The Letters of Jack London to Charles Warren Stoddard
The full text of this feature is not currently available online.
The following letters and preceding photograph are reproduced by permission of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California. For the information conveyed in the introduction and footnotes, Roger Austen’s Genteel Pagan: The Double Life of Charles Warren Stoddard (Amherst, 1991) has been our principal source for information about Stoddard. Also useful was Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians (New York: Julian Messner, 1959). Principal sources on Jack London have been Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work, Joan D. Hedrick (Chapel Hill, 1982); Jack London: A Life, Alex Kershaw (New York, 1997); and Jack London: An American Myth, John Perry (Chicago, 1981).
Eva arrived early for her first Thursday class, which would begin at five o’clock. She needed a few minutes alone to focus on what she would teach. Two hours earlier she had been with her lover, Valerio. He had cupped her breasts in his hands as if they were blossoms, kissed her nipples as if they were jewels. He had whispered endearments in Italian: uccellini di neve, le perle, pelle di conchiglia. After they made love, Eva told him she would enter the hospital on Monday. Hospital? he said. Eva slipped on her brassiere, asked Valerio to hook it in back. She buttoned all of the buttons on her blouse. Outpatient surgery, she said. I’ll be in and out before your first photo shoot. The frown did not leave his face. She avoided his eyes.
Now, in the empty classroom, Eva touched her lips and tasted two lovers, a hurried afternoon. How does one describe the taste of our kind of passion, she wondered. Hotsour? Bitterroot? She licked her fingers. Rocksalt? Yes, she told herself, she was glad she had not told Valerio the truth.
This was Eva’s eighth year teaching English as a second language in the South Tucson Education Unit. Although her lessons were planned far in advance, tonight she would replace the scheduled exercise on shopping with a surprise session on body parts. After teaching the related vocabulary, Eva would have the students act out practical and useful scenes: a clinic overflowing with sick people, a busy Emergency Room, a hospital’s surgery ward.
She opened a shopping bag and pulled out a doll’s arm and leg. She placed the plastic body parts on the desk, along with inflatable lips and a plaster cast of teeth the orthodontist had given her when she was thirteen. The last object she retrieved from her bag was a malleable breast she had stolen from her gynecologist’s office. The breast was a tool the doctor used to show patients how to conduct proper breast exams.
“First we will learn parts of the body,” Eva said when everyone was settled in their seats. She held up the inflatable lips and plastic leg. “Then we will pretend we are going to the hospital for an operation. Someone in class will be the doctor; another will be the nurse. We will also have a patient and many family members who gather around the patient’s bedside.”
Eva paced back and forth trying to ignore the shooting pains that began in both of her breasts when she lifted the lips and leg. The faster she paced, the more intense the pain became.
“We are going to immerse ourselves in the exploration of the body and all of its ramifications,” Eva said. “Anatomy, physiology, all of it, and then we will explore the body’s complex, infinite interior . . . ” She paused, upset by her inappropriately elevated language. The students stared at her with worried faces.
“Body parts,” Eva said, trying to get back on track. “Ephraim, show me your leg. Show me either of your good strong legs.” The young man gave her a quizzical look and said, “Leg?” Eva heard someone whisper, “pierna,” and Ephraim smiled widely. “Leg!” he said. He pointed, then pulled with both hands until his left leg came loose. “Leg,” he said, holding it up. He waved the muscular limb as if it were a drum major’s baton, and several of the students began clapping in time to imagined music.
Eva’s breasts throbbed with pain. She didn’t think she could last the full hour and a half for this class or the one after it unless she took some drastic action. She tapped the plastic leg hard against the desk until the students settled down. “Listen carefully,” she said, glad that Ephraim had voluntarily unlatched his leg. It made what she was going to suggest a little easier. “I want each of you to choose a body part. When I say go, we will show what we have chosen and call it by its English name.” Some of the students nodded, but others looked confused. The pain was suddenly so intense that Eva broke one of the school’s rules and explained herself in Spanish.
Soon the room was buzzing with snaps and clicks as students disconnected healthy legs and arms, ears and noses, toes, elbows and necks. Although Eva liked to involve her students in the learning process, this was the furthest she had ever gone, and she didn’t think her boss, Alma Mejia, would be very understanding if she found out about this unorthodox approach to teaching. “Shh, shh.” Eva marched up and down the aisles and between desks. “Silencio por favor.” Spanish again. “Silence. Please.” She must speak English, only English, to her students.
No one seemed to understand either language because the noise increased rather than abated.
Eva sighed and began concentrating on her own situation. So far she could only separate from her breasts when she was with Valerio, but she closed her eyes and imagined him drawing pictures on her bare bosom while he spoke to his wife on the phone. She imagined herself leaving her breasts in his hands, as she had that afternoon while she went to the bathroom to pee and comb her hair. The first attempt in the classroom didn’t work, but when she tried again, there was a crisp double click and her breasts shot out from under her blouse. With them hovering above the chalk tray, Eva felt momentarily relieved of pain and ready to continue the lesson. She was glad she had the doctor’s lifelike model to offer as a learning tool should her own pair become too fidgety or uncooperative to handle.
“Let us begin, one by one.” Eva had to shout above the clamoring students, who were eager to show off the parts they had chosen. “Matilde, please come to the front of the room and show us the body part you wish to share.”
Cradling a dainty ear in her palm, Matilde moved forward. She flattened her hand so everyone could see the small but robust organ. “Oreja,” Matilde whispered.
“What is oreja in English?” Eva said. “Matilde, do you know?”
The girl studied her ear, which was blushing from all the attention.
“Anyone?” Eva looked around the room as students stared blankly at Matilde’s palm. “Ear,” Eva said. “Say it with me. EAR. Ear.”
Now that she’d told them the answer, students confidently lifted their eyes and began chanting, “Ear! Ear! Ear!” Several began tapping their feet. Others pounded rhythmically on their desktops. Eva noticed how remote her breasts seemed in the midst of the hubbub. Silent and immobile, the duo had not strayed from their place above the chalk tray.
Although class time passed quickly, the sharing of body parts went much more slowly than Eva had expected. Students were reluctant to sit down once they had the spotlight. When the hour and a half was over, only fifteen of the twenty students had been up front, and no one wanted to leave.
The seven-thirty class crowded in with the five o’clock group, and soon forty students were pushing each other and holding up healthy body parts, all eager to participate in the hullabaloo.
When the nine o’clock bell rang, everyone had shared a section of themselves, and they felt fulfilled enough to leave. Everyone but Eva, that is, and she was relieved that time ran out before she had to call on her breasts. She had dreaded asking the pair for help, yet she knew deep down the simulated doctor’s tool was not a convincing replacement.
Students stuffed belongings into bags and repositioned body parts. They chattered and laughed, anxious to get home and boast about the excitement at school.
“We made much progress tonight,” Eva said as students filed out of the room. “I am proud of you all.” She was reluctant to see them go. “Very proud.”
Marisol and Lupita, the last students to depart, stayed a minute to talk with her.
“We will miss you,” the young women said. “We won’t learn anything until you return. Do you have to go?”
Eva had not been specific about why she would be on leave. She had told her students she would be gone for a month due to family illness. Marisol offered the prayers of her Aunt Consuelo, who lived in Mexico City. “She will go to the basilica and ask the Virgin of Guadalupe to heal the problem,” Marisol said. “I will pray too.” Lupita offered her grandmother’s curandera skills as a supplement to Marisol’s prayers. “My grandmother has cured many people. She could help you.”
Eva thanked them both and told them to pay attention to the substitute teacher. “I will be back as soon as I can. Maybe even sooner than I said. Two weeks, possibly.” Two weeks seemed to appease Lupita and Marisol, and they left after promising to impress Eva with many new phrases upon her return.
When she was sure she was alone, Eva called out to the breasts in her meanest voice to get back where they belonged. She was tired and hungry and told them she meant exactly what she said. The pair must have been tired and hungry too, because they settled into place on her chest without any further protest.
Later that night, Eva was brushing her teeth when her breasts began to burn so intensely she expected to see incendiary globes when she lifted her nightshirt. Her breasts, however, appeared innocent and docile. They were the size of navel oranges, smooth and firm, with only a few faint stretch marks. Tiny scarlet dots from recent needle biopsies resembled freckles, but they pulsed like sharp hammer blows. Eva leaned left and right, then forward, to see if both breasts moved in the same way. They did. She studied them for obvious lumps or puckers. Nothing.
About two years earlier, Eva had stopped doing any kind of breast exam. In fact, she avoided touching her breasts at all. The most she could manage was a mild soaping of them in the shower, and even that made her queasy. It wasn’t the chronic pain of what doctors called “mastalgia” that stopped her so much as the fear of discovering a thick stone imbedded in her breasts. Eva knew her avoidance was unwise, her fear irrational, but she told herself she wasn’t negligent. She went to a gynecologist every year, and he used two flat fingers and the palm of his hand to give her breasts a thorough checking. At her last visit, a month ago, the doctor had recommended she have a mammogram as soon as possible. After the mammography, there had been ultrasound followed by biopsies, consultation with an oncologist and surgeon. It had not been easy to continue her normal life, but she had tried. She hadn’t told Valerio. He cherished her breasts, and Eva feared he would break down if he knew their fate. Well, Valerio was sentimental. Eva knew that. Her boss was the only person Eva had explained the situation to, and she had done that only because she couldn’t ask for a month off and hope to get her job back without a convincing reason for needing the time. Eva was glad Alma Mejia had been irritated rather than consoling. It was easier that way.
“And here we are,” Eva said. “Three days away from admission to University Hospital.” She wished her breasts would console her with clucking tenderness, but they were sullen and resentful.
Tonight, like other nights recently, Eva turned on the television because she could not sleep. Curled on a beanbag chair, she watched talk shows and movies on a tiny black-and-white set. In bed at three A.M., Eva thought of the strippers she had seen on a late-night talk show. Each woman proudly displayed giant breasts and admitted to several rounds of implants. “The bigger they are, the more money we earn when we dance,” the women said.
After the strippers, Eva had watched Alice Adams for the third time in a year. She thought of Katharine Hepburn’s eyes pooling with tears and the lovely chiffon gown she wore as a young belle in the vintage movie. Hepburn’s breasts were small, Eva told herself–minuscule, in fact–and that hadn’t stopped her from having a long, full life. This thought did not prevent Eva from imagining her own breasts shriveled in a pickle jar, keepsakes in formaldehyde like the preserved garden snake her mother had treasured when Eva was a girl. When her mother died of metastatic breast cancer, Eva, who was ten, put the jar in a shoebox in her closet. Twenty-two years later, she still had the snake. It was the only possession of her mother’s that she still had.
Eva studied her breasts on the night stand, where they had settled after separating from her in the bathroom. Apparently dreaming now, they mewled and sighed, as content as slumbering cats. Eva reached out but did not touch them. “Please,” she whispered. “Please. I can’t sleep without you.” Eva began whispering what Valerio chanted whenever he cupped her breasts in his hands: pelle di conchiglia, le perle, uccellini di neve. She crooned the words over and over, willing herself to forget the empty space on her chest.
The next morning, Eva’s breasts refused to go to the Pima College Recreation Center with her. When she got out of bed, the pair whirled off the night stand and crouched on the television set. Stung by the rebuff, she gathered her swim gear and set out for her group workout at the pool.
In the locker room, Eva studied the crimson fabric that gaped across her chest. In the past, she’d always liked how the bright slash of color molded over her firm breasts and around the curve of her hips. Without breasts, she thought, the one-piece suit bagged in a pitiful way.
“Damn you, breasts, I hate you.” Eva stuffed sweats into her locker. “I don’t need you. I don’t . . .”
When Eva came out to the pool deck, the coach greeted her with a lusty guffaw. “It’s about time,” he said and raised his arms as if to salute the crisp October air. “Give me two laps of back, two of breast and two of free, ten times, for a warm
up.” He clapped his hands. “Let’s go.”
Eva waited until he turned away before she tossed her towel aside and jumped into the pool. She dog-paddled awkwardly under water and surfaced into a clumsy backstroke. Eva was one of the slowest swimmers in the group. Without her breasts she was even slower and felt like a haywire compass, but she made herself swim harder than usual. She focused on body as a whole: complete, intact, comforted somewhat by the thought that breasts weren’t as difficult to lose as a person you loved.
After her swim workout, Eva ordered a banana smoothie with wheat grass at the Recreation Center’s juice bar.
“I can’t believe you ordered that,” a woman next to Eva said. “I have the very same smoothie every morning.”
The woman was about Eva’s age with a smattering of freckles and a thick braid of blond hair. Eva noticed fleshy breasts pushing against the woman’s scoop-necked denim shift. Miracle bra? Eva wondered. Implants? Surely the breasts were too large to be natural.
The woman held out her hand. “I’m LeeAnn,” she said.
Eva blushed, embarrassed by her own rude stare. “Eva,” she replied.
LeeAnn looked at Eva’s swim gear. “You’re brave to swim so early in the morning,” she said. “I can barely manage the treadmill at this hour.”
Eva was sure “brave” wouldn’t be the operative word if she suddenly snatched the breasts and ran like the wind. She could hear LeeAnn shouting, “Thief, thief! She’s stolen my breasts. Catch her!” She could see herself being tackled by a beefy personal trainer, who would run back to LeeAnn and lay the breasts at her feet.
“I can’t even see until I’ve had a cup of coffee in the morning,” LeeAnn said, looking down. “Obviously, I didn’t have coffee before I got dressed today. Look at that ketchup stain.”
Eva hadn’t noticed the stain because it was closer to the waist than to the rounded neckline that revealed so much.
“At least my kids wear clean clothes. That’s what matters.” LeeAnn pulled her shift up modestly, but her cleavage only seemed to deepen. She sipped her smoothie and made a face. “Wheat grass isn’t my idea of a good taste, especially when it settles at the bottom.” LeeAnn stuck out her tongue. “But it’s healthy.”
Eva nodded. She wanted to pay attention, but her mind was concentrating on healthy breasts, LeeAnn’s breasts. “That’s what I want,” she said.
“Wheat grass?” LeeAnn looked at her quizzically.
Eva felt foolish, and she dumbly shook her head.
LeeAnn shrugged and moved towards the women’s restroom. “I’ve got to pee in the worst way.”
Implants, Eva said to herself. What else could they be?
LeeAnn turned and did a two-step backward. “I’ve got about thirty minutes until my class,” she said. “Want to chat awhile longer?”
Eva wondered if “chat” was a code word for something sexual, but she reminded herself that it was she, not LeeAnn, who was conspicuously lusting after breasts. Should she be ashamed? None of her lovers had acted as crude or covetous as she felt about LeeAnn’s breasts. Even Valerio, who was a breast man, was very refined.
Eva followed LeeAnn into the restroom and a toilet stall. She expected a look of surprise or a scolding. Instead, LeeAnn hauled her dress up and sat on the toilet. “Excuse my indelicacy, but when you’ve got to pee, you’ve got to pee. Close the door, would you?” Eva did and pushed the slide to lock it. She noticed the diagram that detailed how to conduct a breast self-exam. Too late for that now, she thought.
“Ah, relief,” LeeAnn said as she pulled her panties up. “You’re a little pale. Are you all right?”
Eva leaned against the stall door. She was feeling dizzy and unsure of what she should do next. “Your breasts,” she said. “Are they . . . ?”
LeeAnn unzipped the shift, revealing plump breasts with purple stretch marks and hidelike nipples. She wore no brassiere.
“They’re real,” LeeAnn said with pride. “You have two kids, and this is what you get. Beautiful, aren’t they?”
Eva’s notion of beauty had to turn several quick corners, but she answered with conviction. “They are the most beautiful breasts in the world.”
LeeAnn laughed and said, “You’re certainly a joy to show breasts to. Touch them if you want, go ahead.”
Eva wasn’t exactly sure what to do or how to go about it. “Mine stayed home today,” she said as if that would explain her hesitation. “Sick, very sick with the flu.”
“I figured it was something like that,” said LeeAnn. “Don’t be afraid. Rub them, hold them, squeeze them if you want. You can’t hurt these breasts.”
Eva silently blessed LeeAnn for easing the way. She took a deep breath, took a breast in each hand and lifted them away from LeeAnn’s chest. She held them as she imagined one would hold a newborn–tentatively at first, but more firmly when they didn’t crack in half. She cradled the plush breasts against her own flat chest. They were velvet pillows, fields of wheat, twin gardens dense with herbs. They felt like her breasts used to feel, Eva thought, before she had stopped touching them with anything but fear. She bowed her head and clasped LeeAnn’s breasts tighter. She raised them to her lips and kissed each one.
“You can have them,” LeeAnn said. “I’ve been thinking for a while that I don’t need them anymore. But I wanted them to go to someone special, you know, someone who would appreciate them. Who knew I would find you?”
Eva began to feel lighter, happier, than she had in a long time.
LeeAnn squinted one eye and raised an eyebrow as if she were measuring Eva. “Try them on if you want. You’ve got a smaller frame than me, but they would be easy enough to adjust. A stitch here and there would make them fit as if they were yours.”
The thought of wearing LeeAnn’s breasts had certain appeal, but what Eva really wanted was to continue holding them in her arms. She loved their luxurious yet hearty feel, the way they gave when she squeezed. She appreciated the tough nipples, the plum-colored marks that were a living language.
“I’m sorry to rush you, Eva, but my class starts in fifteen minutes and Professor Sandstone doesn’t tolerate late.”
LeeAnn’s matter-of-fact voice startled Eva out of her reverie. “I can’t take these,” Eva said. “You’ll need them back.” She loosened her grip, and the breasts slipped out of her hands, drifting like balloons at a gala.
“Please. I want you to have them,” LeeAnn said. “You can take them home in my book bag. They don’t need much air.”
Eva pictured LeeAnn’s ample breasts squeezed into a zippered pouch, shoving each other. There would surely be a fight.
“Or carry them,” LeeAnn said. “They aren’t slippery like some breasts. You could tuck one under each arm and not be bothered at all.”
LeeAnn stepped up on the rim of the toilet seat and pulled the breasts close. “See what I mean?” she said. Easy to handle.” She faced Eva, holding her hands above the floating pair so they wouldn’t rise to the ceiling again. “What do you say? They’re yours if you want them.”
Eva shook her head. She unlatched the stall door and stepped out as the breasts settled on LeeAnn’s chest like obedient children.
“You can always change your mind,” LeeAnn said, zipping the denim shift in front. “Just now, though, I’ve got to get to class.”
Eva’s few moments with LeeAnn’s breasts had filled her with pleasure and calm, but she wondered how long her sense of well-being would last. On Monday, her breasts would be disposed of in a sterile manner. She would never see them again unless she asked the surgeon to preserve the severed pair in a pickle jar.
It was ridiculous, she knew, but she was going home to have a chat with her sulking breasts. She was going to tell them how much she loved them; she would explain that she did not want to lose them. At some point she would pause and say, “cancer.” That one word might be enough to make them understand why she was going to give them up, but she would pad it with words like “invasive ductal carcinoma,” “abundant tubule formation,” “moderate nuclear pleomorphism,” “rare mitosis.” After offering words that instill dread because they are incomprehensible puzzles, she would repeat the word “cancer.” It would be her last word. She would pull them to her and hold them as she had held LeeAnn’s breasts in her arms. She would let touch alone explain how much she would miss them.
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An Interview with John Updike
This interview was conducted by Will Hochman and Jan Ellen Spiegel in Colorado Springs in late 1998.
The text of this interview is not currently available online.