Jack London

Jack London was one of the most prolific American writers in the early 20th century. He wrote novels, short stories, essays, plays and articles. London grew up in poverty and worked a number of different jobs, including such roles as oyster pirate, deputy patrolman for the California Fish Patrol, able seaman, coal heaver, laundry worker, coal stoker and gold prospector. He was a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War. When he was 18, he spent 30 days in jail for vagrancy. London was a member of the Socialist Party, until resigning from the party in 1916. His second wife Charmian Kittredge was also active in socialism and was a strong voice for feminism. The Londons eventually lived on a 1000 acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California.

In 1891, the California Home for the Care and Training of the Feeble Minded was opened on a 1640-acre parcel. This institution is about 3 miles from the site of London’s ranch.

London published a short story entitled ‘The Drooling Ward.’ The narrator of the story is named Tom, and is one of the institution residents. Tom helps to care for some of the other residents, a not uncommon practice in residential institutions.

Several elements of the story would be particularly interesting to review from a Social Role Valorization perspective, such as interpersonal identification, language and labels, personal appearance, non-programmatic issues, relationship dynamics, and the desire for the ‘good things of life,’ among others.

A major thread of the story includes Tom along with three other residents running away from the institution, though in the end, they return after a day. One of the interesting elements of this part of the story describes an encounter that takes place while they are climbing a hill and crossing a ranch property. They run in to the ranch owner and his wife, and exchange a few words. Although the rancher’s name is given as Endicott in this scene, they clearly represent Jack and Charmian London.

A collection of London’s writings edited by Earle Labor (Penguin, 1994) includes a copy of a note written to Jack London in 1911 by Dr. William Dawson, medical superintendent of the Sonoma State Home: “I have read [‘The Drooling Ward’] with a great deal of interest and find it in greater part to be true to life. The ‘hero’ of the story I think is our old inmate, Newton Dole.’

A reading and analysis of London’s story could make an interesting lesson or assignment for a university class studying the history of human services.

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