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W I L L I A M H O L T Z University ofMissouri-Columbia Jack London’s First Biographer Surely, the place to begin in any consideration of a biography of Jack London is with the survey by Richard Etulain of the various lives of London. Etulain succinctly describes the efforts of a series of biogra­ phers to deal with recurring problems in the writing of London’s life. First and last, that life posed crucial matters of fact and interpretation: London’s dubious paternity was an early whisper, and his suspicious death—suicide or accident—became a pharmacological case study. The established facts of his life were striking enough, but the presumed autobiographical basis of his fiction cast a lurid light over the whole, tempting readers and biographers alike to identify London with Martin Eden and his other fictional characters: small wonder that the best known biography, Irving Stone’s Sailor on Horseback (1938), reads in places like a novel. And the quest for factual authority was for years blocked by London’s widow Gharmian, who had her own version of London’s life to protect, who felt herself and London badly used by other biographers she had trusted, and who finally blocked further efforts until her death in 1955. The essence of Etulain’s study is that an adequate biography of London, properly objective yet connecting the fiction with the man, remains yet to be written.1 We should not expect too much, then, from London’s first biogra­ pher. In the main, Etulain is right when he says of Rose Wilder Lane’s “Life and Jack London” (1917-18) that for the modern reader the work has little value. “She too often employed the fictional devices of imag­ ined conversations, impressionistic descriptions, and tailored atmo­ sphere—all of which were based on skimpy evidence,” Etulain summa­ rizes accurately, and he goes on to describe the general melodramatic distortion and lack of balance that every modern reader will acknowl­ edge (43). But considering the difficulties, we might well be surprised that she did as well as she did. The details of her enterprise have a 22 Western American Literature dramatic interest all their own, even as they illustrate the problems later biographers would encounter.2 II The genre that Lane practiced—we may call it fictionalized biogra­ phy—is not generally admired by academicians; it takes its stand neither in the realm of verifiable history nor in that of the frankly fictional, but rather blurs the disciplined distinction between the empirical and the subjective. Yet its persistent popularity, whether in book or film “about,” say, James Dean or Buddy Holly, testifies not so much to the mass audience’s predilection for error as to the inescapable human need to mythologize. It is now a commonplace of literary theory that although the canons both of realistic fiction and of historical writing evolved in step with the development of empirical science, any narrative that engages the rapt attention is apt to yield up old patterns of romance and myth upon close inspection. Northrop Frye has called this phenomenon the “displacement” of myth, and has argued that midway between the modern preference for realistic fictions and the ancient mythologies lies the world of romance, where demigod heroes contend for heart’s desire in a world recognizably natural yet shot through with supernatural forces, archetypes of good and evil. Even the most realistic narratives, to the extent that they engage the human heart, will tend to draw covertly on patterns of romance and the deeper mythic values that lie behind them. The fictionalized biography, Iwould suggest, is merely a symptom of this pull of the older narratives on the artificial but necessary disci­ pline of factual narrative. Nuances of style, tone, or interpretation, as well as pure contrivance, may nudge the narrative from fact toward the fictional paradigm. It is not surprising that Lane came to this mode by way of her work as ajournalist, a profession the demands of which place high value on the pursuit both of fact and of readers. Her career at the San Francisco Bulletin from 1915 to 1918 began with the writing of romantic serials...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 21-36
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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