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R I C H A R D W . E T U L A I N Idaho State University The Lives of Jack London* The life of Jack London has interested readers as much as his writings. From the publication of The Call of the Wild in 1903 until London’s premature death in 1916, his activities were headline news. His involvements in socialist organizations, his controversial divorce and remarriage, the trouble-plagued construction and voyage of the Snark, and the building of his ill-fated Wolf House were newsworthy events. Like later writers such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Norman Mailer, Jack London became a public figure, and thus the first accounts of his life, focusing on the numerous lively events of his career, tended to exaggerate the importance of what they described. These early accounts sensationalized London’s life, and in doing so they made it difficult for later biographers of London to separate fact from fiction.1 A second problem that perplexed London’s first interpreters was his tendency to dramatize his life in his writings. In such works as “The Apostate,” Tales of the Fish Patrol, and John Barleycorn London stressed the poverty and the adventures of his formative years. Some of *1 am indebted to the American Philosophical Society, the H untington Library, and the Idaho State University Research Com mittee for grants that m ade my research possible. In addition, Mr. Milo Shepard, the executor of the Jack London Estate, has kindly allowed me permission to quote from London m anuscript material. 1For an extensive listing of the early accounts of London’s life, see H. C. W oodbridge, John London, G. H. Tweney, Jack London: A Bibliography (New York: K raus R eprint Co., 1976), especially pp. 290-337, 457-476. T he Jack London Papers at the H enry E. H untington Library, San M arino, California (hereafter, JLP, H E H ) contain nineteen scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine stories about London and his writings. Robert F. Lucid has written a stimulating article about the American w riter as public figure in “Three Public Performances: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, M ailer,” American Scholar, XLIFI (Sum m er, 1974), 447-466. 150 Western American Literature his descriptions were sensationalized, others fudged on the truth.2 Biog­ raphers found, then, that early journalistic accounts and London’s auto­ biographical writings are not dependable guides to his life. As we shall see, these two problems have been difficult barriers for biographers of London to hurdle. To introduce readers to the major works about London’s life, the following essay summarizes published book-length biographies of London, examines the salient features of these studies, and evaluates the strengths and limitations of the volumes under scrutiny. In addition, some emphasis is placed on the circumstances surrounding the writing of the biographies.3 Even before London’s death, journalists and free-lance writers wanted to write his biography. But London planned to write his life story and discouraged others from undertaking biographical studies. He gathered notes and materials for an autobiography to be titled “Sailor on Horseback” or “Jack Liverpool.” Some of these materials were used in John Barleycorn, but most lay unexploited at his death. Within a month after London’s death, several writers contacted his widow Charmian and requested permission to write his biography. London’s publisher, Macmillan, was also interested in publishing an account of its best-selling author and asked Charmian if she would be willing to do the book. She quickly decided that a biography was needed, but she turned away those applying for the project and told Macmillan that she had neither the talent nor the time to undertake a brief, dramatic life of Jack. She did contact George Sterling — the one person she thought capable of doing the brief biography that Macmillan wanted — and though he expressed interest in the task, nothing came of the suggestion.4 2Sam S. Baskett challenges London’s treatm ent of his w aterfront days in John Barleycorn in his article “Jack London on the O akland W aterfront,” American Literature, X X V II (November, 1955), 363-371. H al W aters discusses briefly London’s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 149-164
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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