In one of the most charming moments of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin (1957), our hero is about to be visited by a 14-year-old American boy, son of Pnin’s former (and dreadful) wife and her fraudulent lover, Dr. Eric Wind. Pnin wonders what gifts of welcome he can give young Victor, and decides that along with a football, he will provide some pleasurable reading. Since Pnin believes everyone in his native Russia knows Jack London’s work, Pnin asks a bookstore employee for London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909), to which the lady responds “Eden, Eden, Eden . . . let me see, you don’t mean a book on the British statesman? Or do you?”
When the confusion is cleared up, the only book of London’s to be found is an old edition of The Son of the Wolf (1900), a collection of stories and London’s first published book. Pnin decides to buy it, though it is inferior to Martin Eden: “Not his best book but O.K. O.K, I will take it.” It turns out that Victor doesn’t like sports and believes the London volume is a translation from Russian, Pnin’s mother tongue. Politely, Victor says he’s sure he will like the book and reveals, “Last summer I read Crime and”—at which point he yawns and doesn’t complete the title of a novel by a writer whom Nabokov, if not Pnin, abhors.
How many readers these days are familiar with Jack London’s work? During his brief life of 40 years, he produced 50 books, 200 short stories, and 400 nonfiction pieces on varied subjects. “Here is truly God’s plenty and a biographer’s plenitude,” concludes Earle Labor in the preface to his loving biography of the writer.
Recognized as the dean of Jack London studies, Labor has been an active London scholar for 60 years, has edited volumes of his stories and letters, and curates the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana. There have been previous biographies of London, most recently a good one by James Haley—Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (2009)—but Labor’s effort is likely to be as definitive a treatment as anyone needs. It contains relatively little literary criticism of London’s works, and when Labor attempts it the results are not always happy, as when he says of The Call of the Wild (1903) that London “had found in the canine species the selfless unconditional love celebrated in the Christian concept of agape.” It’s true that London’s books don’t invite much critical attention to their sentences, the way contemporaries like Joseph Conrad and Stephen Crane, not to mention Henry James, do: Alfred Kazin’s oft-quoted remark that “the greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived” may be a rationale for not giving serious attention to London the artist.
Instead, Earle Labor leads us skillfully through the many “stories” that constituted London’s life: working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an “oyster pirate” on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands. This is only the beginning of a list that doesn’t include his two marriages, his fathering two children with his first wife Bella, or his periodic intakes of large quantities of alcohol—all the while becoming, by 1915, the highest-paid author in America.
The biographer’s tone throughout is sympathetic, usually admiring, and participatory, since he makes the decision (not, I think, a wise one) to render many of London’s utterances through direct speech rather than indirect narration. For example, he draws on a memoir by London’s close boyhood friend Frank Atherton to create the atmosphere of “a dingy little cottage” in West Oakland that Jack introduces to Atherton this way:
“I hope you’ll excuse our humble circumstances. . . . We’ve always been too poor to buy a tablecloth, so we have to use newspapers.”
“Why, my goodness, Johnnie, you know better!” Flora [his mother] exclaimed, taking the bait. “You know we have tablecloths and I use newspaper to save laundry.”
“I shouldn’t have told tales out of school, Frank, but now the cat is out of the bag, I may as well explain,” Jack persisted.