Alfred Kazin famously wrote that “the greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.” The problem for a century now has been that, although much of London’s fiction and nonfiction is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, he never wrote his autobiography. And although many books have been written about him, most of them contain erroneous passages and speculation. Worse, they rely heavily on London’s fiction and nonfiction as source material, and extrapolate, postulate and crib from previous versions of the same process.
Not so with Earle Labor’s “Jack London: An American Life.”
A former barbed-wire stringer, hay-baler, ham-trimmer, maintenance worker and porn magazine seller, Labor is the world’s foremost Jack London scholar. His working-class background and deep erudition make him the right man to chronicle the life of this popular American author. Now curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center and emeritus professor at Centenary College in Louisiana, Labor has produced what will most likely remain the authoritative biography for generations to come.
When Jack was born in 1876, his father was out of the picture, but he was adopted by John London, the man who married his mother, a spiritualist who spoke in Native American tongues at seances. John failed at business, and Jack led an early life of privation and toil in Oakland, Calif., working as a newsboy and in factories and sweatshops, often pulling double shifts by the time he was a teenager.
At 15, fed up with doing manual labor for the benefit of capitalists, Jack went into business for himself. He borrowed money, bought a sloop and began to make his keep as an oyster pirate, raiding heavily guarded oyster beds in San Francisco Bay. He sold his haul at waterfront markets in Oakland and drank his earnings dry at Barbary Coast saloons with fellow thugs and criminals. Several close calls that nearly cost him his life led him to reconsider his occupation.
He went on to attend high school briefly and the University of California for a semester, then served as a seaman clubbing seals to death off the coast of Siberia, ran supplies upriver to the Yukon and wintered there. After returning to the Bay Area, he eventually became the author of such classics as “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” “The Sea Wolf,” “Martin Eden,” “The Road” and “The People of the Abyss.”
In 1905, he looked back on his early life in an essay titled “What Life Means to Me.” “I had been born in the working-class, and I was now, at the age of 18, beneath the point at which I had started,” he wrote. “I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak. I was in the pit, the abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel-house of our civilization. This is the part of the edifice of society that society chooses to ignore.”
London chose to write about this shambles and cesspool, and he did so with a vehemence and passion few Americans have ever encountered. Although today he is best known for dog stories and tales of the North, he wrote about the vastness of life, not a narrow tract of tundra.
If you want to acquaint yourself with the writer whom much of the rest of the world equates with Melville, Hemingway and Faulkner, then begin with Labor’s elegantly written, thoroughly researched and steel-eyed biography. He fills in the gaps between London’s impoverished youth, rise to fame and untimely death at the age of 40 — in brilliant and plain prose that does honor to London himself.
Williamson’s books include “Oakland, Jack London, and Me” and “Welcome to Oakland.”
An American Life
By Earle Labor
Farrar Straus Giroux.
461 pp. $30