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Literary Hubbub in Sonoma: Novel about Mrs. Jack London Roils the Faithful

“Yesterday’s heresy is tomorrow’s orthodoxy,” Jack London observed. In his own meteoric life, he attacked most of the sacred icons of American society, and then became an icon himself. His books were required reading in schools; the state of California created a park in his honor.

In Sonoma County, he’s the local literary hero; anyone who denigrates him feels the lash of the London aficionados.

The most recent personality to challenge the orthodox views of London, and to be rebuked, is Rebecca Rosenberg, the author of The Secret Life of Mrs. London. Mrs. Rosenberg is a long-time, award-wining lavender grower in the Valley of the Moon. Her lush gardens are not far from London’s own Beauty Ranch, where he farmed organically and raised prize pigs and horses from 1905 to 1916.

The assault on her book hasn’t taken Rosenberg by surprise. Indeed, Clarice Stasz, a veteran London scholar told her “You are walking into a lion’s den.”

In The Secret Life—which is a work of fiction—Rosenberg takes aim at the official story of Jack’s death. She also explores Charmian’s life after her husband’s passing. Curiously, nowhere on the front or the back cover is the book described as a novel, though in the author’s note at the end, the first sentence reads, “The Secret Life of Mrs. London is a work of fiction.” It would have helped to say so on the front cover.

In Rosenberg’s narrative, Jack dies of a morphine overdose, but Charmian persuades his doctors to declare uremic poisoning the cause of death. Then, once she’s free of a husband who has treated her as his muse, his confidant, and his comrade, but not as a real woman, she enjoys sex with Harry Houdini, the magician and escape artist. Ooh la la!

Rosenberg hasn’t really made up any of this, though she has embellished and exaggerated rumors, half-truths and real facts. London did use morphine near the end of his life to mask his pain; he might have died of an overdose.

Jack’s second wife, who called herself “Charmian Kittredge London,” and not Mrs. London, did have an affair with Houdini, though it seems unlikely that he unlocked her pent up libido, as Rosenberg suggests. She was quite liberated before Houdini came into the picture.

Readers have enjoyed gossiping about Jack and Charmian, ever since his first wife, Bessie, divorced him on the grounds of desertion. He married Charmian the day after the divorce was final. Then, the newly-weds went on a honeymoon in the Caribbean.

The docents at Jack London State Park are worried that visitors, many of them tourists, will assume that My Secret Life tells the naked truth. Accordingly, the guides have been advised to watch what they say, not praise Rosenberg’s book or defend the author’s entertaining insinuations, allegations and fables.

In February, Lou Leal, the dean of the docents at the park, published a letter in The Sonoma Index-Tribune in which he tried to persuade readers to reject Rosenberg’s book.

“I am concerned that fiction written about real people can cause readers to confuse fact and fiction,” he said. He added, “If truth is stretched too far by supposition and imagination, it can be disrespectful to the dead.”

My Secret Life is the number-one best selling book in Sonoma County, in part because it has stirred up controversy and in part because Rosenberg shows up in bookstores with a magician named Frank Balzerak, and recreates some literary magic of her own. She also offers food that she calls “Jack London and Houdini nibbles.” She’s a brilliant publicist.

Rosenberg is also a true literary daughter of Jack and Charmian who promoted themselves and their books during the ten years, from 1906 to 1916, that they were married and carried on in public like movie stars. Attempts to steer readers away from My Secret Life have awakened curiosity and lead to sales. Hopefully, the book will also prompt discussion and debate about the myths and the realities of Jack and Charmian’s iconic lives.

East Coast literary critics tried to steer readers away from London’s books when they were first published at the start of the twentieth century. Even Teddy Roosevelt aimed to undermine London’s credibility when he called him a “nature faker.” Indeed, London faked much of his own life and gave birth to his legend. Along with heaps of genius, fakery catapulted him onto bestseller lists.

Indeed, his literary fakery seemed credible, whether he wrote about dogs in the Yukon, wolves in California, or a sea captain named Wolf Larsen who leads a mutinous crew and then goes mad in the Pacific Ocean.

In his books, London made it seem as though he was an eyewitness to everything he described. A realist and a fabulist, he grasped the essentials of the “human comedy,” as William Saroyan, another controversial California  writer, called it.

“The paradox of social existence, to be truthful, we lie, to live true, we live untruthfully,” London wrote in 1900 to Anna Strunsky, a Russian-born Jewish socialist and a Stanford student, who rejected his marriage proposal. Strunsky went on to marry a millionaire, and to observe the 1905 Russian Revolution. Jack declined to join her in Moscow. If he had gone with her he might have been buried in the Kremlin, along with John Reed, the author of the classic of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. Rosenberg might have included a chapter in which London makes a mission to Moscow.

Still, her book, which falls somewhere between feminist fiction and chic lit, presents an intriguing psychological portrait of a complex man and a complex marriage. The London faithful dishonor the memory and the achievements of their patron literary saint when they try to bury My Secret Life.

Rebecca Rosenberg appears at Copperfield’s in Santa Rosa on March 8 at 6:30.

 

 

Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.

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