- Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor
Like so many readers, Earle Labor came to the writings of Jack London as an adolescent, enthralled by his short stories, but Labor’s love of the novelist turned serious after reading Martin Eden in college and turned into a life-long passion after visiting London’s Beauty Ranch in 1963. Fifty years later, Labor’s passion has culminated in an authoritative biography, Jack London: An American Life, recently released in paperback. Like Labor, I devoured London’s stories as an adolescent. And like Labor, my early knowledge of London was a conflation of rumors about his life and facts about his fiction. Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, having attended Berkeley, having frequented the bars in Jack London Square, having visited the ruins of Wolf House, and having read London’s works, I thought I knew the author well as a “pirate,” a brawler, a revolutionary, a drug addict, and a depressed writer who committed suicide, but I only knew the myths—myths more fanciful than his fiction—so for me, Labor’s biography has served as a needed corrective. London was a superman, but he was all too human. With access to London’s personal diaries and letters, as well as those of London’s second wife, Charmian, his daughters, and others, Labor painstakingly documents London’s life, presenting it simply and fairly.
In chronicling London’s life, Labor turns the author’s heroic deeds into daily struggles. Above all, London was a laborer, a worker driven by the abandonment of his father, by childhood poverty, and by a genetic disposition to accomplish Herculean tasks. In his daily battles, London embraced disparate worlds and value systems. By age ten, while attending elementary school, London was selling newspapers, setting bowling pins, and working weekends on an ice wagon, handing over his money to his mother. At the same time, he was reading voraciously, regularly visiting the Oakland Public Library. An autodidact, London learned from adventures and from books. Instead of attending high school, he purchased a [End Page 172] “pirate” boat and illegally harvested oysters from the San Francisco Bay, earning enough money to help his family and fund his nascent alcoholism. After sinking his boat, still a teenager, he worked as a deputy for the California Fish Patrol, a seaman on a sealing ship, a laborer in an electric plant, a janitor at the Oakland High School, a student studying to pass Berkeley’s entrance exam, an assistant in a prep school laundry, and a miner in the Klondike, all strivings that would wend their way into his fiction. In cataloguing London’s formative years, Labor presents facts that can benefit scholars in unexpected ways. For example, Labor briefly mentions that London’s formative laundry work occurred in Belmont, a town twenty miles south of San Francisco. Remembering that Frank Norris briefly attended a prep school in Belmont, I quickly discovered that both authors spent time at the Belmont Academy, founded by William T. Reid, a former President of the University of California, one as a student whose mother was molding her son into Harvard material, the other as a laborer earning money to survive.
By 1898, back from the Klondike, and declining a postal position, London turned his unbridled energy to literary work, tracking submissions, learning narrative formulas, developing a literary diction, and quickly earning excellent wages. His first book, Son of Wolf (1900), featuring Malemute Kid stories that had appeared in the Atlantic and Overland, was greeted with rave reviews and good sales. As a popular speaker, he was being paid to recount his adventures. As a journalist, he earned money covering the Russo-Japanese War and a Jack Johnson fight. Labor reveals London to be a dedicated, driven writer, one who set himself daily word quotas until the end of his life, one who travelled, not as a tourist but as an adventurer, suffering malaria, dysentery, numerous tropical fevers, rashes, and sores...