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Reviving Jack London: More than dogs, wolves and snow

June 8, 2010

At the time of Jack London’s death in 1916, at age 40, “he had replaced Mark Twain as the most celebrated writer in America,” writes Nicholas Shakespeare in the London  Telegraph. He was such a radical socialist the FBI opened a file on him long after he died.

Yet today London is remembered, when he is remembered at all, as the author of adventure stories for boys: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, “To Build a Fire.” Historian James L. Haley seeks to revive interest in London’s works, literary reputation and — not least — his almost unbelievably colorful life with a new biography, Wolf: The Lives of Jack London.

Some 200 biographies of London have appeared over the past century, notes the Dallas Morning News, among them Sailor on Horseback, by Irving Stone, which I read during a London fixation when I was 16 or 17. Haley discounts all previous biographies, however, asserting that London remains “perhaps the most misunderstood figure in the American literary canon… I do not believe his story has really been told.”

London was born in 1876, the illegitimate son of “an evangelizing astrologer,” according to Shakespeare, and a spiritualist and piano teacher. By the age of 17 he had worked in a cannery, canning pickles, and sailed as an oyster pirate, game warden, and seal hunter. He took part in the Alaska Gold Rush, which provided material for his most famous works.

An autodidact, London loved libraries and reading. As an author he produced more than 50 books and plays, innumerable articles, short stories, poems, travelogues, socialist tracts and a memoir of alcoholism, John Barleycorn. He survived plagiarism scandals. Irresistible to women, he married twice, once miserably, once happily. He used up his body and died, either by suicide or an accidental dose of morphine, suffering an agonizing case of uremia.

One of the most important aspects of London’s life is his socialism. His own working experiences and what he had seen of worker exploitation in his travels made London an anti-capitalist who gave rabble-rousing speeches and wrote books like the nonfiction The People of the Abyss and the dystopian novel The Iron Heel.

Reviewers praise Haley’s biography as the best take on London yet — even though none of them seem to like it very much. Alexander Theroux, writing in the Wall Street Journal is annoyed at length by Haley’s strained attempts to portray London as a secret homosexual.

In the Dallas Morning News, Clay Reynolds complains of “unsubstantiated statements that want citation,” and “editorial comments” that “seem out of place in what should be an objective study.” But all find it, in Shakespeare’s words, “polished, sleek and readable,” an improvement on its predecessors.

Will Haley’s biography draw renewed interest to London and his work? I certainly agree there’s more to London than White Fang or The Call of the Wild — he was a pioneering American naturalist who deserves a spot in the canon alongside Stephen Crane and Sherwood Anderson as an indispensable precursor to such later and more famous writers as Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passas and Jack Kerouac.

But he was an often careless and mediocre stylist — he wrote 1,000 words a day, and too often it was a job, like stuffing pickles into a jar. For those new to London, I recommend White Fang, The Call of the Wild, The Cruise of the Snark, Tales of the Fish Patrol (and indeed any of the short story collections), and as much of The Iron Heel as you can stand, just for a taste of the radical socialism that was abroad in America back in the day.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    June 8, 2010 2:45 pm

    Once on a hung-over walk home from a party in Madison WI, I remember thinking I was going to die like a dog in Jack London story – one where it’s so cold spit freezes. He’s a reference point for depictions of human endurance and suffering.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 8, 2010 4:21 pm

      Especially of the unnecessary, self-imposed, ain’t-I-a-man kind, heh?

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 8, 2010 3:05 pm

    I think I was married to him in another life.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 8, 2010 4:27 pm

      Poor, poor you. His second wife, Charmian Kittredge, seems to have been his match in several ways. She was a “tomboy” who could keep up with him in the outdoors, and the indoors, too, if you know what I mean. After poor Jack died, basically of too much Jackness, she went on to have a passionate affair with — voila! — Houdini, of all people.

      For a photo of Charmian as a young woman, go here:

  3. rachel permalink
    June 8, 2010 3:46 pm

    They made us read “The Call of the Wild” in 8th grade and I remember being not at all happy about it. It bored me.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 8, 2010 4:29 pm

      When I was just about that age, The Call of the Wild and White Fang transfixed me, but then, they are boys’ books, or at least that’s what they’ve become. You might like the story collection, Tales of the Fish Patrol. But then life is short, and there are so very, very many books….

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