There is a common assumption that the more familiar a person is with a given subject, the less objective he or she becomes in assessing it. Earle Labor’s new biography of Jack London represents a notable departure from this conventional wisdom. After over 50 years of studying Jack London and teaching his works, Labor knows the famed American author of The Call of the Wild and White Fang (just two of his 50-plus books) as well as anyone else now living. For all this familiarity, and though this book is clearly rooted in a lifelong love for London and his writing, the end result is a masterful account that is balanced and meticulously researched.
From the outset, Labor makes clear his desire to avoid the usual pitfalls of those who have profiled London. These biographers have tended, he argues, to emphasize or even exaggerate London’s many faults, resulting in mere caricatures of a figure who deserves a more nuanced portrait. Labor’s aim is to enter and inhabit London’s world, instead of going for the easy victory of postmortem character assessment or, for that matter, assassination. Following this method, he still gives the reader ample information with which to either condemn or pardon Jack London.
In addition to offering a corrective to defective interpretations, Labor brings new historical materials to light, unavailable even in his own earlier critical biography of London (1974, revised 1994). Among these are recently acquired letters that passed between London and his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. These letters allow a richly textured account of their relationship to emerge. More broadly, Labor painstakingly combs London’s correspondence and journals, as one might expect, but he also reads these accounts together with a host of other sources. This mechanism corroborates or corrects London’s own autobiographical accounts, which often turn out to be embellished.
Known for action-packed writing that teems with adventure, London’s own life story is truly as interesting as any possible fiction. Indeed, he is perhaps the only American writer who can make Ernest Hemingway look effete by comparison. London not only wrote about the “call,” but clearly felt his own: to adventure in all its forms. In addition to being a novelist, husband and father, he was a factory worker, oyster pirate, seal hunter, Klondike prospector, hobo, sailor attempting to circumnavigate the globe, farmer, surfer, journalist and socialist politician. These many “lives” transpired in the 40 short years of his actual life and undoubtedly contributed to its brevity.
Labor’s portrait of this man is compelling, presenting a remarkably shaded account of the many paradoxes that marked London’s life. A world-renowned author, he claimed to write only for income (“I am writing for money…if I can procure fame, that means more money”). An avowed socialist for most of his life, he enjoyed rather aristocratic amenities like a personal valet (“Why tie my own shoes when I can have it done by someone whose business it is, while I am improving my mind or entertaining the fellow who drops in?”). A man of considerable intellectual powers, he never graduated from high school. Nevertheless, he passed college entrance exams—only to withdraw from the University of California at Berkeley without a degree.
If the temptation to be severe in assessing London is hard to avoid, it is perhaps even harder to cast him in a sympathetic light. It is challenging indeed to discover why so many people loved this man who, literary greatness aside, was resolutely impulsive (and hence always short on money), a philanderer and an alcoholic. These traits emerge clearly in his family life. After his sweetheart, Anna Strunsky, rebuffed his advances (she was playing coy, it turned out), London proposed days later to Elizabeth (Bessie) Maddern. He did not love her (nor she him), though together they had two daughters, Joan and Becky. The marriage was unhappy, and after Jack’s recurrent infidelity—including an affair with his old flame, Strunsky—the pair divorced. His marriage to Charmian was happier, but London’s relationship with his daughter Joan deteriorated to the point where, when she was 13, he wrote to her “If you should be dying.... I should surely come; on the other hand, if I were dying I should not care to have you at my bedside.” For all this, Labor also captures the dynamism, expansive spirit and zest for living that made Jack London—for all his weaknesses, great and small—a singularly attractive figure to his friends, lovers and readers.
For his part, Labor does not vanish entirely into the story he tells. He inveighs against the canard that London’s death was a suicide. Rather, he emphasizes that London’s passing—met with international shock and outpourings of grief—was almost certainly caused by his chronic bad health, especially cardiopulmonary and renal disease. Our biographer views London as a “seeker” and is up front about his hope that readers will share this opinion. His repeated use of this label throughout the book is one of the weakest aspects of an otherwise stellar volume. To call someone a “seeker”—apart from the quasi-religious connotations the term bears today—is to invite the question of what one seeks. This goes unanswered. At the very least we can say it was not God London sought: according to Charmian, he “prayed to no God but humanity.” And given the remarkable breadth of the novelist’s adventures, the reader (at least this one) comes away with the impression that he sought everything—and so perhaps nothing—all at once.
The biography is subtitled “An American Life.” This is not accidental, nor is anything else that appears in this finely crafted work. The author is convinced that London pursued the “American Dream of Success,” and one would struggle to find a better embodiment of that dream than Jack London.
Labor’s own success is twofold. He clearly demonstrates that London not only dreamt this dream, but actually lived it. Perhaps more important, Labor brilliantly shows that for himself and those he loved, London’s dream was a nightmare as often as it was an idyll.