August 9, 2012

Jack London Faked It

Jack London

Yesterday I came across this, Five Writers Tougher than Hemingway.  A great reminder of all the work that’s been done ~ and hardship ~ outside the most famous four (or whatever) writers.

But the last one, Jack London, jolted up a memory for me. 

Imagine a short round woman, with a large belly and a large shelf of breasts and a face that reminds you of the fifties housewife with catseye glasses. I’m not sure that she wore cateyes, but that’s the impression. She’s tough as nails but compassionate, with strong opinions.  This is my Aunt Ab.

My uncle aspired to be John Wayne, and they as a family admired adventure writers.  I remember reading Canadian classics reminiscent of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" at their recommendation. Their family loved the Jack London stories and held them up as ideals.

Her voice dripping with distain, Aunt Ab once said, though, something along the lines of, “You know, that Jack London.  All he did was go talk to some old trappers and wrote down their stories.  He didn’t do any of that himself.”

What a statement.  It says so much.

What they valued was action.  On the ranch where I grew up, your worth was directly related to what you accomplished.  (That, and being male.) It did not matter that Jack told a darn good yarn, that his characters and situations and settings were so believable, and they actually were very taken with them.  It was summarily dismissed as secondary.

On one hand, I totally understand this viewpoint.  If you don’t write, you don’t understand what goes into it, that the imagination is a much more powerful weapon than the fist. 

I remember being angry as a kid because my family wasn’t in the local history books with anything more than a footnote, if that.  Why were we being ignored?  And then it came as an epiphany that the reason we weren’t was because we shut everybody out and we did not join the community and we didn’t have the stuff of history available for everyone ~ diaries, images, all that.  History goes to those who keep good entertaining documentation. And are good and congenial self-promoters.

So what Ab discounted as mere transcription is what makes all the difference. A myth isn’t created by the doers.  The myth is created by the mythmakers, the writers, those who follow the doers around and then to the utmost of their abilities spin a tale. 

That’s how saints are made.  That’s how heros are made.  That’s how presidents are made.  By the stories that are told about them.

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