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.
This presumably direct manner in fact moves the reader away from, rather than closer to, actuality. As does, from time to time, Labor’s enthusiastic abandonment to cliché: When speaking of London’s aspirations, he notes, “Life itself was the biggest, most exciting game in town, and he was hell-bent on playing for the highest stakes.” Such well-worn phrases have the effect of lowering the stakes, even as they attempt to ratchet them upwards.
Labor also fails to mention one of the best criticisms of London, George Orwell’s 1943 introduction to a volume of his stories. Orwell convincingly presents London as a writer whose main theme was the cruelty of nature and who had a corresponding streak of brutality, seen in his preference for the strong against the weak man. A prime example is his novel The Sea-Wolf (1904), in which the ship’s tyrannical captain, Wolf Larsen, has a lot more “life” than the civilized narrator who witnesses his cruelty. Orwell admires some of London’s stories for the way they delight in the savage struggle that is life, perceiving its cruelty while refraining from choosing sides, thus suspending narrative judgment. Orwell also makes the prescient observation that even London’s best stories—and this would apply to the novels as well—have “the curious quality of being well told and yet not well written.” This is a tricky distinction, but Orwell may have been on to something in suggesting that one can perceive a kind of narrative power despite worn or obvious phrases and “erratic dialogue.”
“A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” Orwell called London; but it wasn’t only seafaring adventures that London used as material for his books. The People of the Abyss (1903), his account of life among the London poor, is surely a strong predecessor to Orwell’s own adventuring in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). But for all its exploration of grittiness and its social message, London’s book is interesting for its inclination toward poetry and poets. Epigraphs to individual chapters feature lines from, among others, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Carlyle, The Rubaiyat, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and William Morris, and it concludes with Longfellow’s “Challenge,” quoted in full.
This “poetic” side to London can be thought of as a spiritual counter to his materialist philosophy—Darwinian survival of the fittest and all that. In The Sea-Wolf, to my mind the most gripping novel of the ones I’ve read, the narrator Humphrey van Weyden finds himself aboard, and compelled to stay aboard, The Ghost, Wolf Larsen’s ship. Humphrey, soon known as “Hump,” manages to elicit from the captain, a man of rippling muscles (like London himself?), the confession that he’s been reading Robert Browning but is having trouble with him; whereupon Hump gets out his copy of the poet and reads “Caliban on Setebos” aloud. (No wonder Wolf was having trouble.) He goes on to quote a stanza from Omar Khayyam aloud, to which Larsen cries, “Great. . . . That’s the keynote.”
At one level, this is ludicrous. But it brings out another side of London: his romance with literature, fueled by the heavy reading he did when preparing to be a student at the University of California (he lasted only a term).
At the beginning of Martin Eden, the book Pnin looked for in vain, the hero meets a lovely, aristocratic young woman who lends him copies of Browning and Swinburne. The untutored hero is ecstatic and vows to change his life. Going to bed that night, he has a vision of the lady’s “pale face under its crown of golden hair, remote and inaccessible as a star.” He proceeds to bestow a kiss on both the Browning and Swinburne volumes. And in the final chapter of this long, sometimes tedious, novel, Martin, about to abandon himself to the sea, reads aloud a stanza from Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” before casting himself into the waters.
All Labor has to say about Martin Eden is that it is “an indictment of the protagonist’s fatal self-centered individualism.” But London’s inability to imagine a convincing inner life for any of his characters makes talk about such an “indictment” pretty hollow. The book comes alive in its scenes of “action,” as when the hero and his partner are working in a small steam laundry with “unremitting toil.” What we remember from the sequence is Martin’s left hand holding up the body of a shirt “and at the same time the right hand dipped into the starch—starch so hot that, in order to wring it out, their hands had to be thrust, and thrust continually, into a bucket of cold water.” The whole laundry incident is alive with the energy of a writer who knows how things work because he has worked them—and no inner life is necessary.
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.