MOTHERS AND FATHERS
I was impotent at that time, the result of hardship, privation & too much brain-work. Therefore I cannot be your father, nor am I sure who your father is.—W. H. CHANEY TO JACK LONDON
The future was anything but promising for the child who entered the world on January 12, 1876. His mother was scarcely strong enough to nurse him, and his putative father had abandoned them both. During the first few weeks following his birth, the infant destined to win international fame as Jack London appeared to have no future at all.
His mother was Flora Wellman, a fascinating woman worthy of being a character in one of London’s stories. Jack quite likely had her in mind as model for Mrs. Grantly, the spiritualist in his story “Planchette”:
“A weird little thing … Bundle of nerves and black eyes. I’ll wager she doesn’t weigh ninety pounds, and most of that’s magnetism.”
is one of several words that might fit the character of Flora Wellman. To her own granddaughters she was an enigma. Joan London provides this illuminating vignette:
It is her face which commands attention. Spectacled, large-nosed, square-jawed, it could be the face of a man. Beneath well-defined brows her gaze is disconcerting, faintly hostile, even a little contemptuous; above the determined chin, her mouth is a firm straight line. Humorless, stubborn, opinionated, intelligent—it is an extraordinary face.
Flora was an extraordinary woman. She was born on August 17, 1843, the daughter of Marshall Daniel Wellman, the “Wheat King” of Massillon, Ohio. Two events particularly would shape Flora’s character: the death of her mother when she was three years old and a severe case of typhoid fever she came down with at thirteen. The first stunted her emotional growth and left her with permanent psychological scars. (Although pampered by her father, she passionately hated the woman he married in 1847 and never fully recovered from her mother’s untimely death.) The second stunted her physical growth, impaired her eyesight, and cost her the loss of much of her hair. She reached her maturity standing barely four and a half feet tall.
At sixteen she ran away from Massillon to Alliance, Ohio, where she lived for a while with her sister Mary Everhard. She returned home a few years later to help care for another sister, but the prodigal daughter was never again quite welcome in the Wellman family. After the Civil War she left Massillon for good, with no regrets on her part or on the part of the townspeople—local whispers insinuated a covertly scandalous affair with a married man. Little is known about her wanderings until 1873, when she stopped off in Seattle. There she boarded for several months in the home of “Mayor” Henry Yesler and his wife. Yesler, former mayor of Springfield, Ohio, knew that the Wellmans were a family of considerable prestige, but he may not have known of Flora’s apostasy. It was in the Yesler home that she first met the man destined to play the most dramatic role in her life: William Henry Chaney.
While Flora has been treated unkindly by many of London’s biographers, Chaney has fared even worse. Usually disparaged as a kind of footloose astrological huckster, “Professor” Chaney was in fact a celebrity of considerable distinction. He made for good newspaper copy: a dynamic figure who drew serious audiences to his popular public lectures. His friendship with the Yeslers attes
Praise for Jack London: An American Life:
“[Jack] London scholar Labor extracts every drop of excitement, folly, romance, ‘creative ecstasy,’ grueling effort, and despair from the vast London archives, including the relentless press coverage of him . . . Labor’s unceasingly vivid, often outright astonishing biography vibrantly chronicles London’s exceptionally daring and wildly contradictory life and recovers and reassesses his complete oeuvre, including many powerful, long-neglected works of compassionate, eyewitness nonfiction. Let the Jack London revival begin.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist
“At long last, Jack London gets the authoritative biography he so richly deserves. Earle Labor is the true-blue dean of London studies. This portrait is brilliantly researched, elegantly written, and brimming with new facts about the brave author of The Call of the Wild. Highly recommended!”
—Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and author of Cronkite
“There was a time—before the Great War and the frontier’s closing drove the creative spark inward—when American novelists launched the reader off into unfettered narratives as raw, brawny, explosive, and drenched in gritty personal experience as the nation that inspired them. Jack London was among the last of the great ones. Now comes London’s London, the biographer
Earle Labor, to turn the light of truth-telling back upon this magnificent half-forgotten outlaw of our literature.” —Ron Powers, author of Mark Twain: A Life
“Not so long ago, Jack London was considered a literary titan and a great American hero akin to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway—as famous for his wild adventures as for his bestselling books. Earle Labor’s eloquent, deeply researched biography has brought London and his fascinating world back to life in all its vivid, colorful detail. This will stand as the definitive biography of London for many years to come.” —Debby Applegate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
“In this comprehensive account, more richly detailed than any prior biography of Jack
London, Earle Labor debunks common myths. This is a London revealed by his personal writings, along with accounts from those who knew him best. Labor’s crisp prose quotes extensively, allowing the reader to interpret the full character of this noted writer, rancher, and traveler. In placing London within the context of the tumultuous Progressive Era, Labor further explains the contradictory choices and beliefs of this complex individual. The result limns a portrait of a brilliant, creative, sensitive yet self-assured man who died prematurely, on the cusp of still greater offerings.” —Clarice Stasz, author of Jack London’s Women
“This engrossing biography paints a sympathetic (though not uncritical) portrait of London’s dynamic ambition and energy. Born in San Francisco in 1876 to an impoverished single mother, London (White Fang) took up factory work to support his household while still a child, and by age 18 had worked as an oyster pirate, sailor, and rail-riding hobo. Omnivorous reading and sporadic education fueled his desire to write, and a year spent surviving the Yukon Gold Rush (1897–1898) provided him with inspiration for his earliest nonfiction and fiction. As rendered by Labor (The Portable Jack London), London’s official biographer and curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, La., London was a complex and often contradictory individua