By DELLA HETHCOX
Hardly an empty seat remained in Dodd Auditorium last Thursday evening as the 2016 Great Lives series debuted with a lecture on one of America’s most renowned authors, Jack London. George Washington Hall brimmed with members of the Fredericksburg community, as well as University of Mary Washington students, all expectant of an entertaining event.
Great Lives originally began as class in 2004, but since then has become a weekly community event, thanks to the financial support of John Chappell. During the season, each week a new biographer presents the audience with a lecture on an intriguing historical figure. According to the Great Lives website, these authors are chosen according to the diversity of subject matter, ranging from politics to literature and art to sports.
Dr. William Crawley, Director of Great Lives & Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, welcomed the large audience and introduced the season’s various speakers, whose expertise spans the liberal arts world.
“This year’s series is gonna be our best one ever,” Crawley said, as the audience laughed, knowing he says this every season. Crawley proceeded to thank the audience for their continual support and noted that last year, Great Lives totaled more than 10,000 attendees.
James L. Haley kicked off the season with a riveting and thorough background on author and wild child, Jack London. His lecture was loosely based on his biography of London, titled “Wolf.” Haley, a Tulsa native, lives in Austin and spends his time enthusiastically sharing United States history with audiences all across the country. Haley has written several historical books as well as three novels, and his first historical piece was published when he was 19 years- old.
“There are only two states with a big interest in their histories: Texas and Virginia,” Haley said as he prepared to regale the audience with tales of London’s transcontinental escapades. Haley remarked that UMW is his idea of heaven because that means there are about 4,000 students studying liberal arts, which means history, his favorite.
Although many may recognize London from their high school classes and novels such as “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” London’s writing career spans more than just those two novels. During his lecture, Haley pointed out that London wrote science fiction, in addition to his classic man (or dog) versus wild novels. London also spent many years as a war reporter in Korea and Mexico, as well as going undercover in London’s poverty-stricken East End for his work, “People of the Abyss.”
Born in San Francisco in 1876, London grew up in Oakland, California in a chaotic home environment. At the age of 8, London’s mother, Flora Chaney London, sent him to work. Their relationship was strained from the beginning, although London continued to support her throughout her life, despite her harsh treatment.
An enterprising worker, London worked as an oyster pirate and as a coal worker, but after years of backbreaking physical work, London took off a few years to be a professional hobo. London wasted no opportunity to use his personal experiences in his novels; his experiences as an oyster poacher appear in his novel “Fish Patrol.” His first big break came when “A Thousand Deaths” was published by The Overland Monthly in 1899.
His personal life was just as colorful as his professional life, despite his marriage to Charmian Kittredge, London was a serial cheater. Yet even after his death, Charmian was still his biggest supporter, even going so far as to write her own biography of his life, which Haley pointed out is highly inaccurate, but an interesting read.
Haley called London “the most misunderstood writer in our canon,” since many people only recognize him for two novels as well as his, at the time, troublesome politics. As a dedicated socialist, London’s views frequently got him into hot water. In fact, he was known as the “boy socialist of Oakland.” However, Haley stressed the fact that if London found out that his beliefs were wrong he was quick to change his mind, placing a greater value on the truth than his own personal beliefs.
“Jack London should’ve been killed many times,” Haley said, but London thrived on change and challenges with a mixture of dreaminess and determination that made of him not only one of the best American authors of the 21st century, but also one of the greatest war reporters.
Haley joked with the audience that he could talk about London until next Tuesday, but he only ran over by 10 minutes, although his entertaining speaking style could have easily enticed the audience into another hour.
Haley’s lecture proved to be an intriguing inauguration evening for the 2016 Great Lives series, as the audience became more familiar with the life of one of America’s most celebrated authors.
Each lecture will be in Dodd Auditorium, George Washington Hall, each Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
For more information about the series, call (540) 654-1065 or visit their website:http://www.umw.edu/greatlives/