In this month’s Valley of the Moon Magazine, Jonah Raskin says, well, maybe he did.
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:
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.