restricted access The Letters of Jack London (review)
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Reviewed by
Jack London. The Letters of Jack London. 3 vols. Ed. Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz, III, and I. Milo Shepard. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988. 1,784 pp. Standard jacketed set, $139.50; deluxe set, $185.00.

Jack London has suffered much malicious distortion from later biographers as well as contemporaries. This handsome collection of letters should provide the reader with a balanced picture of the author and also provide further evidence of his undeniable place within the American literary canon. Surpassing in scope and research the earlier 1965 Letters from Jack London of 402 letters, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, this collection is designed to be the standard reference work for the new century. It deserves both careful reading and respect.

London scholar Earle Labor, Norris expert Robert C. Leitz, and estate executor, I. Milo Shepard have performed a twelve-year herculean task of selecting some 1,557 letters and providing an introduction, index, scholarly footnotes, chronology, archive photographs, and maps of London's travels in this monumental achievement. Special mention should also be made of Jack London Research Center's Russ Kingman for his help in making the footnotes far surpass those of the Hendricks edition. Indeed we have virtually all these letters in addition to handsome selections from Charmian's The Book of Jack London, Jack London Reports, and No Mentor But Myself. The Huntington, Utah State, other Library collections, as well as private collector sources have all been drawn on lavishly.

The first volume begins with the young socialist's 29 July 1896 letter on economic issues to the Oakland Times. It concludes with his December 1905 Wilshire Magazine review of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The second volume covers the period from January 1906 to 31 December 1912, whereas the third deals with his final years, including his last letter to Joan, on 21 November 1916. All volumes comprehensively cover London's eventful life. He was a meticulous correspondent, his letters sometimes averaging seven a day, as on 13 January 1915.

In the first volume we meet the struggling young writer anxious to break into the literary market, discover his friendship with intellectual soul mate Anna Strunsky, learn about his first marriage, divorce, and second marriage to the more appropriate "mate-woman" Charmian Kittredge. So much rich material is here that selection of significant items for review can barely do justice to the work's impressive achievement.

The first volume covers correspondence with figures such as Mabel Applegarth, Cloudsley Johns, and sympathetic publisher George P. Brett on diverse subjects [End Page 272] revealing erudition, intelligence, and literary diversity. As early as 21 November 1902, London expresses his desire not to be stereotyped as a Klondike writer—a label that would "dog" him all his life. The letters also show London's place within the ideological climate of his time. In his 23 June 1899 letter on the role of law, London shares much of the racist and sexist feelings of his day. But we must remember that as the author developed both in personality and writing, these utterances (often seized on by his detractors) do not represent the entire spectrum of his personality.

Indeed, a far more handsome picture emerges throughout the letters, although marred occasionally by negative qualities. London could be extremely cruel in certain letters to Joan, as well as to those he believed had slighted him or betrayed his friendship. It is a measure of the editors' honesty that we have the damning correspondence with Spiro Orfans. However, these were written toward the end of his life when physical ailments were beginning to affect his personality; most of the negative outbursts do end amicably with the author extending both friendship and hospitality to a former adversary. The 3 April 1915 letter to E. Haldeman-Julius is one good example.

The letters also illustrate London's belief in a philosophy of life, his acquaintance with the works of figures as diverse as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Voltaire, and Theodore Roosevelt. On 3 October 1899 we see him, very much like his literary creation, Martin Eden, torn between Bessie Maddern's bourgeois stability and the lively young Frisco inhabitants. Anna Strunsky...


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