Much has been written about American author Jack London, primarily known for his early-20th-century Western adventure novels, including the classics “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild.”
In Earle Labor’s biography of the literary icon, “Jack London: An American Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), London comes across as a complex, larger-than-life man. Dozens of biographies have covered London’s life and work, but Labor’s is an especially well-balanced, thoughtful and definitive account.
London, born in 1876 in San Francisco, was a man of many contradictions. He is often portrayed as a raging alcoholic who loved violent sports, extreme living and seducing women. While there is some truth to the generalizations, he was also a man with a sensitive side who had tremendous writing skills and enjoyed, near the end of his life, farming, fatherhood and the love of his second wife, Charmain Kittredge.
As a child growing up in the Oakland slums, London endured poverty and hardship. He was born out of wedlock and the identity of his father was never firmly established, a fact that was quite painful to London as a young man. As a boy, he worked hard to supplement the family income, as his stepfather was ill most of London’s life. The young Jack delivered newspapers, hauled ice and set up pins in the local bowling alley. In his early teens, he worked in factories performing truly grueling tasks – he called himself a “work beast.” He vowed at age 19 to break free of such manual labor and work with his brain instead.
London continued to work hard, but after his stints in the factories, he pursued a more adventurous path. When he was 15, he stole oysters at night from the San Francisco Bay and earned the title “Prince of the Oyster Pirates.” As London himself wrote of this period: “Better to reign among booze-fighters, a prince, than to toil twelve hours a day at a machine for ten cents an hour.”
In 1894, the U.S. was in the midst of a devastating economic depression. An Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey initiated a protest march, called “Coxey’s Army” or “General Kelly’s Industrial Army,” by unemployed workers – the first of its kind – across the country to Washington, D.C. London sought to march with the group, and though he had difficulties catching up with the workers, he had many remarkable experiences while traversing the U.S. The poverty he witnessed made a socialist out of him.
London never stopped seeking adventure. At 21, he traveled the treacherous path to the Alaskan Klondike in search of gold. He published “The Call of the Wild” when he was 27. A year later, the San Francisco Examiner hired him as a war correspondent to cover the Russo-Japanese War. He became a world traveler on his boat, the “Snark,” when he was 31, and visited and wrote about Hawaii often. He also purchased a working ranch in Glen Ellen about that time and attempted to make it a successful commercial enterprise. He died young, at 40, in 1916.
London led a short but fascinating life, and “Jack London” certainly captures the ups and downs and complexities of his journey. Labor notes that American writer and critic Alfred Kazin wrote of London: “The greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.”
Nonfiction book clubs and those who like adventure stories should enjoy “Jack London.” A supplementary field trip may be in order – visit Jack London Square in Oakland or Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, where the writer lived, worked and is buried.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.