‘Jack London’: a writer of adventure, survival and death
Earle Labor’s new book, “Jack London: An American Life,” may be the definitive biography of the larger-than-life writer who wrote “Call of the Wild,” “To Build a Fire,” “White Fang” and other classics.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘Jack London: An American Life’
by Earle Labor
Farrar, Straus and Grioux, 496 pp., $30
“By God!” wrote Jack London, “The man who is afraid to take the fish off the hook or the guts from the bird he expects to eat is no man at all.”
London (1876-1916) was a seaman, an oyster thief, a war correspondent and a hobo. He spent a month in prison. He fought storms in the South Pacific and the Yukon. He put all of it in his fiction, most famously in “The Call of the Wild” (1903) and in the short story “To Build a Fire” (1908).
He died at 40, leaving enduring stories of adventure, survival and death, several works of science fiction, a political dystopia and a memoir of alcoholism.
Academics quarrel over who gets him right. “No definitive or fully reliable biography of Jack London exists to date,” wrote historian Clarice Stasz, author of “Jack London’s Women” (2001). Of biographer James Haley’s “Wolf” (2010), Stasz allowed that it was “lively and entertaining” but not critical enough of London’s claims about himself.
Now comes a biography by a professor of literature at Centenary College in Shreveport, La. Earle Labor has spent his life studying and teaching the author’s work and is curator of a museum devoted to him (the Jack London Research Center in Shreveport, La. ). Labor’s “Jack London: An American Life” is not as lively as Haley’s “Wolf,” but if any biography is definitive, it is probably Labor’s.
London grew up in the late 1800s in Oakland, Calif., in near-poverty. He was a bookworm, but at 14 was set to work in a pickle-packing plant at 10 cents an hour. He escaped, went to sea and returned. His middle-class-born mother pushed him into a writing contest, which he won for $25.
Already he had vowed not to become some employer’s “work beast.” He set out to learn about writing and life. In the gold rush of 1897, he spent a winter fighting off scurvy in the Yukon, where it could be so cold that spit would crackle and freeze before hitting the ground.
Upon his return he began writing, sending magazines stories he believed would sell. At first, none did. He kept at it, broke through and soon was famous. For the rest of his life he would write 1,000 words a day: still a work beast.
A century ago he was America’s best-paid author, pouring money into his extended family, his sailboat and his ranch. To a correspondent he wrote, “I am working for money ... More money means more life to me.”
Writes Labor, “His confession has provided his critics with an excuse for labeling him a ‘popular hack.’ ” Labor defends London the serious writer, but passes lightly over London’s lesser works, such as “The Iron Heel” (1908), London’s shout for socialism. It is propaganda, not art.
London did care about the people at the bottom and wrote about them, but also enjoyed his rise to the top. He had a vivacious wife who Labor says was the first woman in California to ride a horse astraddle. Jack London lived to the fullest, saying, “We only live once, and we’ll be dead a long time.”
People will be reading him, and about him, for a long time.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.