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A Strenuous Life

by John Daniel Davidson

Jack London: An American Life, by Earle Labor (Farrar, Straus, 480 pp., $30)

The epigraph of Martin Eden, arguably Jack London’s most philosophical and autobiographical novel, proclaims, “Let me live out my years in heat of blood! / Let me lie drunken with the dreamer’s wine! / Let me not see this soul-house built of mud / Go toppling to the dust a vacant shrine!” If you wanted to write a biography of London in four lines of verse, that would be it.

London’s short life was as wild and adventurous as his fiction: Even his exploits as a teenager almost strain credulity. At 15, London quit a full-time factory job to become an oyster pirate in San Francisco Bay — stealing oysters from beds owned by the big railroad companies and selling them on the black market. At 16, he fell in with a gang of “road kids” from Sacramento who taught him how to beg and steal and hop trains without losing his legs (as one unlucky boy in the gang did). A week after his 17th birthday, he joined the crew of a sealing ship bound for the Bering Sea — a voyage in which he survived a typhoon off the coast of Japan that would be the subject of his first published story.

During those early years, he also learned to drink — and drink hard, once almost dying of alcohol poisoning and another time almost drowning after he fell off a dock and got swept out to sea, and was rescued at the last moment by a passing fisherman. By 20, London had hoboed his way to the East Coast and back, done a stint in jail, lived in the slums, toiled as a “work-beast” in a coal-fired electricity plant, and emerged from it all an avowed socialist hell-bent on making a fortune.

Here is a biographer’s treasure trove, and London scholar Earle Labor sets about his task with both relish and care, ever conscious that the tale he’s telling is at once outlandish and tragically real. For as much as London offers rich material for a biography, any book-length account of his life is bound to feel incomplete. He was dead at age 40, seemingly at a turning point in his prolific writing career, his life cut off abruptly at the opening of the second act.

Nevertheless, he accomplished much, and it is a testament to London’s toughness and commitment to his craft that, under almost all circumstances, he kept to a rigorous writing schedule of producing at least 1,000 words a day — even when he was at sea, or ill, or both. This steadfastness would pay off for London, who would at one point be the highest-paid writer in America. It was a good thing it paid off, because while his income soared so did his expenses, and in his later years London increasingly resorted to churning out potboilers to keep up with mounting debt.

This spate of work has earned London a reputation in some literary circles as a popular hack, a writer of boy’s stories whose overblown status in American letters was secured only by his early death. Labor rightly rejects this view and advances London as the American author par excellence of the Strenuous Age, a man who overcame immense personal and professional obstacles through sheer willpower, intelligence, and charisma to become a writer and artist of the first order. That his writing was mostly aimed outward, at the rough world he knew from hard experience, is not grounds for dismissing London as a serious artist. He would not be the first and certainly not the last writer whose stories were plucked, sometimes verbatim, from the pages of his own life.

There seemed to be no end of exotic and harrowing experiences from which London could draw for his writing. A sojourn north in 1897 (at age 21) to strike it rich in the Klondike Gold Rush gave a young London years of material for short stories and, later, his most celebrated work, The Call of the Wild, which displays what Labor calls London’s “rare psychological empathy” for animals, especially dogs. Labor quotes one of London’s companions, Marshall Bond:

[London’s] manner of dealing with dogs was different from anyone I ever knew. Most people, including myself, pat, caress, and talk in more or less affectionate terms to a dog. London did none of this. He always spoke and acted toward the dog as if he recognized his noble qualities, respected them, but took them as a matter of course. . . . He had an appreciative and instant eye for fine traits and honored them in a dog as he would in a man.

His time in the north would shape his early writing as much as his time at sea, especially in the South Pacific, would shape his later work. He covered the Russo–Japanese War for Hearst in 1905; the war ended, for London, in a Japanese prison, and it took an appeal from President Theodore Roosevelt to secure his release.

Beginning in 1907, he attempted to sail around the world in a poorly built 42-foot sailboat. The ensuing two years would open a new world to London and his wife, Charmian. They fell in love with Hawaii, which became a haven for them later in life; nearly died of thirst when their boat ran out of water en route to Tahiti; and explored the dangerous islands of Melanesia, where cannibalism was still the custom among headhunting bushmen.

London’s health suffered terribly during the voyage. The entire crew was stricken with fever, malaria, and infected insect bites that turned into flesh-eating yaws. London also suffered from hives, dysentery, and other tropical diseases that eventually forced him to abandon the cruise and undergo emergency medical care in Australia. His health would never fully recover; upon his return to California in 1909, a silent character, death, begins to haunt the pages of Labor’s book. By the time London slips into a coma and succumbs to a “gastro-intestinal type of uraemia,” at his ranch in November 1916, one wonders how he ever lasted so long in such a shattered physical state.

If London had lived longer, he would perhaps have turned his artistic genius more deeply inward, to explore the undiscovered country of the human heart with as much fervor as he had explored the wide world. At the time of his death, he had only just begun to delve into the work of Carl Jung and grapple with the ideas set forth in Psychology of the Unconscious. London was an avowed materialist throughout his life, but Labor makes the case that toward the end he had embarked upon a spiritual sea change. Charmian, who knew London better than anyone, thought the change remarkable and noted in her diary that, in Jack’s copy of Jung’s book, he “underscored Jesus’ challenge to Nicodemus, cited by Jung: ‘Think not carnally or thou art carnal, but think symbolically and then thou art spirit.’”

Despite his newfound interest in spiritual truth and the unconscious, bitterness and depression plagued London as his health deteriorated. He complained to Charmian that “every person I’ve done anything for . . . has thrown me down, near ones, dear ones — and the rest.” Despite mounting signs that he was gravely ill, London would not rest or change his diet; the stubbornness and drive that had propelled him out of anonymous poverty into literary immortality would ultimately be his ruin.

Sadly, London seems to have departed life without comfort in either body or soul. Labor, to his credit, does not try to spare his readers from the difficulty London had in his personal relationships and the recklessness with which he sometimes treated those closest to him. His eldest daughter, Joan, from London’s first marriage, often bore the brunt of his animosity and resentment toward her mother. The last time she saw him, he flew into a rage over her request for an increase in her monthly allowance. At their parting, “my impulse to run to him, to fling my arms about him, died at the sight of his set, unsmiling face,” she would later recall. “He turned then, pushed open the door and went inside. We were never to see him again.”

– Mr. Davidson is a writer in Austin, Texas, and a 2013 Lincoln Fellow of the Claremont Institute.

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