JACK LONDON: An American Life. By Earle Labor. FSG. 384 pages. $30.
Jack London did not make old bones. Indeed, given the fact that at the time of his death in 1916, he suffered from clogged arteries, diseased kidneys, arthritis, rheumatism, chronic nausea, dysentery, edema and insomnia, it is rather amazing that he lasted long enough to see his 40th birthday, which he did, just barely.
It seems clear that London was romantically drawn to the idea of living hard and flaming out early, and he was spectacularly successful in the endeavor.
Reading about Jack London can be both a joyful and wearying experience, one that leads inevitably to the creation of lists. Not only did he write a truly impressive number of novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, plays and poems, he also spent time as a hobo, an oyster pirate, a seal hunter, a gold miner and a war correspondent. He sailed through much of the South Pacific, visited a leper colony and escaped cannibals in the Solomon Islands.
He was an early pursuer of the sport of surfing and helped popularize it in this country. He taught himself how to drive a stagecoach. He boxed. He farmed. He ranched. Twice he ran for mayor of Oakland, Calif., as a socialist. And that is, without exaggeration, only a partial compilation of the many doings of John Griffith London. If he lived in the present day, he would doubtless be offered a prescription for Ritalin.
Born in 1876 to a single mother in straightened circumstances, London was forced to help support his family from the time he was an adolescent and continued to do so for most of his life. He developed a tremendous work ethic that carried over into his writing. Up to the time of his death, sick or well, on land or sea, he tried to produce a thousand words a day without fail.
He mastered a rugged, Kiplingesque style that went over very well in the burgeoning popular magazine market of the time, and though, not surprisingly, a portion of what he wrote was hackwork, he had no choice but to keep churning it out. His ever more complex and expensive way of life demanded it.
When London was good, however, he was very good. While prospecting in the Klondike, he became moved by the plight of the “trail-hardened” huskies and inspired to write his great classic, “Call of the Wild,” its antithesis “White Fang,” and what some consider his finest short story, “To Build a Fire.” All are still read today.
Earle Labor, professor emeritus of American literature at Centenary College of Louisiana, has spent much of his professional life studying and writing about Jack London. He is also the curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport and, perhaps more significantly, states that he heard the “call” of Jack London “more than 70 years ago as a boy in a one-story brick schoolhouse.” It is difficult not to suspect that this has somewhat colored his view of London.
While he possesses full academic bona fides and has written a highly readable (his prose, in places, faintly echoes that of his subject), deeply researched account, one gets the impression that London’s darker side may have been soft pedaled.
Labor dutifully reports on the author’s carousing, alcoholism, infidelity to both his wives, occasionally troubled relationship with his daughters and fatally careless attitude towards his own health, but he sometimes seems to be describing the peccadilloes of a charming, basically innocent child.
In reality, for all his genuine charisma, generosity and joie de vivre, London couldn’t have been easy to live with. His second wife, Charmian Kittredge, who adored her husband and whose diaries Labor draws on extensively, often recounted the pain London caused her with his drinking and frequent bouts of illness. The fact is, London, as dedicated as he was to his craft, would probably have struggled more with his writing, especially in later years, had Charmian not faithfully toiled over reading, editing and typing his manuscripts. The selflessness of the “woman behind the great man,” probably quite rare today, allowed Jack to be Jack.
Despite his foibles, London remains one of the most unique and captivating members of the American literary canon. With this book, Labor has lovingly burnished what was already a larger-than-life reputation.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.