The Magazine

The Ice Palace

Jack London’s thousand words a day.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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London’s work is replete with well-described actions, the dog Buck’s in The Call of the Wild being only the most familiar. The Sea-Wolf, aside from its romantic plot in which the narrator and his lady finally overcome Wolf Larsen, is filled with violent fights among the crew and a storm in which the ship is wrecked. These actions exist in our memory apart from any moral or human significance London sometimes imputes to them. In perhaps his best story, “To Build a Fire,” a man’s freezing to death in minus-75-degree weather is painfully, unforgettably described. As a writer, London was a materialist in the best sense of the word.

A recent critic speaks of London’s writing as dealing in “a wholly calculated and manufactured sensationalism,” thinking partly of the thousand words he ground out every day until his death. Yet Labor’s treatment of that death is on the sensationalistic side, depending mainly on the words of London’s second wife, Charmian, who would become keeper of his flame. 

In his 40th year, London was suffering from clogged arteries, diseased kidneys, dysentery, edema, and various other ailments, culminating in his failure to wake up one morning. As his limp body was held up by the doctors, Charmian, “looking him directly in the face, cried, ‘Mate! Mate! You must come back! Mate! You’ve got to come back!’ ”—but to no avail. 

Labor rejects the widely held theory that London’s death was a suicide and describes as a “canard” the notion that he died of a calculated dose of morphine, injected by a syringe found at his bedside. (Uremic poisoning was the doctor’s verdict.) One can almost believe that, after receiving news of his own death, London rose up and wrote a final thousand words about the event.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.