Book Review: Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor

If I had to name the three writers most influential on my own career as a writer, they would be Jack London, Harlan Ellison, and Henry Miller.  I would snap up a biography of Harlan Ellison in a moment, but none have yet been written.  I haven’t found a definitive biography of Henry Miller either, but then again, he tells his own story better than anyone else.  Of Jack London, however, there have been a number of biographies, and I have read a few in the past.  A copy of Irving Stone’s “Jack London: Sailor on Horseback” first set me on the London literary trail.  This one, written by a man who has been a Jack London scholar his entire academic life, is purportedly the definitive biography.  That remains to be seen, as I am only one hundred pages in.  But already it has stirred up memories and emotions from the time my ambitions turned to becoming a writer.

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We have a time gap here.  I just finished the book.  The first few hundred pages I felt the author was sort of skimming over the material, and I wished that he had been a little more thorough.  The second half of the book slows down as it traces London’s physical deterioration and mental depression in the face of a myriad pressures, many of which he brought on himself.  I think the book is definitive not in that it is comprehensive, but that the author combed meticulously through available records, including journals and diaries of those involved, and tried to dispel various myths and rumors concerning Jack London’s life and death.

And more and more as I read on, I realized that I don’t admire the life of Jack London as much as I used to.  He did some exciting things, sure, in the Klondike and the South Pacific, and I would have enjoyed adventures like that, but for the most part he lived a hard life, beset with financial and personal problems, never able to catch up and relax.  Though he was the highest paid writer in the world, he always mishandled his money and spent ahead so that he was continually in debt.  He was addicted to instant gratification.  And though he put on a show of being tough and strong, in reality his constitution was rather weak, and choices he made concerning overindulging in alcohol and following a very unhealthy diet contributed to his wasting away of disease and dying at the age of forty.  He became so stressed and overextended that after a certain point his writing brought him no joy and he did it only for the money.  I can’t imagine reaching that point.  I want the money too, but I can’t imagine not being fascinated with writing and literature and thrilling to putting words in order in just the right way.

Yes, Jack London, as so many celebrity writers before and after him, was not able to keep a handle on his life.  It reminds me of the immensely talented actor who just died, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  The man was one of the greatest actors of his generation, with money and awards and no end of offers of high quality work.  So what happens?  He overdoses on heroin and dies at the age of 46.  And think of Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.  They attained to what just about everyone thinks they want, and they couldn’t handle it and it killed them.  They couldn’t cope.

As far as Jack London and his adventures, hell, I’ve done things as wild or wilder.  I hitchhiked around the world broke.  I begged on the streets of Tehran.  I hiked through the Himalayas without a map, a guidebook, food, water, or supplies.  I circled the world twice, once in one direction and once in the other.  It’s not the exploits in themselves that are important.  Jack London was like many young celebrities today – he became famous before he had the maturity to handle it, and he paid the price.  Perhaps he never would have been able; I don’t know.  I know that if I had become famous and rich when I first started writing I most likely would not have survived; I would not have been able to handle it.  I could easily have died of a drug overdose or pickled with alcohol.  As it is, I think that if it happened to me now I could handle it better.  I have the maturity, the wisdom, and the life experience to be able to ride the wave.  But then again, who knows?  You never know for sure until it happens.

But one more thing, a very important thing, needs to be said.  Jack London was an artist.  He took his life experiences, many of them sordid, many of them dysfunctional, many of them reprobate, and turned them into great literature.  Not all of what he wrote is great, but some of his short stories are among the greatest I have ever read anywhere in any genre, stories like “The White Silence,” “In a Far Country,” “Love of Life,” “To Build a Fire,” “The Apostate,” “The Red One” – I could go on and on, and if I had a bibliography available I would doubtlessly add to the list.  Not to forget some of the longer works too, like “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” “The Sea Wolf,” and “Martin Eden.”  Despite whatever turmoil he went through in his life, Jack London was a greatly gifted writer, and despite his bluff and bravado his works reveal that he had a deep, sensitive soul.  That’s what will be remembered in the end, not his dysfunctional life but his writing.

In conclusion I would have to say that this is the best biography of Jack London I have read.  Irving Stone’s book “Jack London: Sailor on Horseback” was very important to me, but as far as biography there was too much mix of fact and fancy.  This is a good book and well worth reading, and that it contributed to shattering an idealistic image I held of the man is a regrettable but necessary process I had to go through.

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