biography I’ve read several times and who condemns this work and what she calls its superficial readings. Bate has gone on record saying that the Hughes estate’s withdrawal of permission to quote from Hughes’s poetry forced him to cut out huge portions of the manuscript.

baskinWhat struck me about the book, even in this truncated form, isn’t the gossip but its its account of Hughes’s process of poetic creation. I knew something about this (Graves’s The White Goddess, etc.) from a grad class in which we read “The Jaguar” and Crow, but it’s not until the later chapters that Bate speaks powerfully to this. Bate clearly sees Lupercal and to a lesser extent Crow as the highlight of Hughes’s career, with occasional descents after that into vatic self-importance amid some genuinely good poems and a host of public performances (as Poet Laureate and public intellectual) that diluted his gifts.

Despite praise for Hughes’s translations, which were (I looked this up) his poetic reconstructions or renderings from a word-for-word translation created by a fluent speaker of the language (Hughes could speak French but not other languages), Bate sees these as an evasion, too.

Bate sees Hughes as roaring back to life with The Birthday Letters (1998), however. What the chapter on The Birthday Letters reveals is that they were written over the course of years but unpublished due to fears of feminist and other critical backlash. (Feminists and critics in this book are represented pretty much as shrieking harpies and vultures, respectively.)

birthdaylettersBate shows Hughes as constantly on the edge of a more confessional mode–in the early 1970s, for example–but held back by these fears. It’s as though Hughes teeters on the confessional versus vatic/safe imagistic poems precipice and goes with safety but then unleashes his powers in The Birthday Letters. The Birthday Letters frees him, but Hughes expresses the thought that it may be 30 years too late for the electric voltage of the early poet of “The Thought Fox” and “The Jaguar.”

Bate spends chapter 30, “The Sorrows of the Deer,” in explicating both a later volume, Howls and Whispers (509) and a Silvine notebook, likely composed before 1969 (511), called The Sorrows of the Deer. Containing 22 poems, the notebook could, claims Bate, have “expiated both [Hughes’s] grief and his guilt” if published in the 1970s. It’s a chapter about Hughes in elegaic mood, but the meta version is that Bate expresses some sorrow, too, for the poet that he thinks Hughes could have been.

Bate repeatedly compares Hughes to Wordsworth, right down to his use of his vivid journals being similar to the use that William made of his sister Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. Another notebook, a “Challenge Triplicate Book,” contains a 5,000 word draft of what could have become Hughes’s version of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Bate reads in detail a poem called “Black Coat: Opus 31,” linking it to Hughes’s life but also demonstrating how its Wordsworthian “spots of time” of grief, memory, and loss recall Wordsworth. Bate says that there are thousands of unpublished pages in the archives and that a whole book could be written on the composition of The Birthday Letters.  Knowing academics, I’m pretty sure there’s probably one in production right now.

I haven’t finished the book yet–two chapters left to go– and can’t say whether Bate has a grand summing-up on Hughes’s career. I’m also not up on the status of Hughes’s literary reputation.

What interests me primarily is this book’s achievement as a literary biography, even in its current form, and a question. Does Bate believe that Hughes has somehow failed the poet that he might have been by refusing to take (in a Frost quotation he uses often) the road less traveled? Is it the biographer’s place to judge the achievement of his or her subject, and, if so, to what extent?

Last day to download Edith Wharton Review issues for free!

The Edith Wharton Society

Today is the last day to download back issues of The Edith Wharton Review for free at https://edithwhartonsociety.wordpress.com/edith-wharton-review/ewr-back-issues-online/

Because The Edith Wharton Review has moved to Penn State Press, back issues will be taken down from the Edith Wharton Society site tomorrow and moved behind a paywall.

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