25 December (1898): Jack London to Mabel Applegarth

Jack London once said of his personal relationships, “I am not impelled by the archaic sex madness of the beast, nor by the obsolescent romance madness of later-day man.” The writer  demonstrates his measured approach to matters of the heart in the letter below, a holiday missive to his first lady love filled not with terms of endearment, but philosophical musings.

To Mabel Applegarth

Oakland, Calif.

Xmas Morning [1898]

Dear Mabel:—

About the loneliest Christmas I ever faced—guess I’ll write to you. Nothing to speak of, though—everything quiet. How I wish I were down at College Park, if for no more than a couple of hours. Nobody to talk to, no friend to visit—nay, if there were, and if I so desired, I would not be in position to. Hereafter and for some time to come, you’ll have to content yourself with my beastly scrawl, for this is, most probably, the last machine made letter I shall send you.

Well, the FIRST BATTLE has been fought. While I have not conquered, I’ll not confess defeat. Instead, I have learned the enemy’s strongholds and weak places, and by the same I shall profit when the SECOND BATTLE comes off; and by what I learn through that, I will be better fitted for the THIRD BATTLE—and so on, ad infinitum.

The typewriter goes back on the thirty-first of December. Till then I expect to be busy cleaning up my desk, writing business letters of various nature, and finishing the articles I am at present on. Then the New Year, and an entire change of front.

I have profited greatly, have learned much during the last three months. How much I cannot even approximate—I feel its worth and greatness, but it is too impalpable [sic] to put down in black and white. I have studied, read, and thought a great deal, and believe I am at last beginning to grasp the situation—the general situation, my situation, and the correlative situation between the two. But I am modest, as I say, I am only beginning to grasp—I realize, that with all I have learned, I know less about it than I thought I did a couple of years ago.

Are you aware of the paradox entailed by progress? It makes me both jubilant and sad. You cannot help feeling sad when looking over back work and realizing its weak places, its errors, its inanities; and again, you cannot but rejoice at having so improved that you are aware of it, and feel capable of better things. I have learned more in the past three months than in all my High School and College; yet, of course, they were necessary from a preparatory standpoint.

And to-day is Christmas—it is at such periods that the vagabondage of my nature succumbs to a latent taste for domesticity. Away with the many corners of this round world! I am deaf to the call of the East and West, the North and South—a picture such as Fred used to draw is before me. A comfortable little cottage, a couple of servants, a select coterie of friends, and above all, a neat little wife and a couple of diminutive models of us twain—a hanging of stockings last evening, a merry surprise this morning, the genial interchange of Christmas greeting; a cosy grate fire, the sleepy children cuddling on the floor ready for bed, a sort of dreamy communion between the fire, my wife, and myself; an assured, though quiet and monotonous, future in prospect; a satisfied knowledge of the many little amenities of civilized life which are mine and shall be mine; a genial, optimistical contemplation—

Ever feel that way? Fred dreamed of it, but never tasted; I suppose I am destined likewise. So be it. The ways of the gods are inscrutable—and do they make and break us just for fun? What a great old world! What a jolly good world! It contains so much which is worth striving for; and natheless, so much to avoid. But it’s like a great Chinese puzzle— in every little community are to be found the Islands of the Blest, and yet we know not where to look for them. And if we do, our ticket in Life’s Lottery bears the wrong number. An auspicious mingling of all the elements which go to make up the totality of human happiness—the capital prize—there are various ways of winning it, and still more various ways of losing it. You may be born into it, you may tumble into it, you may be dragged into it; but verily, you may not knowingly walk into it. The whole thing is a gamble, and those least fitted to understand the game win the most. The most unfortunate gamblers are those who have, or think they have systems to beat the game—they always go broke. The same with life. There are numerous paths to earthly happiness; but to find them, skill in geography or typography is worse than useless.

I shall forsake my old dogmas, and henceforth, worship the true god. “There is no God but Chance, and Luck shall be his prophet!” He who stops to think or beget a system is lost. As in other creeds, faith alone atones. Numerous hecatombs and many a fat firstling shall I sacrifice—you just watch my smoke (I beg pardon, I mean incense).

I started to write a letter; I became nonsensical; forgive me. I go to dine at my sister’s. Happy New Year to all!

From Letters from Jack London. Edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard. Odyssey Press: New York, 1965. pp. 9-11.


A thesis written on London’s many romantic entanglements.

A series of essays exploring the modern applications of London’s thumos-inspired credo.