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[whitespace] Susan Nuernberg
Photograph by Michael Amsler

London Bridge

Famous writer finds a passionate champion

By Paula Harris

"THE PROPER function of man is to live, not to exist," Jack London once wrote. "I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time." Sonoma County's most famous writer may not gain unanimous praise from literary critics, but these defiant words still sound just as vital today as they did in the early 1900s.

"And London did it--he used his time," declares Jack London scholar Susan Nuernberg, striding through the Special Collections area of Sonoma State University's Schulz Information Center, surrounded by paraphernalia relating to the controversial writer. "He crammed so much into those 40 years. It's incredible."

Nuernberg, an associate professor on a year's sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin, is working at SSU to help organize the recently acquired Jack London materials--a coup of a donation made to the university library. While she's in town, she'll also teach a course on the author.

Nuernberg, 54, can be classed as a true Jack London expert. She was named "Jack London Woman of the Year" in 1995 by the Jack London Foundation. Hell, she's even visited the original site of the author's cabin in the Yukon, where he tried to strike it rich in the Klondike gold rush but ended up becoming a writer instead.

Ask Nuernberg anything about the adventurous writer or his wild cronies and the light flashes on in her red-brown eyes as some little-known anecdote springs forth from her vast knowledge.

Nuernberg is quick to defend London (who died in 1916 in Glen Ellen) against his notoriously debauched image. "It's hard to get beyond the sensational gossipy stuff--that he committed suicide, that he was a womanizer and an alcoholic," she says, shaking her head.

London's works, especially such classic novels of wilderness adventure as The Call of the Wild and White Fang, were hugely popular with the mainstream public. But Nuernberg says scholars shunned the author.

"The critical establishment was put off," she says. "Here was this illegitimate, working-class, socialist, and self-taught author who didn't fit the Henry James mold. The critical establishment liked the idea of a self-destructive lifestyle--even though London sometimes fanned the flame of that image to sell his books. [But] it worked against critics taking him seriously."

Nuernberg prefers to view London as an intellectual writer who was ahead of his time. She also subscribes to a new theory about London: a doctor who made a study of London's medical records believes that the writer suffered for years from undiagnosed lupus.

"This would account for many of [London's] ailments," says Nuernberg. "It makes sense." This theory also concludes that London accidentally overdosed on pain medication, rather than succumbed to kidney failure, according to the autopsy, or committed suicide, according to what Nuernberg dubs "the Myth."

As she walks around the library racks, carefully pulling London items off the shelves for closer inspection, Nuernberg is clearly in her element. Right now, the new collection is still mostly stashed in cardboard boxes, some unopened, their contents waiting to be cataloged and displayed.

Susan Nuernberg The collection, valued at $400,000, was donated to the university earlier this year because of the Rohnert Park campus' proximity to London's Glen Ellen ranch (now Jack London State Park). Indeed, it's been noted that London's widow, Charmian, who died in the early 1950s, would ride up to the top of Sonoma Mountain and look down over the other side. If she did that today, she would see the new Jean and Charles Schulz Information Center, SSU's new crown jewel of a library.

The London collection represents the core of a new Sonoma Writers Room that SSU is establishing in the Schulz Center. The treasure trove of London lore was originally amassed during the past 20 years by the late Philadelphia-based collector Carl Bernatovech. Bernatovech's collection was then purchased from his family earlier this year by Waring Jones, a Minnesota journalist, writer, and longtime London fan.

Jones asked Sonoma State to provide a home for the material. "[Jones] loved the idea that the ranch was just on the other side of the hill, and wanted all materials to be accessible to the students," Nuernberg says.

The 50-box collection includes first edition volumes, magazine articles, London's personal letters and financial records, and movie memorabilia.

Today, several open cardboard boxes line the floor, all crammed with canisters containing reels of early-made films of London's novels. "How the films got from Hollywood into the hands of a private collector no one knows," Nuernberg says with a laugh.

The collection also includes some 350 original magazine articles, including many rare turn-of-the-century editions of The Saturday Evening Post, which serialized London's novels, that are stashed in pristine leather portfolios, courtesy of collector Bernatovech.

In addition, several of London's personal items (currently in storage) will join the collection, including a silk shirt made for the author in Polynesia and later discovered in one of the barns on the ranch.

The Sonoma Writers Room, located in one corner of the Special Collections area of the library, will feature a glass-walled area with smaller-scale replicas of chairs found at London's ranch, fabric similar to the cloth London brought back from the South Seas, and lighted shelves with nonreflective glass to display a variety of items.

The room, slated to open in June, will also highlight other local writers, including Richard Henry Dana, M.F.K. Fisher, Alice Walker, Richard Brautigan, and Gary Snyder.

But London will be the main focus. And Nuernberg couldn't be happier about that.

The scholar says her fascination with London began back in college. "I was curious as to why London wasn't taught in my graduate courses in American literature, and when I asked the faculty, I was told he was a racist," she explains.

This led Nuernberg to write her dissertation on the ideology of race and how London's ideas reflected that. "Of course he was absolutely typical of the period," she concluded. "It was the height of American expansion abroad."

While London's scientifically driven ideas of race, with an emphasis on Darwinism, may be criticized now, Nuernberg says her research of the author shows that his ideas developed and changed throughout the years.

"I would call him an intellectual writer," she says. "His novels were about ideas, and he speaks directly to people. But in the end, my sense is that his time hadn't yet come."

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From the March 1-8, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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