Jack London Writer As Father

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.

We sometimes learn more about the personality of gifted writers through their private letters than through their prized writings.  The letters between Jack and daughter Joan London are a good example.

I read in a newspaper that he had become the highest paid author in America.  Surely, though, no other literary man, with the possible exception of Balzac, was to mismanage his financial affairs more completely.
— Joan London, daughter

London’s adventure novels made him one of America’s best loved writers.  His tales captivated this country and he passed away at age 40 in 1916.    

Joan was his eldest daughter.  She was born Jan. 15, 1901.  Her father was so taken with the child he kept a special photo album close by just to honor her.

He also left the family when she was three-years-old.  Joan and her younger sister Becky (Bess) lived with their mother in Oakland, Calif., and then Piedmont.  London visited when he could.  But there were years with little or no contact.  Letters were few and brief.

Jack London was famous.  For Joan he was just daddy.  What gets revealed in her letters is a daughter longing for the presence and attention of that legendary missing daddy.

As a product of a broken home, their relationship was troubled.   

“How did my father feel toward me, us?  Surely he loved us,” she said.  “How could he have abandoned us, rejected us when we were so young, so vulnerable?”   

As the daughter of a legendary writer, much was expected of Joan.  The biggest push came from Joan herself. 

As an adult she worked as a researcher and director of publications for the California State Federation of Labor.  She also wrote “Jack London and his Times” a literary biography and co-authored “So Shall Ye Reap:  The Story of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Workers’ Movement.”  Joan also published essays, poems, short stories and a novel entitled, “Sylvia Coventry.”

Jack and Bessie London’s divorce was messy.  The young sisters were caught in the middle and their mother was determined to rebuild their lives without him.  Joan’s conflicting loyalties never seemed to end. 

“Years ago I warned your mother that if I were denied the opportunity of forming you, sooner or later I would grow disinterested in you…Your mother today understands me no more than she ever understood me—which is no understanding at all,” London writes to his daughter.

Her letters reflect the anguish of a child waiting for the check to arrive.

“Daddy, did you overlook those bills that I sent you for the gym when I sent those for dancing school?...Daddy, I had to stop my music lessons but mother says that you must have a reason for it,” she writes.

Joan speaks about how her father receded from her in time and distance.  His voice and laughter grew fainter.  Pictures she stored in her memory of him faded.  And the sense of loss around him never really diminished.

“Daddy what has happened to you?  You said that you would be down in about two weeks,” she writes.

The correspondence offers interesting insights into the evolving relationship between a father and daughter. 

“I read in a newspaper that he had become the highest paid author in America,” Joan writes.  “Surely, though, no other literary man, with the possible exception of Balzac, was to mismanage his financial affairs more completely.”

Joan London died in 1971.

The archive of approximately 60 autograph letters, notes and postcards from Joan London to her father Jack London went on the block on April 12 at PBA Galleries, San Francisco.  Each was addressed to Daddy or Dad. 

The dates of the letters range from 1906 to 1916, three weeks before his death.  With the correspondence were transcriptions of 23 letters from Jack to Joan.

The archive sold for $18,000.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  She has provided information on thousands of antiques and collectibles since her LiveAuctionTalk column started 26 years ago. She received her training in the trenches as a professional appraiser.

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