I had a grandfather who rushed to the Klondike in 1898 and lived long enough to dandle me on his knee and tell me stories. That probably predisposed me to like Jack London.
Like many people, I read his short stories and books like Call of the Wild and White Fang to get a taste of the life in the wilderness and the Great White North. These tales were all the more vivid because I could imagine my grandfather in them, tramping in snowshoes, climbing Chilkoot Pass, panning for gold. Grandpa had a precious nugget embedded in one of the curved pipes he like to smoke (always curved, he said, because straight pipes got in the way of reading the newspaper). That little nugget hinted and glinted of treasure and adventure. So did London's tales.
Many put Jack London away with child's things, acknowledging him as a master of juvenile fiction, of stories to keep alongside Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain. But as a new biography of London (due in June) tells it, dismissing London this way is a mistake.
In Wolf: the Lives of Jack London (Basic Books, $29.95), James L. Haley gives us a terrific, compact biography that helps to restore London as a complex, prodigious writer of much (perhaps too much) more than tales of adventure. He was a writer who threw himself into his times, and burned out early due to back-breaking labor, booze, brilliance, and a bravehearted engagement in the radical politics.
My own brief rediscovery of London began and ended in late adolescence. I came across a copy of Martin Eden, London's novel about a budding author who woos a woman of the upper-middle class and strives for recognition and commercial success. He is rejected, lonely, desperate, the prototypical suffering scribe. He eventually hits it big, yet finds no happiness. The system grinds him up (those who remember the era of rejection slips will be able to relate to the agony), his art is compromised. The book ends with the author slipping off a ship at sea and sinking into oblivion, a suicide who chooses to disappear.
For a budding writer, Martin Eden offers a scary study. Its message: the only thing more miserable than literary failure is success. It brings to mind the old Red Smith quote: "Writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter, open up a vein and bleed it out drop by drop." The very act of creativity often takes a toll that requires stamina and self-destruction. Getting on the bestseller list is no assurance of ease, and in fact can increase the pressures as more blood is required to keep up with demand.
After Martin Eden, I stopped reading Jack London. The book was so clearly autobiographical, in fact, it was hard for me not to see the character and author as the same.
It was one thing to imagine writing in a garret and dying young and unknown for art; it was another to ponder making it and then hating where it got you. London, I'd heard, had written Martin Eden and an abundance of other books, then killed himself too. Martin Eden stood as a warning for young writers, like all those dead horses and graves along the Klondike trails.
There is debate about whether he committed suicide or not, but no question that Jack London was a remarkable talent from a hard-luck background whose success was largely self-made. He was a child laborer (put to work to help support the family at age 10), who had to fight to develop any kind of life of the mind. London wrote adventure stories, and he also lived adventures: going to the Klondike, shipping off to sea on a sealing voyage, riding the rails, even engaging in oyster piracy. He also became a dedicated socialist, a member of a San Francisco bohemian literary salon, The Crowd, reminiscent of a later Bay Area literary community, the Beats, a member of which was another rambling Jack named Kerouac.
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