Earle G. Labor

Jack London: An American Life

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Jack London: An American Life Summary

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Jack London: An American Life is a 1974 biography of the turn-of-the-century American author Jack London, by London scholar and curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, Earle G. Labor. London, best known for novels including The Call of the Wild and White Fang, lead an adventurous life. One of the first American writers to earn fame and fortune with his pen, London started from humble beginnings and remained a lifelong socialist and advocate for workers’ rights. Labor explores this tension, placing London’s writing into the context of his life.

London was born in San Francisco in 1876. His mother, Flora Wellman, was a piano teacher and spiritualist. She became pregnant by William Chaney, a womanizing astrologist, who demanded that she seek an abortion. Instead, Flora attempted suicide. She and her unborn baby survived, but upon London’s birth, he was given in care to Virginia Prentiss, a former slave. Later, Flora married John London, a disabled Civil War veteran, and sent for Jack to live with the family.

By the age of thirteen, London was working twelve-hour days at a cannery. He borrowed money from Virginia Prentiss to establish himself as an oyster pirate, stealing shellfish in San Francisco Bay. At sixteen, he joined the Fish Patrol, chasing and catching other oyster pirates. When he was seventeen, he traveled to Siberia as a cabin boy on a seal-hunting expedition. Back in Oakland, he worked in a bowling alley.

He enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. At the age of twenty-one, while still a student, he read the newspaper account of his mother’s attempted suicide and wrote to William Chaney. Chaney wrote back that he could not be London’s father because he was impotent. He also accused Clara of lying about his attempting to force her to abort London.

Devastated, London dropped out of college and joined the Klondike gold rush. More adventures followed: he rode the rails and marched with Coxey’s army of the unemployed.

Labor paints a portrait of the West Coast as a wild place, rife with corruption and firmly under the thumb of the Southern Pacific Railway. London’s early life was surrounded by injustice and cruelty.

To escape manual labor, London began to write, turning his experiences into adventure stories. He began to sell stories to national magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, and a career took shape.

By his mid-thirties, London had published most of the work for which he became famous, including The Sea-Wolf, The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, and The People of the Abyss, a work of socialist non-fiction. He wrote a thousand words every day after breakfast and published in hundreds of different magazines. Alongside his successful novels and some stories that are still read today, he wrote a great deal of relatively lightweight journalism and workmanlike short stories. His non-fiction writing about working-class life played an important role in the development of New Journalism and the work of George Orwell, among others.

Nevertheless, London was always on the verge of bankruptcy. He borrowed money and ran out on the debts, borrowed from his publisher against future earnings, supporting his family but still insisting on buying rounds in every bar.

Labor notes the contradiction in London’s life. He always saw himself as poor, even portraying his origins as humbler than they were, and he made himself poor by reckless financial decisions. Nevertheless, at the same time, he fought hard to succeed, making an astonishing amount of money in a not very lucrative profession. London was simultaneously a socialist and a poster boy for American capitalism, just as he had once been both oyster pirate and Fish Patrolman.

His relationships with women displayed similar contradictions, and Labor notes that London seemed to feel a connection himself, often conflating his drive to financial success with prostitution: “If I am left naked and hungry tomorrow,” he wrote to one ex-girlfriend, “I will go naked and hungry; if I were a woman I would prostitute myself to all men but that I would succeed — in short, I will.”

London was promiscuous and an adulterer, but he enjoyed a lasting and idiosyncratic relationship with his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. He took Charmian on a life-endangering voyage and to watch boxing matches (from which women were then barred—London exerted his celebrity status to earn his wife an exception). He and Charmian called each other “mate,” and London’s mother once saw the couple boxing: Charmian unleashed a flurry of punches with London pinned against the door, “so ferociously that the redwood panel was cracked.”

London and Charmian had adventures at home, too: they were awakened by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and wandered through the devastated city. London spent two years designing his dream ranch home in the Sonoma Valley only for it to burn down overnight.

In later life, London neglected his health, eating two mallards a day. He died of uremia (Labor debunks the myth that he died of a morphine overdose). The book includes a critical bibliography, considering London’s oeuvre from a range of critical angles.