What do America’s most famous novelist and the world’s largest purveyor of paperback romances have in common? More than you would think.
Jack London (1876-1916), author of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and other classics, was published in the UK and overseas by Mills & Boon, beginning in 1912. At that time, Mills & Boon, founded four years earlier, was a general publishing house with a varied list of novels and non-fiction. Jack London was the star author on a fiction slate that included P.G. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson, and Hugh Walpole. When in the early 1930s Mills & Boon switched to a single-genre house specializing in light romances, London and other ‘high-brow’ authors were dropped.
But for four formative years, until his unexpected death at age 40, London was Mills & Boon’s top seller (George Bernard Shaw famously said, “If you wish to compliment me, call me the Jack London of the British Isles”). His notoriously combative personality was wrangled by Mills & Boon’s co-founder, Charles Boon. Boon had cut his teeth at Methuen, where he managed another literary ‘giant,’ Marie Corelli. It was a match made in literary heaven, until the disruption caused by the First World War.
The war could not have come at a worse time for London, who was enjoying unprecedented success in 1914 with his latest novel, The Valley of the Moon, and John Barleycorn, his semi-autobiographical treatise on alcoholism. The war, Boon wrote to London, “has simply put the stopper on from the point of view of selling books of any description. We shall do our best to keep your sales going.”
From his ranch in California, London was as concerned about his book sales as he was the fate of the Allies – a view contrary to the pacifism that initially kept America out of the war. “Of course, I am absolutely pro-ally,” London reassured Boon. “I would rather be a dead man under German supremacy than a live man under German supremacy. If the unthinkable should happen, and England be shoved into the last ditch, I shall, as a matter of course, go into that same last ditch and fight and die with England.” Such Alpha-male bravado would one day become the hallmark of the archetypal Mills & Boon hero.
London’s novels, pulsing with individual heroism, were popular with soldiers at the Front – until a bogus anti-war pamphlet threatened to derail his popularity. ‘The Good Soldier’ issued by the ‘Stop the War League’ of North London carried London’s byline – and called on young men to quit the army. Charles Boon, understandably, panicked. “A really strong article in our favour would help us no end,” Boon wrote. “Last week nine German spies were captured in London in English officers’ uniforms, and of all places in the world on the tops of buses. This is just to show you what a race we are fighting.”
What proceeded was a media blitz, with both London and his literary agent, Hughes Massie, granting interviews to reassure the public. Neither minced words. In the Daily Express, Massie reported that “Mr. London states that he is ‘with the Allies life and death, by English race and philosophic conviction of the righteousness of their cause.’ He declares there must be only one end of the war – namely, the subjugation of the mad dog Germany.”
The headline in the Daily Graphic, ‘JACK LONDON’S VIEW OF GERMANY, AN INSANE NATION,’ presented London as a Wild West hero, riding to the rescue. From his ranch, London proposed, “Suppose I am lying here asleep and I hear a cry for help. I rush out and find a bloodthirsty brute of a paranoiac maniac engaged in the pleasant task of shooting everyone he can see on the ranch. What can I do? Reason with him? Speak to him kindly? No, I get my own gun, the best one I’ve got; and I creep up as close to him as I can, and I pump his body full of lead. It’s the only treatment possible: the only treatment whereby the place may be freed of this paranoiac and his crazy egotism.” To London, there were 70 million like-minded paranoiacs in Germany all trying to shoot up the Allied ‘ranch.’
The PR campaign worked. London’s books sold in the thousands for the remainder of the war, with fan mail arriving from soldiers at the Front.
It is ironic that, after the war, Germany became London’s biggest European market, even larger than the UK. In 1928, London’s widow, Charmian, boasted to Charles Boon that “My main income now emanates from Germany! That is ONE good result of the War, incontrovertible – that Young Germany needs Jack London and is devouring him. Rather late, but not too late.” A Jack London sales brochure from Germany in 1929 listed all of his titles in translation and touted sales of one million.
When Hitler came to power, however, London’s books were banned, including The Iron Heel, the dystopian novel which foretold the rise of Fascism some two decades before it happened (to the marvel of critics like George Orwell). Seeds were being sown for another world war – and presumably Jack London would have ridden, once again, to the defense of the Allies.
Headline image credit: Snow-bow by James Brooks. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.