Tarnel Abbott Ponders Jack London’s Legacy
A retired librarian and the great-granddaughter of the famously rakish writer shares her penchant for socialism—a chip off the old block.
Tarnel Abbott is the great-granddaughter of Jack London and her favorite book is not Call of the Wild.
Photo by Stephen Texeira
Tarnel Abbott, Jack London’s great-granddaughter, did not order the $10 Call of the Wild sandwich (roast beef, caramelized onions, smoked cheddar, oil-cured tomatoes, roasted garlic aioli) at an Oakland cafe the other day.
She opted instead for a pastry and coffee, shrugged, sighed, and sat down.
“It’s kind of weird,” she said, referring to her forbearer’s legacy. “You know, he was a socialist. He used to sign cards, ‘Yours for the revolution.’ And yet so many people have gotten wealthy off his name.”
Abbott, a retired librarian, is one of London’s only descendants still in the East Bay. And like her great-grandfather, she’s a social-justice activist, champion of the oppressed, and lover of words. In her clear, medium-set eyes, she even looks a bit like him.
She rarely invokes her relationship to the great author, but this year—the 100th anniversary of his death—she is making an exception. She spoke at a Jack London centennial kickoff event and plans to attend a Jack London Festival in Dawson City, Canada (inspiration for London’s Klondike stories). She also has been invited to read and perform several of his works, and when the Jack London Society holds its biennial symposium, Abbott hopes to present a paper.
“It used to embarrass me,” she said. “People always say, ‘What’s it like?’ I never had an answer. But truthfully, I feel good about him. He did some things that were rotten, but I’ve always respected his political perspective.”
London was born in 1876 in San Francisco to a single mother, a free-spirited activist named Flora Wellman who supported herself by conducting séances. His father was a pioneering astrologer who left before London was born. Flora relied on a former slave, Virginia Prentiss, to serve as Jack’s wet nurse and help raise him, Abbott said. The families were so close, in fact, that the Prentisses moved to Oakland to stay near Jack when Flora remarried and moved across the bay. London (who took his stepfather’s last name) grew up in a dozen Oakland working-class neighborhoods. He started working at age 9, toiling in canneries, shoveling coal, pirating oysters, and performing other back-breaking labor. And, yes, he spent a lot of time drinking beer at Heinold’s.
His adventuring life began at age 16. He hopped freight trains, worked aboard sealing ships, saw the world. And when eventually he grew tired of “difficult, menial, soul-crushing work, he decided to use his brain, not body, to earn a living,” Abbott said.
He won a writing contest in the San Francisco Call newspaper, and after hundreds of rejections, The Son of the Wolf, his first book, was published in 1900. His classic, The Call of the Wild, was published three years later.
Although London’s fictional adventure tales remain his most popular, Abbott’s favorite book by her great-grandfather is nonfiction. The People of the Abyss is his firsthand account of the horrific living conditions in the London slums. The Iron Heel, a futuristic novel foreseeing the rise of fascism, is a close second.
“The whole experience of being downtrodden is what made him a writer and a socialist,” Abbott said. “He knew that the myth of Horatio Alger was just that, a myth. The system was stacked against the poor, and that’s what he tried to convey.”
London and his wife, Bess, had two daughters (one of whom was Abbott’s grandmother) before London left to marry Charmain Kittridge of Berkeley and move to Sonoma County. He died at age 40 (Abbott believes of an overdose of morphine he was taking for chronic pain), and left his first wife almost nothing.
And so, like families since the dawn of time, there was bitterness. Over money, feelings of abandonment, questions over the rights to his legacy, and all the other things families bicker over.
Still, Abbott remembers her grandmother having a great deal of pride in Jack London. An avowed socialist herself, Abbott’s grandmother wrote several books about her father and endured ostracism, not to mention FBI scrutiny, for her left-wing political views.
“I was raised in this very radical family,” she said about her childhood in Oakland. “Demonstrations, protests. His spirit was very much with us.”
And somewhere in there, Abbott has vague recollections of attending the groundbreaking of Jack London Square. And we all know what’s happened there in the ensuing decades: luxury condominiums, fine restaurants, yachts bobbing on the estuary. Heinold’s remains, somewhat of a tourist attraction, but any trace of Jack London’s bustling, hardscrabble waterfront has been snuffed out like a fire in the Alaskan snow.
“It is what it is,” Abbott said, glancing around the squeaky-clean plaza. “Oakland has changed. The Bay Area has changed, overwhelmed by the tech boom. Although in a lot of ways, that makes Jack London more relevant than ever.”