Book Review: Jack London, Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone

We writers are often lonely people.  We labor away day after day, alone in our rooms at our keyboards.  Often those around us don’t understand what we are going through and what drives us to persevere.

How I acquired this book by Irving Stone I don’t remember, but it found its way into my hands at just the right time, when I had come to the realization that I was a writer.  As soon as I began to read it I was enthralled.  Jack London’s life was at least as adventurous as the lives of the characters in his tales; indeed, he felt that one had to live life to the full before one could write about it.  As a young man he sailed the Pacific in a sealing vessel, raided oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay area as an oyster pirate, rode the rails across America, journeyed to the Klondike in Alaska in search of gold; later, as a world-renowned author, he built his own sailboat and toured the then-wild South Sea Islands.

This book reads like a novel; it is utterly gripping and fascinating.  Indeed, it has been accused of taking liberties with and embellishing the facts.  Besides historical sources Stone relies heavily on Jack London’s autobiographical novel “Martin Eden” – sections of the text seem all but lifted out of it.  To fault the book for its limited value as a historical text might be justified, but to fault it as an inspiration for writers would be errant.

For a long time in his journeys London wandered aimlessly, without purpose or direction, but in the Klondike he found himself as a man and as a writer.  He was unlearned as far as the traditional educational system was concerned, but he was a voracious reader and possessed of uncommon intelligence and drive.  Once he determined to educate himself and to become a writer there was no stopping him.  He drove himself relentlessly to study and to write.  He would limit himself to a few hours of sleep a night and then would rise early and get to work.  He would set himself a daily word limit and would not stop until he achieved it.  He made a plan to acquaint himself with all important fields of knowledge and he devoured books relentlessly.  At first he received nothing but rejections from the editors to whom he sent his work, but he kept at it, sent the stories out again and again, refused to accept failure though he came to the brink of poverty and despair.

Finally, after a few years of intense struggle, he achieved a success that few writers of his time even came close to.  The breakthrough work was “The Call of the Wild”, still considered a classic and read by students and lovers of literature today.  He followed that with many popular volumes of stories, novels, essays, and so on, until he was the most famous and best-paid writer of his time.

He did not manage his wealth wisely, though, and was always in debt, forcing him to work ever harder.  He burned himself out at an early age, dying when he was only forty years old.  Some say it was suicide and some say it was an illness; nobody really knows for sure.  Stone offers his own version.

Undoubtedly Irving Stone presents London idealistically, and ignores his weaknesses as a man and as a writer.  But to benefit from this book one must approach it as a rousing adventure and as a study in determination.  It is invigorating, strengthening, inspiring.  When I read it as a young writer it caused me to persevere when I felt like quitting, to ignore the mounting pile of rejection slips and try again, to step out and live life to the full that I might afterwards be able to write about it with veracity.  It can inspire you too.  That is the value of this book.

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