Jack London in the News: Caleb Crain on Jack London in The New Yorker
Jack London never felt that he got enough meat. When he was seven, he stole a piece from a girl’s basket—an incident that he called “an epitome of my whole life.” Although his mother claimed that “he didn’t go hungry in our house!” and a childhood friend recalled being served steak during a visit, London insisted that he had been deprived. “It has been hunger, nothing but hunger!” he wrote to a girlfriend at the age of twenty-two. “You cannot understand, nor never will.”
He spent his short life—he died at forty—trying to make people understand. In his writing, which ranged from realist novels to memoirs and science fiction, he became a psychologist and economist of extremity. He was particularly fascinated by the idea of freezing and starving to death. He chose settings where life is hard to sustain—the Arctic, the urban ghetto, the sea, a plague-razed future—and where heroes must defy the odds. Gold prospectors fight against winter, writers against poverty, and dogs against hungry dogs. The focus of his best prose narrows to essential need. A man lost in snow can no longer feel or move his fingers, but can he light his matches if he holds them between the heels of his hands? If an aging boxer were able to afford steak for lunch, would he have the strength to deliver a knockout punch? . . .