James L. Haley's "Wolf: The Lives of Jack London," reviewed by Wendy Smith

Sunday, July 4, 2010

WOLF

The Lives of Jack LondonBy James L. Haley

Basic. 364 pp. $29.95

At the peak of his popularity in the first decade of the 20th century, Jack London was the very model of a modern major writer. A two-fisted exponent of naturalism in fiction, he drew on his experiences as a cannery worker, sailor, hobo and gold prospector to blast American literature out of genteel decorum with novels such as "The Sea-Wolf," a 1904 bestseller. A fire-breathing socialist who signed his letters "Yours for the Revolution," he exposed the brutal realities of working-class existence in "The People of the Abyss" with indignation so contagious that one critic wrote, "Such books will make socialists of everybody." His short stories and essays ran in mass-circulation magazines; his books sold briskly and sparked national debate. Today, however, he's relegated to middle-school reading lists, known almost exclusively as the author of "The Call of the Wild" and "White Fang."

Texas historian James L. Haley's sharply focused biography recaptures the breadth of London's achievements and the intricacies of his personality. Haley reminds us that, in addition to fiction and polemics, London produced influential journalism, covering the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst syndicate, two of Jack Johnson's boxing bouts for the New York Herald and the Mexican Revolution for Collier's. (Haley's analysis of all three persuasively argues that London's racial attitudes, though hardly enlightened, were more nuanced than some critics have claimed.) Conscientious summaries of London's prolific output will probably not inspire anyone to seek out books other than the ones already mentioned; Haley's primary interest is the author's rich, complicated life, and his intelligently measured assessment of that life is the biography's greatest strength.

Born in San Francisco in 1876, London was the illegitimate son of a woman who immediately farmed him out to a wet nurse, did not hurry to reclaim him when she married a man not his father eight months later and let him leave school at 15 to support his impoverished family. But Haley also notes that when the fledgling writer was tempted to take a secure civil service position in 1899, his mother told him they could get by on her small widow's pension until his stories began to sell. She was selfish, disagreeable and occasionally helpful. Every person whose life touched London's gets similar three-dimensional treatment, as does the writer himself.

London endured a series of backbreaking jobs through his early 20s. The agony of being reduced to a "Work Beast" sparked both his vehement socialism and the view of life as a brutal struggle for survival he expressed in his writing. Yet Haley makes good use of quotations from his friends among the bohemian San Francisco social set known as "The Crowd" to vividly depict a man who embraced the world and, after "The Call of the Wild" established him as a successful author in 1903, avidly pursued the good things that money could buy. His biographer is particularly perceptive about London's fondness for "the warm and easy company of men"; a sensitive evaluation of the writer's intimate friendship with poet George Sterling concludes that it may have had a physical component, but does not straitjacket either man as a repressed homosexual.

London in fact found lasting happiness with his second wife, who provided "both a woman's love and a man's companionship." Charmian Kittredge London emerges here with full-bodied vigor: boxing and horseback-riding with her "Mate Man," unhesitatingly agreeing to sail around the world with him in 1907 when he felt that his youthful adventures in the Yukon had run their course as a source of inspiration. "Shrewd enough not to attempt to leash the Wolf" (a nickname only she and Sterling were permitted to use), Charmian managed to serve as London's amanuensis and grimly tolerated his often-cavalier treatment while maintaining her self-respect and his devotion. Haley's portrait of their marriage is unflinching, unsentimental and moving.

He is less adept at handling London's commitment to socialism, even though the biography opens and closes with reminders of its relevance in our own age of extreme income disparity. Almost everywhere in between, however, Haley seems embarrassed by his subject's revolutionary faith and too quick to dismiss as marginal a movement that claimed millions of adherents in the years before World War I.

London did not live to see that war's end. A 1907-08 cruise of the South Seas replenished his artistic energies and commercial fortunes. But a crippling skin ailment forced him to abandon his plan to circumnavigate the globe, and his health never entirely recovered. Years of hard labor followed by years of hard drinking had taken their toll; the surge of vitality that followed his return to his beloved California ranch in 1909 did not last, though he continued to crank out mostly forgettable books ("John Barleycorn," a blisteringly frank 1913 memoir of alcohol addiction, being the exception) until his death in 1916. Did he accidentally take too much morphine to ease the pain caused by his failing kidneys, or was it suicide? Haley, as usual, offers a careful and balanced appraisal of the evidence.

London wrote only a handful of really good books -- and, yes, "The Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" are two of them -- but his stature as a cultural and political force at a crucial moment in American history should not be as ephemeral as his lesser works. We can be grateful to Haley for restoring London to us in all his passionate conviction and flawed humanity.


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