- Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography
In Jack London's Racial Lives, Jeanne Campbell Reesman has confronted perhaps the most vexing problem in London scholarship, and in doing so she has produced a remarkably comprehensive account of the complex web of London's racial influences, attitudes, and convictions in a firmly realized historical and biographical context. Her subtitle, which might seem to claim too much breadth for the "narrow" topic of race, is in fact fully earned, since race is the nexus of multiple strands of London's intellectual and psychic life. Thus in many ways this book comes closer than anything yet published to the fully satisfying biography we need.
On the biographical side, an early keynote involves London's relations with his two mothers: negatively with his biological mother, Flora Wellman [End Page 81] London, and much more positively with Virginia Prentiss, the African American former slave who wet-nursed him in childhood and remained a central figure in his emotional life. The result, argues Reesman, is his lifelong search for a location, "a 'home' or 'house' [that] can stand for the self, mind, body, culture, nation, class, place, and race," thereby crystalizing his fractured identity. His itinerant life and extraordinarily wide personal experience of racial Others—in his native California, the Klondike, the Far East, Hawaii, the South Seas, and Mexico—continually complicated the racial ideology he derived from his intellectual culture.
Reesman offers a penetrating account of the "scientific racialism" that reached the height of its influence around the turn of the twentieth century. While exhibiting the autodidact's overenthusiasm for the fashionable theories of the moment, London nevertheless found his notions of "Anglo-Saxon" superiority repeatedly undermined by his encounters with unfamiliar cultures and exceptional individuals. Reesman is particularly acute in showing how this conflict plays out in his reporting and photographing of the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, the 1908 and 1910 Jack Johnson prizefights, and the 1914 American intervention in the Mexican Revolution. Other chapters deal with the encounters of whites and natives in the Klondike stories, the fiction and non-fiction of Hawaii and the South Seas, the semi-autobiographical Martin Eden (read as a novel of racial "passing"), the return-to-the-land novels (especially The Valley of the Moon), and the Jungian turn in the Hawaiian stories written in London's final year. Although racial dimensions of many of these writings have been treated piecemeal by previous scholars, Reesman performs the essential task of gathering the strands and going far beyond them to present a coherent and convincing whole.
There is thus little to object to in this excellent and much-needed book. The story-by-story reading of the South Seas fiction might have profited from further compression, and it is hard to accept Reesman's high regard for the South Seas story "Mauki," in which the eponymous hero, who avenges himself on his sadistic master by the even more sadistic act of skinning him alive, is regarded as developing "a sense of ethical purpose." But this is a rare dissent on a book that, without palliating London's flagrant racial posturing, carefully explores its historical provenance while recording the subtle turns and the often remarkable openness and generosity that characterize his treatment of racial Others through the full range of his writings. It is this complex interplay that lies at the heart of Reesman's study. [End Page 82]