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  • Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor
  • Richard W. Etulain
Jack London: An American Life. By Earle Labor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. xviii + 461 pp. Cloth, $30.00.

If a scholar or general reader seeks a strong, thorough biography of Jack London that discerningly covers both the strengths and weaknesses of the famous American writer, this is the book to read. Earle Labor has read, researched, and written about London for more than a half-century, authoring the best literary introduction to London, co-editing the definitive collection of London’s letters, and producing dozens of valuable essays on London. Now in this smoothly written and appealingly presented life story of London, Labor’s long, diligent labors reach an apex.

Labor keeps to his subject. He has no positions to tout on London, as do Joan Hedrick’s Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work (psychobiography, 1982) and James L. Haley’s Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (socialism, 2010). Labor also avoids the imagined stretchers that marred Irving Stone’s notorious, out-of-control biographical novel, Sailor on Horseback: The Biography of Jack London (1938).

No one knows better than Labor the full, varied shifts of London’s kaleidoscopic life. The author makes thorough use of London’s literary output—more than fifty books in less than twenty years. In addition, he mines the huge London manuscript collections at the Huntington Library and in other libraries. Labor also quotes extensively from dozens of London writings to buttress his biographical points.

Careful readers of this work will recognize the author’s competence in handling London’s frenetic life. London was, along with being a socialist, an [End Page 278] unrepentant spender, nonstop wanderer, and dreamer of one of the largest homes in California. Labor also depicts London as an electric lovemaker, an opinionated speaker, and a “hard-drinking hedonist” (229).

Labor provides lengthy as well as compact discussions of major facets of London’s career. Full coverage is given to London’s hoboing, the ups and down of his and his wife Charmian’s Snark voyage in 1907–09 to the South Seas, and his dreams and nightmares concerning his Beauty Ranch in northern California. Notably, the treatment of the Snark trip runs to sixty-five pages, but the discussions of The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), and Martin Eden (1908) to less than twenty pages in toto. Obviously, Labor has produced the life story of a man who became a writer rather than a literary biography.

The main strengths of Labor’s valuable biography are two. It is first a balanced work, treating both the successes and failures of London the man and writer. Also, it provides illuminating discussions of London’s roles as husband and father, public figure, and lifetime seeker of adventure and knowledge.

In the end, readers get a complex Jack London. A man of extraordinary talent and energy, a searcher for an entire lifetime, and an appealing writer of adventure and romantic fiction, London was also a faulty parent, difficult spouse, producer of reams of hack writing, and often disastrously self-centered. Better than previous biographers have, Earle Labor furnishes here a thorough, valuable portrait of a multifaceted Jack London.

Richard W. Etulain
University of New Mexico


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pp. 278-279
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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