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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London


Jack London, the man who several years before Mark Twain’s death unseated Twain to become America’s favorite author, was a man of contrasts.  Illegitimately born into a poverty stricken environment, for much of his adult life London would employ a full domestic staff, including a personal valet.  Even as an avowed and outspoken advocate of socialism, he saw nothing wrong with living the luxurious lifestyle his personal labor eventually earned him.  He was a staunch defender of the rights of “native peoples” but is said to have been a “racialist,” believing that no good would come from a mixing of the races.

London’s era was one still very much influenced by the sexual mores of the Victorian Age but he was always sexually active, even when married, and made little effort to explain his actions to either of his wives.  He enjoyed the company of children but was never close to the two daughters he fathered by his first wife, allowing them effectively to slip out of his life.  Those who knew him considered London a “spiritual” man, but he detested the way that religion helped maintain what he saw as an illegitimate and unjust society and considered himself an atheist.  He was capable of superb writing but was willing to do as much “hackwork” as it took to support his lifestyle.

Even in death, London was a mystery.  That he died in his sleep at age 40 is not disputed; the cause of his death, however, is still open to discussion.  Did London die of an accidental overdose of morphine or, as many suspect, was he so depressed that he decided to take his own life that night.  He was known to be upset about his health and the shape he was in but adamantly refused to change the lifestyle that was rapidly killing him.  Even had he not died as he did, it is unlikely that Jack London would ever have seen his fifties.

James L. Haley
All of this is explored in Wolf: The Lives of Jack London, James Haley’s recent Jack London biography.  Hayley approaches London’s life by dividing it into segments based on the various occupations that occupied him during his 40 years.  Those occupations range from what London called “work beast” (when, as a youth, he worked in places such as a pickle factory for ten cents an hour) to pirate, seal hunter, hobo, student, gold prospector, writer, muckraker, war correspondent, sailor and rancher.  Each of these jobs is given its own chapter treatment; other chapters include those on London the “lover” and London the “celebrity.”

Haley’s technique works well to explain how Jack London managed to reinvent himself as a world-class author.  This approach also puts a human face on a man who has too often in the past been stereotyped simply as a socialist/communist who happened to write very good novels or as a man’s man who traveled to the wilds of Alaska and the South Seas in search of new topics for his books.  The real Jack London, as it turns out was more motivated by finding a way to make a living with his mind rather than his back than by anything else.  That he succeeded to such a degree is a tale resembling those stories that so enthralled London himself as a young reader in San Francisco.

The odds were heavily against Jack London, but he made it.  James Haley tells how London did it in a very readable, and memorable, biography that is sure to please fans of literary biography.

Rated at: 5.0
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