With the release of the new film version of Jack London’s masterpiece, The Call of the Wild — starring Harrison Ford — was the San Francisco born novelist a prototype Hemingway?
Although Ernest Hemingway thought of himself, when a young man, as a rough neck hustler ready to draw a knife when mixing with hoods in Chicago, and riding with hobos on the rails. He was nothing of the sort of course, whereas the youthful Jack London was, according to literary historian, Van Wyck Brooks, something of a water-front hoodlum already, and handy with both gun and knife. Apparently you didn’t mix with London unless you were even handier with the hardware.
John Griffith London (originally Chaney) was born on January 12th, 1876, in San Francisco. His father, William Chaney, was, unlike Hemingway’s father, no doctor, but a wandering astrologer and something of a snake oil salesman who left home before the boy’s birth, never to return.
Pregnant, and with no support, John’s mother, Flora Wellman, tried to shoot herself with a pistol, but failed. And although not badly injured, Flora was considered ‘deranged’ by the authorities with the consequence that John was fostered out to an African-American, Virginia Prentiss, a former slave who became one of the most positive influences in Jack London’s life.
Late in 1876, and now recovered, Flora married John London, a disabled Civil War veteran, and with baby John now returned to her, the family moved to Oakland, just around the Bay from San Francisco.
John quickly became Jack and initially did reasonably well at school but then became something of a juvenile delinquent, often finding himself in trouble with the police, which may, in part, have been due to a negative relationship with his step-father, and the strong denial by William Chaney that he was Jack’s father.
Flora was a serious spiritualist who came from a wealthy family, but still found it necessary to give piano lessons (Hemingway’s mother, Grace, gave singing lessons) to make ends meet. Her father had disowned her when he remarried and moved away, leaving the teenage Flora to fend for herself as a pianist working in bars.
Marrying John London probably saved her life, but did Jack few favours, although it has to be said that the…