Reading about the life of Jack London had an enormous effect on me when I was a young writer. Inevitably when I read a new biography of London I compare it with the book that introduced me to him, Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone. Also inevitably, the biographies I have read since fall short of providing the riveting experience of my first introduction to the author’s life. Some have given more details and possibly have been better researched, but none has engaged my emotions and empathy as a fellow writer as much.
This one I found by chance while browsing library shelves in the biography section. It’s not the newest biography of London, but I had never heard of it before so I decided to give it a try. It’s divided into sections corresponding to various facets of London’s life, such as “The Student,” “The Prospector,” “The Aspiring Writer” and so on. Such a contrivance cannot, of course, be sharply delineated, and there is overflow of themes from chapter to chapter.
This book is fairly short as far as biographies go. Although in the introduction the author makes claims to delving deeper and more thoroughly into London’s life than others, in fact it is a fairly swift overview of the main points of the author’s life, skipping over a number of sometimes important details (such as the crucial sale of the short story “An Odyssey of the North” to The Atlantic Monthly early in his career) that other biographers include. Haley lingers in a few places to give more detailed explanations: for instance, in England when London went underground amidst the poor to research his sociological book The People of the Abyss, but for the most part he merely touches on the main points and then moves swiftly on. Most of the chapters, such as those on the Klondike, London’s struggles as a young writer, and the journey through the South Pacific aboard his sailing ship the Snark would have benefited by being much, much longer. In the closing chapters especially, Haley seems in a rush to finish up, and skims over or skips a lot of important information.
Still, the book is readable and interesting, dealing as it does with one of the most charismatic and adventurous writers in American literature. Jack London never even finished high school. Determined to be a writer despite the handicaps of his background and environment, he educated himself, learned the basics of how to submit to magazines, and through hard work, talent, and persistence became the most famous and well-paid writer of his time. Many of his works are as readable now as when they were first published, particularly his short stories, his novella The Call of the Wild, and his autobiographical novel of his struggles as a writer, Martin Eden. Aspiring writers can learn a lot about short story technique by reading some of his classics such as “The White Silence,” “The Apostate,” and “The Red One.”
In short, this biography is readable, but not as comprehensive as others I’ve read. And if you’re an aspiring writer and want a torrential rush of inspiration, read Jack London: Sailor on Horseback.