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Book Review: Jack London, An American Life

By (October 15, 2013) No Comment

Jack London: An American Lifejack london cover
by Earle Labor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013

“Hypersensitive, contentious, moody (possibly bipolar), and medically frail despite his vigorous muscularity. Famous for his ever-ready public smile and generousness of spirit, he was subject to spells of mordant invective and emotional cruelty, especially as his health deteriorated” – from Earle Labor’s description, you might think the subject of his new biography was Marcel Proust or some such hothouse flower. It hardly sounds like our traditional characterization of Jack London, boot-wearing outdoorsman who gave the world such savagely vigorous novels as White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, and of course The Call of the Wild. And yet London is indeed the subject here; Labor is the world’s foremost London scholar, curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, and author of many articles and  reprint Introductions about the man’s work. This new book, Jack London: An American Life represents the culmination of a lifetime’s study and clearly looks to be the definitive work, replacing such earlier efforts as Daniel Dyer’s workaday Jack London: A Biography or Alex Kershaw’s quite well-done Jack London: A Life.

Labor loves London. He venerates the writing and wants to raise it up out of the sub-basement of ‘boys adventure stories’ into which so much of it has fallen. The opening pages of modern biographies tend to be where their authors do the loudest general-purpose trumpeting for their subjects, and Labor is no exception – he blares with gusto about the study-worthiness of his favorite author:

Granting the “large and obvious” personal faults to which [London’s friend and fellow socialist] Anna Strunsky Walling alluded, the unembellished facts of London’s career are the stuff that dreams and legends are made of, more fabulous than anything Horatio Alger ever imagined. Here was an infant born out of wedlock into near poverty, one whose paternity has never been definitely established. Here was the child who spent his precious boyhood years delivering newspapers, hauling ice, and setting up pins in bowling alleys to augment the family’s meager income …

And if that “stuff of dreams and legends” business wasn’t clear enough for you, Labor goes on a bit more:

Yet by means of luck, pluck, and sheer determination – undergirded by a rare genius – he succeeded in escaping “the pit,” transforming himself into “Prince of the Oyster Pirates” and “man among men” at the age of fifteen, able-bodied seaman and prize-winning author at the age of seventeen, recruit in General Kelly’s Industrial Army (also hobo and convict) at eighteen, notorious Boy Socialist of Oakland at twenty, Klondike argonaut at twenty-one, the “American Kipling” at twenty-four, internationally acclaimed author of The Call of the Wild at twenty-seven …

It’s never a reassuring sign when “pluck” shows up in a work of prose intended for adults; the word can’t be used un-ironically anymore, and a writer who believes it can is displaying a willful disregard for reality – which is a praiseworthy trait in a novelist but downright alarming in a biographer.

Labor is a mighty strong biographer. There’s nothing he doesn’t know about Jack London’s life and times, nothing even remotely connected with his subject that he hasn’t tracked down and read. His literary estimations of London’s large and varied output are often excellent and always thought-provoking; London the writer has hardly had a more sensitive reader or a more fervent advocate (reading Labor made me want to re-read London, which should be the first goal of any literary biographer but so often doesn’t happen at all). And he has a keen eye for great quotes – he invariably picks the best bits even from the quotable torrents of a far more eloquent age. He gives us a Jack London in 1912, frustrated by the big city in which he was briefly staying with his second wife, Charmian:

“Rome in its wildest days could not compare with this city … I must have the open, the big open. No big city for me, and above all not New York. I think it is the cocksure feeling of superiority which the people of the metropolis feel over the rest of the country that makes me rage.”

(He wasn’t the first person to get irritated by the vicinities of Morningside Park, and he wouldn’t be the last.)

And Labor uses good deal of Charmian’s own journals and letters, an ongoing reminder of what a vigorous writer she was; both she and London himself make their various adventures sailing around the world sound as vivid as something you’d find in, well, a Jack London novel – and with the same grace-notes sprinkled along the way, as in the blissful moments aboard the Dirigo bound for Seattle:

During the intervals between typing Jack’s big novel [John Barleycorn], Charmian found time to write a story of her own, a publishable sea tale titled “The Wheel.” Both she and Jack found time for boxing, practice with their rifles, care-playing, puppy playing [with their fox terrier Possum], and reading the half-hundred books they had shipped. They delighted in climbing high up the masts – even up the mainmast, swaying dizzily with the deck ninety feet below: “Here, remote, ecstatic, above the ‘wrinkled sea’ and the slender fabric of steel, we lived some of our finest hours, enthralled by the recurrent miracle of unbored days, love ever regenerate, and contemplation of our unwasted years.”

In terms of research, the book is a prodigious advance over its predecessors, and in terms of Labor’s eloquent passion for his subject, the book has no parallel. It’s only when those two elements come together that something unforeseen and quite toxic is produced; Labor’s passion drives his research, but it also muzzles that research in ways that are deeply unsettling. The partisan zeal of Jack London: An American Life makes it a gripping read, but that same partisan zeal makes this a baldly untrustworthy book. It’s hagiography of a medieval stamp: its subject is very fallible, but he’s never actually at fault.

We get a running tally of the physical ailments that afflicted this great outdoorsman – pyorrhea, cramps, malaria, rectal fistulae, kidney stones, a “collapsing urinary system,” even gout – but venereal disease isn’t mentioned. We’re told that both London’s wives complained that he could occasionally be sullen and rude – but if either one of them (or their friends) ever extended these complaints to anything more, a cuff across the face, say, we never hear about it. The picture Labor paints is one of a moody, temperamental severe alcoholic – to the point where even the most generous-minded reader will wonder if somewhere in the large London archives this particular moody, temperamental severe alcoholic is ever seen behaving the way hundreds of millions of his counterparts have behaved throughout history.

Despite many hints on such subjects throughout the history of Jack London biographies, readers could perhaps stifle their suspicions if they thought Labor was being straight with them everywhere else. But that’s the problem with arousing distrust: once you’ve done it on one subject, you’ve done it on all of them.

jack londonTake for example Irving Stone. Even if the reader weren’t aware of how extensively Labor has railed elsewhere against Stone’s 1936 London biography Sailor on Horseback, it would be easy to tell from Jack London: An American Life that Labor has nothing but contempt for the book; in hundreds of pages, he mentions it by name only once, in the fine print of an end-note on sources. Which would be acceptable (odd, but acceptable) if Stone’s book were just one in a long list of London biographies to appear in the 20th century, but it wasn’t. It was a runaway bestseller when it first appeared, and more importantly, it (and the movie based on it) sparked a popular revival of interest in London that lasted for nearly twenty years. It had an effect on London’s literary reputation far exceeding what a normal biography would have, and it set in motion a number of controversies (about London’s paternity, for instance, or the silly speculation that he committed suicide) that, for better or worse, have become inextricably linked with the subject. Writing a detailed biography of London without discussing it is about as eyebrow-raising as writing a biography of Samuel Johnson without discussing Boswell.

Or, much more importantly, take the admittedly uncomfortable subject of plagiarism. It dogged London for virtually the whole of his writing career, and it flared up more than once to unavoidably public dimensions. These were not Stone-style speculations; these were newspaper stories and letter-writing campaigns involving Jack London, and yet, incredibly, they receive no mention in Labor’s book. No mention, for example, of Frank Harris’ contention that the seventh chapter of London’s book The Iron Heel was lifted wholesale from his own work (to the extent that Harris bitterly joked that he deserved a percentage of the book’s royalties). And one mention of the name Egerton Young – one astounding mention:

What inspired him to write such a book [The Call of the Wild]? His love of animals, especially of dogs, was a primary factor. One of his earliest photographs is of him and his ranch pet Rollo. He had been deeply moved by the dogs he had seen in the Klondike, not only the trail-hardened huskies but also the city-bred shorthair breeds that were doomed to perish in an alien land. Furthermore, he had just finished reading Egerton R. Young’s My Dogs in the Northland, which brought back nostalgic memories of the Klondike sled dogs. Most important, perhaps, he had found in the canine species the selfless unconditional love celebrated in the Christian concept of agape.

This is the entirety of what Labor’s readers will hear from him about Egerton: that London had ‘just finished’ reading him when he set down to write his most famous book. No mention of the fact that Young accused London of stealing huge chunks of his book and using those chunks virtually unaltered in The Call of the Wild; no mention of the fact that London’s self-defense was exceptionally unconvincing (it essentially boiled down to “Just because Young saw all the things he reported in the Klondike doesn’t mean I couldn’t have seen the same things too”); no mention of the fact that Young continued to hound Charmian about it even after London’s death (not surprising, considering the unprecedented piles of money The Call of the Wild was making for its publisher – and would continue to make). Labor doesn’t raise these things, delve into them, and try to exonerate his author – that would be quixotic, but honest, and maybe it would have convinced. Instead, he writes a version of London’s life in which they didn’t happen.

No one is well-served by such a mad decision: not the author, whose researches throughout most of Jack London: An American Life are so impressive; not the reader, who’s given an account of London’s life that looks authoritative but is in fact trying to deceive; not London himself, who wrote in his saddest, bravest book, “This is not a world of free freights. One pays according to an iron schedule – for every strength the balanced weakness; for every high a corresponding low; for every fictitious god-like moment an equivalent time in reptilian slime.”