Those who wish to visit old literary haunts in New York City typically find themselves in such locations as the Algonquin Club, Bleecker Street, the Chelsea Hotel and Washington Square. Further downtown than all these, and less well publicized, however, is a region around City Hall Park which can lay claim to an impressive number of touchstones to the literary life of Manhattan, America and the world.
Places where early American writers lived, worked and frequented abound – from Walt Whitman and Herman Melville to Hawthorne, Cooper and Edgar Allen Poe, to the fellow who wrote the once-famous Old Oaken Bucket.
Publishing houses, hotels and drinking establishments, bookshops and entertainment venues served the burgeoning 19th century world of streets associated with the newspapers and government offices of the day – Chambers Street, Nassau Street, Broadway and old Park Row, to name a few.
In the 20th century, the likes of Eugene O’Neill frequented locations on Fulton Street, and Jack London, who spent more than a night or two sleeping on park benches in City Hall Park. And one of the more recent denizens of the area who have made an impact on the arts was Yoko Ono, who in her youth maintained an arts salon on Chambers Street.
Of particular interest is Jack London’s connection to the area, in that his experiences in Manhattan in 1894 were seminal to his personal development as a socially conscious popular fiction writer.
London was by all accounts a complex person. He was known as the “Boy Socialist of Oakland” because of his passionate street corner oratory. In his teens, he joined Coxey’s Army in its famous march on Washington, D.C. As an aspiring journalist, Jack covered the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspapers in 1904, and in 1914, he covered the Mexican Revolution for Collier’s. As an author, he penned adventure classics which remain extremely popular to this day.
As a celebrity, he retreated to Wolf House in the Sonoma California Hills, where he consorted with West Coast ‘Bohemians’ like George Sterling, the precocious Sag Harbor transplant.
We’re talking about Jack London, best known today as author of adventure stories like The Call of the Wild, White Fang and To Build A Fire.
While most today will most likely think of him as a figure out of the rugged westerner, traipsing across Alaskan wastes or consorting with timberwolves, a key aspect of London’s early adult life was that of a self-educating student gypsy, wandering America and absorbing the experiences of the underclass.
In New York City – and Niagara Falls -- it seems, London went through some experiences that, while they solidified his perception of the plight of America’s poor, also scared him straight.
It was in 1894, during the time that Ohio-based Jacob Coxey organized a march on Washington by an army of unemployed men, in search of funds from Congress to pay for roads work. Intrigued, London joined up with the band and headed east from his home in Oakland.
In fact, he never made it to Washington with Coxey – like a lot of the original marchers, he deserted before the band of marchers hit the nation’s capital on April 31.
London dropped out somewhere around Chicago, according to biographer Alex Kershaw, where he bummed around for a few days, and then wandered off to New York City, ‘where he roamed for a few days around the city’s notorious slums’ for the better part of May and June 1894.
Why New York? Perhaps his interest was piqued by a photographic expose which had recently been mounted by Jacob Riis, detailing the squalor to be found among the teeming slums of immigrants who had fled poverty and repression in Europe…been fed, deloused and processed by authorities at Ellis Island… (and become) scapegoats as well as citizens.
Kershaw paints a portrait of the young London in dire straits, begging for food and sleeping on park benches at night.
As for Jack London himself, he pictures it differently. In fact in his memoir “The Road,” the author includes a photograph of himself, clean-shaved and sitting on a bench in City Hall Park, reading studiously and dressed in a slouch hat and formal overcoat.
That’s just the visual part of his reflection of one of the periods of time he spent in the Big Apple. Alongside the photo is an anecdotal account of the period, in which he calls himself a ‘meek and studious milk-drinking hobo’ because he made it a regular practice to buy bottles of milk on the street and a book from vendors nearby.
“I had got into the habit of throwing my feet in the morning, and spending the afternoon in the little park that is hard by Newspaper Row and the City Hall,” he writes in the account, which also appears in his piece Some Adventures With The Police.”. It was near there that I could buy from push-cart men current books (that had been injured in the making or binding) for a few cents each…right by the park itself, were little booths where one could buy glorious, ice-cold, sterilized milk and buttermilk at a penny a glass. Every afternoon I sat on a bench and read and went on a milk debauch. I got away with from five to ten glasses each afternoon.”
It was here that, one day as he sat reading, he was attracted to a crowd of men who were playing a game of ‘pee-wee,’ quite possibly a gambling involving shooting of ‘pee wee’ marbles (a 19th century activity popular among some idle men like pitching pennies, and not sanctioned by the authorities).
When a burly cop came around to break things up, the men scattered, but in the process London was hit over the head with a billy club. “Bang! His club came down on my head and I was reeling like a drunken man, the curious faces of onlookers billowing up and down like the waves of the sea, my precious book falling from under my arm onto the dirt…oh I knew the game. I didn’t stop to pick up my precious, unread book. I turned and ran.”
Weeks later, London left New York – hopped a freight for Niagara Falls, where he was arrested on that vagrancy charge and sentenced to a month in the Erie County Penitentiary. When he got out, he spent three months migrating back west across Canada, hobo’ing, working odd jobs, and moving along in box cars, til he got to Vancouver, where he picked up a job on a steamer and found his way back home to the street of Oakland.