New York Times Review of Jack London: An American Life

Jack London in 1916

Jack London in 1916-NYTimes-APIC Getty Images

Man Against Nature

‘Jack London: An American Life,’ by Earle Labor

Published: December 27, 2013

“The superficial reader will get the love story & the adventure,” Jack London wrote, in 1903, of the story that would become “The Sea-Wolf,” “while the deeper reader will get all of this, plus the bigger thing lying underneath.” These are the typically blunt words of a writer who seemed to think of his work in terms of purchase value. Here, he might have been describing his own life: much adventure, a sort of love story, a weird bang of a finish. In a new biography by the London scholar Earle Labor, the “bigger thing” has a harder time coming out: Perhaps it doesn’t exist.

As a rollicking, turn-of-the-century tale in his own style, the London story reads well. Born in 1876, London was the illegitimate child of a philandering astrologist (who later, in a creative move, denied paternity by claiming impotence). He came of age in a golden era of political corruption, when the octopus of the Southern Pacific Railroad monopoly still held the West Coast in its grip. Growing up, he found himself in ­places where human cruelty flourished, was formed by witness to it and developed a rare aptitude for conveying it in fiction. By the age of 22, he’d worked as an oyster pirate, served time in prison, ridden the rails as a tramp, joined a seal-hunting schooner bound for Japan, marched with Coxey’s army of the unemployed and searched for gold in the Klondike rush. In an effort to make a go at writing (the goal of which, ironically, was to help him avoid a life of hard labor), he turned these firsthand experiences into profitable novels and stories, among them the brilliant “The Sea-Wolf,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Martin Eden” and the nonfiction “The People of the Abyss.” By his mid-30s, he’d established himself as one of the most popular storytellers in a genre he helped create: a particularly violent style of naturalism in which one man battles the cruel, capricious ways of both human nature and Mother Nature, and often loses. By 40, he’d settled at his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, Calif., where he would feast for a time on a two-mallard-a-day diet (a delicacy) before dying of uremia in November 1916.

The final frame reveals a person perhaps not innately contradictory but forced, by his time, into contradiction: London as both lawbreaker and abider, no sooner giving up poaching oysters from the San Francisco Bay than taking a job with something called the California Fish Patrol, arresting the very sort of person he used to be. He was caught early between the warring forces of socialism and capitalistic success, a magnet at each pole. He became, consequently, both a dedicated socialist and a dedicated maker of money in the capitalist style. His personal life was fraught with the same unconscious tensions as his politics.

[Read the rest at the New York Times link above]