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Benjamin Goldstein's Sisyphean Jack London

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 12/10/2015 Jonah Raskin
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H.L. Mencken dismissed Jack London as a "jejune socialist." George Orwell noted that he had a "fascist streak." For documentary filmmaker Benjamin Goldstein, London is the "quintessential modern hero, Peter Pan, Sisyphus and existentialist."
All those roles and more emerge in Goldstein's new 89-minute film, Jack London: American Original, a labor of love that took five years to make, or a whole lifetime depending on one's calculations.
London himself would not be surprised that readers and critics have rarely viewed him through the same lens. "To satisfy my various sides I should be possessed of at least a dozen astral selves," he wrote in 1899. For the word astral one might substitute archetypal.
London listed some of his selves in a letter he wrote in January 1900 to Houghton Mifflin, his publisher. He was 24-years-old and at the start of a literary career that would make him as well known an American author as James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain.
"I was a salmon fisher, an oyster pirate, a school sailor, a fish patrolman, a longshoreman and a general sort of bay-faring adventurer," he explained, though he did not furnish details. Fudging the facts was one of the ways he operated. Or call it fictionalizing.
In the same letter to his publisher he wrote, "My father was Pennsylvania-born, a soldier, scout, backwoodsman, and wanderer." He provided no name, perhaps because John London, the soldier, scout and backwoodsman, was in fact his stepfather, not his biological father. London never publicly acknowledged the existence of William Henry Cheney, his real dad, also a wanderer, who lived in San Francisco with Jack's mother Flora Wellman in the mid-1870s.
Goldstein has read London's letters -- collected in three volumes -- poured over the biographies, including Irving Stone's Sailor on Horseback, and studied London's fiction and non-fiction - more than 50 volumes. There's probably no source he hasn't uncovered. Jack London: American Original contains rare archival footage of the author near the end of his life when he looks like he's about to go down for the count.
It was in New York at the age of 10 that Goldstein first began to read London's short stories, thanks to a gift from his father. Born in 1944 in the Bronx, he was drawn to London because of the sense of adventure and the exotic and the travel to distant locales that were everything that urban New York was not. Jack London wouldn't leave the young Benjamin alone, or the adult either. He kept going back to his work again and again.
In the 1980s, Goldstein wrote 10 one-hour episodes for a projected 13-part TV series about London. Not a single company was willing to front the money needed to bring the text to the small screen. And the National Endowment for the Humanities wasn't willing to help, either. Undeterred, Goldstein wrote three related plays about London and his world that never made their way to Broadway or even to off-Broadway: First Loves, Sex, Love and Revolution, and An Evening with Jack and Charmian.
In 2009, he decided to make a biopic about London. He visited the Huntington Library in San Marino, obtained permission to use its vast collection of London photos and interviewed Sue Hodson, the curator of the Jack London Collection, and an expert on the life and the work of the author. More interviews with London scholars, such as Jeanne Campbell Reesman, followed.
Jack London: American Original begins at the beginning with London's birth and ends at the end with his death. It covers all of London's dozen or so astral selves, including his stint as a war correspondent, his experiments with farming in Sonoma County, California and his work as a photographer.
Perhaps what's most unique about Goldstein's work is that it places London's engagement with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire at the heart of his life.
Both Jack and Charmian toured the charred ruins of the city. Jack took photos of the devastation and wrote a stunning piece of reportage titled "Story of an Eye Witness" that was published in Collier's in May 1906. Goldstein calls it "great writing, inclusive, Biblical and a metaphor for his whole life."
He adds, "London lived the myth of Sisyphus. He was always rolling the rock up the hill. The rock kept rolling down and he'd roll it back again."
Indeed, one might say that disaster followed Jack and Charmian their whole lives, whether aboard their yacht The Snark during their South Sea voyages, or in the wake of the fire that destroyed Wolf House, their mansion, in 1913, three years before London's death.
Jack London: American Original is unique in that it explores London's contradictions: his capitalist socialism, as one might call it, his devotion to his lovers, including his wives, and his repeated flights from them. "I think I must have been created for some polygamous country," he wrote to a friend.
"London was on both sides of all the big issues in his day," Goldstein says. "He talked about the superiority of white people, but many of his heroes are non-white." No doubt about it, London was attracted to The Other, though the principal protagonists in his novels -- Martin Eden the artist, Wolf Larsen the sea captain, and Billy Roberts and Saxon Brown the wanderers -- are white and proud of their ethnicity. Even Buck his heroic dog is from Northern European stock; he sides with his white master against the Indians whom he kills.
"I don't think that London was a racist in the modern sense of the word," Goldstein says. "He didn't believe in oppressing people of color and he was an idealist who preached the brotherhood of man. Moreover, for his own self-esteem, given his origins, he needed to belong to a group that he labeled superior."
Goldstein's film feels comprehensive and even definitive, though the filmmaker himself suggests that mysteries will always surround London. "We'll never know for sure the identity of his father," he says. "We'll never really know for certain what caused the Wolf House fire and we'll never know for sure the cause of his death at the age of 40. All we can say is what probably happened."
Why did Goldstein have to spend $45,000 of his own money to make his documentary? Why couldn't he find a financial backer in Hollywood? There's no big mystery there.
"Nowadays, many people don't recognize the name Jack London," Goldstein says. "There was also reticence to make a movie about a socialist who embraced capitalism and then, too, because it's costly to do a period piece."
Jack London: American Original couldn't have arrived at a better time. 2016 is the one hundredth anniversary of London's death, with events planned at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California and in the nearby town of Sonoma.
Goldstein's life-long fascination with the author of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Iron Heel, a dystopia novel about a dictatorship in the United States, ought to put him near the top of the list of Jack London experts.

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