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Jack London: Beyond The Call of the Wild

ISSUE:  Fall 2013

Jack London: An American Life. By Earle Labor. Farrar, Dtraus and Giroux, 2013. 480p. HB, $30.

Any first-​rate literary biography, like Earle Labor’s authoritative new life of Jack London (1876–1916), should function as more than a data bank or factual resource. It should ultimately send readers back to the author’s books. This is particularly needed in the case of London, who is still regularly dismissed as little more than an occasionally inspired hack. After all, didn’t he once buy $70 worth of story ideas from the young Sinclair Lewis at $5 a pop? He did, just as he once tried to read—​unlikely as it sounds—​his ultra-​refined contemporary Henry James. As Lewis tells us, “Jack picked up James’s The Wings of the Dove and, standing there, short, burly, in soft shirt and black tie, the Master read aloud in a bewildered way while Henry James’s sliding, slithering, glittering verbiage unwound itself on and on. Jack banged the book down and wailed, ‘Do any of you know what all this junk is about?’ ”

Many of us have asked that same question, albeit more politely, when confronting late James. But notice how Lewis here grants the title of “Master” not to the celebrated analyst of fine consciences but to the astonishingly gifted and thoroughly professional Jack London.

Before he died at the age of forty, London was the highest-​paid author in America. During an active literary life of less than two decades, he produced roughly fifty works of fiction, journalism, and autobiography, as well as scores of short stories, among them such classics as “To Build a Fire” and “Love of Life” (which Vladimir Lenin had read aloud to him on his deathbed). London’s best-​known novel, The Call of the Wild (1903), is not just the greatest “dog book” ever written; it is also a lyrical, mythic masterpiece of American literature. Its companion volume, White Fang (1906), is only slightly less good. As Uncle Matthew says in Nancy Mitford’s comic novel, The Pursuit of Love: “I have only read one book in my life, and that is White Fang. It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.” London’s nautical adventure novel, The Sea-​Wolf (1904), has been filmed at least eight times, and its Nietzschean anti-​hero Wolf Larsen has been memorably summed up as “the Captain Ahab of literary Naturalism.” 

This is impressive work already, but there’s much more. In the mid-​twentieth century, the only American novel included on a list of Soviet-​approved Communist literature was London’s The Iron Heel (1908). In it, a socialist revolution is destroyed by the all-​powerful oligarchy, but the reader knows—​from footnotes—​that ultimately the people will triumph and establish the Brotherhood of Man. (London’s image of the iron heel would inspire a famous phrase in George Orwell’s 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—​forever.”) For most of his adult life, London was an active member of the Socialist Party. He supported “Big Bill” Haywood (stalwart of the Industrial Workers of the World, otherwise known as the Wobblies), entertained “Red Emma” Goldman at his house, and, after a polemical talk at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, was once kissed by Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. London’s influential review of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking The Jungle proclaimed it: “The book we have been waiting for these many years! The Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery!” 

London’s proletarian activism instinctively led him into what we would now call “new journalism.” The People of the Abyss (1903) presents the writer’s eye-​opening account of six weeks spent among the London poor, living the life of the “submerged tenth.” The Road (1907)—​about his youthful adventures as a hobo—​inspired, among others, John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. In The Cruise of the Snark (1911) he described his adventures in paradise (chiefly Hawaii and Polynesia) but also the horrors of cannibalism on the Solomon Islands and the brutalities wrought by “the inevitable white man” on indigenous peoples. Toward the end of his short life, he produced in John Barleycorn (1913) a vivid account of his drinking days and of the “White Logic” that sends the despairing alcoholic back to the bottle. He never got around to writing a rumored Jane Barleycorn, presumably a memoir of his sexual life.

To this list of fairly well-​known titles, one needs to add the semi-​autobiographical Martin Eden (1908), a portrait of the artist as a working-​class young man. Of course, London’s actual life, starting with his Dickensian childhood in Oakland, California, was so improbable and colorful that it already reads like fiction. As Katherine Mansfield observed long ago, “He is one of those writers who win the affection of their readers—​who are, in themselves, the favourite book.”

Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life doesn’t take away any of its subject’s glamour or fascination. To the contrary. The book is not just definitive, as one would expect from the major London scholar of the past fifty years, it is also exceptionally entertaining. Consider that London’s mother, Flora Wellman, stood only four and a half feet tall, was a committed spiritualist, and took as a husband an itinerant astrologer named William Chaney, who promptly abandoned her when she refused to abort their child. Flora consequently attempted suicide, first with laudanum, then with a gun. She survived, however, and soon married a hard-​working widower with two daughters, the kind-​hearted but weak-​lunged John London. Only years later did Jack learn the truth about his paternity. He eventually wrote to Chaney, but “the Professor” insisted that he wasn’t London’s father, claiming temporary impotence at the time. Given that Chaney is known to have had at least six wives, one may doubt this denial. 

Flora’s newborn son was largely cared for by Jennie Prentiss, a black wet nurse whom Jack came to love as a second mother. At fifteen, he even persuaded Prentiss to lend him $300 to buy a boat so that he could become an oyster pirate. At the age of seventeen, he shipped out on a sealer that was caught in a typhoon off the coast of Japan. When he returned to Oakland he took odd jobs, at one time hoping to become an electrician or a postman. During his spare time, he read voraciously in the public library. In later years, London always traveled with trunkloads of books and eventually amassed a personal library of 15,000 volumes.

At eighteen, the “boy Socialist” joined Charles T. Kelly’s “Industrial Army,” which planned to hook up with Coxey’s Army of the Unemployed for a march on Washington. After traveling halfway across the United States, London quit the crusade to ride the rails, first visiting Chicago, then making his way to Niagara Falls where he was jailed for thirty days as a vagrant. When he finally returned to California, he crammed for three months and, amazingly, passed university entrance exams for Berkeley. But family finances were at a low ebb, so after one term London went back to mowing lawns and beating rugs. Having won a newspaper contest a few years previous for his account of the Japanese typhoon, he also set to work on scribbling short stories, which didn’t sell. 

In 1897, gold was discovered in Alaska, and London headed north to make his fortune. He came home broke, but soon started mining his experiences for plot ideas and almost immediately struck the mother lode. Before long his Klondike stories—​there would eventually be more than eighty of them—​were selling to major magazines, including the Atlantic, and London’s rise to worldwide fame had begun. From that time onward, he would be resolutely businesslike—​“I am writing for money”—​and would stick unswervingly to a routine of producing a thousand words a day, no matter what.

That “what” might include love affairs, an unfortunate marriage, wild parties with various bohemian friends, the birth of two daughters, a second and successful marriage to Charmian Kittredge, work as a reporter during the Russo-​Japanese War, the San Francisco earthquake, the Mexican Revolution, the construction of a lavishly expensive boat, the acquisition of farm and ranchland in the Sonoma Valley, travels through the Pacific (he wrote “To Build a Fire,” in which the protagonist freezes to death, while on the beach in Hawaii), frequent lecture tours, the destruction, likely by arson, of his dream house, and various lawsuits, not to overlook a rich public and social life that included the poet George Sterling, the San Quentin ex-​convict Edward Morrell, and even such run-​of-​the-​mill acquaintances as Wyatt Earp and Harry Houdini.

Nonetheless, London’s hard-​driving intensity took its toll on his health, and he eventually began to suffer from a mounting list of ailments, ranging from pyorrhea, cramps, and gout to kidney stones and lupus. Legend has it that London, racked with pain, finally committed suicide, but Labor judges this unlikely, given the doctors’ reports and the evidence of those in the house at the time. The official and probable cause was uremia. 

Such in précis was Jack London’s life, and yet a mystery remains. As H. L. Mencken wondered long ago: “Where did he get his hot artistic passion, his delicate feeling for form and color, his extraordinary skill with words? The man, in truth, was an instinctive artist of a high order.” Consider, for instance, the lyrical, eerie beauty of this passage from The Call of the Wild:

In the fall of the year they penetrated a weird lake country, sad and silent, where wild-​fowl had been, but where then there was no life nor sign of life—​only the blowing of chill winds, the forming of ice in sheltered places, and the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches. 

Already we are halfway into the realm of the dreamlike and fantastic. For, as it turns out, Jack London, the archetypal literary naturalist and gritty proletarian, was also an early master of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. In fact, London’s second published story, “A Thousand Deaths,” is, as Labor tells us, “a pseudo-​scientific tale about a mad scientist who uses his son as a subject in a gruesome series of experiments to test a formula he has devised for bringing the dead back to life.” One of London’s best-​known essays, “The Terrible and Tragic in Fiction,” underscores that “Deep down in the roots of the race is fear. It came first into the world, and it was the dominant emotion in the primitive world.” This is why terror and the tragic are so important in storytelling, as he shows with examples from Poe, Kipling, Stevenson, and others.

In that essay, London didn’t directly mention his own fiction, though he could have. Throughout his work London is obviously fascinated by the primordial and primitive, by theories of evolution and atavism, and by aspects of social Darwinism such as “the survival of the fittest” and the instinctive tendency to revert under stress to the brute within. In London’s view, “plasticity”—​the ability to adapt and adjust to any circumstance—​was the supreme survival skill. Still, that doesn’t mean that he always approved of it. 

In Before Adam (1907), the unnamed narrator is able to piece together, from his unsettling dreams, the life of his genetic ancestor, a protohuman he calls Big-​Tooth. Childlike and playful, without language or weapons, Big-​Tooth and the simple cave-​dwelling “Folk” are ultimately eradicated by the more advanced “Fire People,” who can communicate and cooperate and who understand the use of the bow and arrow. (This is a theme that William Golding takes up, with more sophistication, in The Inheritors.) 

Yet even though the book depicts horrors, starting with the uncontrollable violence of Red-​Eye (a throwback to the even more primitive Tree People) and culminating in genocide, Before Adam is overall an ode to joy, a prose poem about freedom and youthfulness and life lived in the moment. In an appreciation of the novel, the anthropologist and essayist Loren Eiseley once wrote: “For all the harshness of this world, pictured in the grimmest terms, there lingers across it the air of some indescribable nostalgic autumn. Was it worth it to become man, one wonders?”

Among its other qualities, Before Adam also reminds us that Jack London can often be funny, as in this clever bit of literal-​metaphorical wordplay: “My mother was old-​fashioned. She still clung to her trees. It is true, the more progressive members of our horde lived in the caves above the river.” A few chapters later, however, the mood darkens:

Often do I have visions of the quiet hour before the twilight. From drinking-​place and carrot patch and berry swamp the Folk are trooping into the open space before the caves. They dare linger no later than this, for the dreadful darkness is approaching, in which the world is given over to the carnage of the hunting animals, while the fore-​runners of man hide tremblingly in their holes.

That could almost be a passage describing the future Earth of the childlike Eloi and the bloodthirsty Morlocks of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. In fact, London and Wells share remarkably similar backgrounds, political views, and imaginations. In London’s “Goliah,” for instance, a lone scientist invents a new power, called Energon, that allows him to transform the world into a more rational society. In The Scarlet Plague (1912) the American depicts a pandemic, with attendant riots and destruction, that leaves just a handful of people alive. Only a blind old man—​a former professor of English—​ survives from the pre-​Plague days, while his grandchildren, goatherds for the Santa Rosa tribe, have sunk into illiteracy and superstition. Yet here, too, London ends his story with still another vision of nature’s enduring vitality and beauty:

Edwin was looking at a small herd of wild horses which had come down on the hard sand. There were at least twenty of them, young colts and yearlings and mares, led by a beautiful stallion which stood in the foam at the edge of the surf, with arched neck and bright wild eyes, sniffing the salt air from off the sea.
“What is it?” Granser queried.
“Horses” was the answer. “First time I ever seen ’em on the beach. It’s the mountain lions getting thicker and thicker and driving ’em down.”
The low sun shot red shafts of light, fan-​shaped, up from a cloud-​tumbled horizon. And close at hand, in the white waste of shore-​lashed waters, the sea-​lions, bellowing their old primeval chant, hauled up out of the sea on the black rocks and fought and loved.
“Come on Granser,” Edwin prompted.
And old man and boy, skin-​clad and barbaric, turned and went along the right of way into the forest in the wake of the goats.

I stress again this lyricism in London’s writing since even Labor has acknowledged that “his best novels are occasionally marred by didacticism and sentimentalism. His female characters tend to be too flat, and his heroes are often too tall.” London is also commonly faulted for being brutal, dark, and tendentious. Certainly The Star-​Rover (1915) starts off that way. Darrell Standing, professor of agronomics and an authority on motion study, rots away in San Quentin for having murdered a fellow academic—​we are never told precisely why but apparently in a quarrel over a woman. While in prison, Standing is falsely accused of having smuggled in some dynamite and hidden it. Thrown into solitary, he learns to communicate with two other prisoners by tapping on the walls in “knuckle talk” code.

Eventually, to force him to confess the location of the nonexistent dynamite, Standing is laced into a straightjacket to the point of suffocation. (Note London’s quiet irony: An expert on motion study who cannot move.) As time goes by, Standing’s body grows increasingly weak and debilitated. Finally, one of the other prisoners tells him the secret of survival: If, through a kind of self-​hypnosis, he mentally allows his body to die in the jacket, his spirit will be released from its corporeal bonds and be able to travel anywhere. 

In Standing’s case, this astral projection takes a singular form. He gradually relives episodes from his previous lives—​as a French nobleman under Louis XIII, an ancient Christian hermit in Egypt, a small boy on a wagon train passing through Mormon territory, an English sailor taken prisoner in Korea who wins the heart of the Lady Om, a Norseman overseeing Roman troops for Pontius Pilate, and the shipwrecked American Daniel Foss stranded on a desert island.

Each of these adventures is related in a period-​appropriate voice and style. The Norseman Ragnar Lodbrog recalls his first master: “Brave he was, and cruel he was, with no heart of mercy in that great chest of his.” Devoutly Christian Foss discovers a dead whale on his beach: “Conceive my gratification when in the bowels of the great fish I found deeply imbedded a harpoon of the common sort with a few fathoms of new line attached thereto.” But sooner or later the episodes break off and Standing again finds himself back in solitary: “I have never known cruelty more terrible, nor so terrible, as the cruelty of our prison system of to-​day. I have told you what I have endured in the jacket and in solitary in the first decade of this twentieth century after Christ.” 

Some readers have faulted The Star-​Rover for its tonal shifts and jaggedness, for alternating a lacerating indictment of the penal system with a series of rather grim adventure stories (several apparently cannibalized from novels that never got completed). But like Italo Calvino in his similarly structured If on a winter’s night a traveler, London uses a variety of story types and genres to illuminate differing attitudes on death, religion, and love. The Star-​Rover ends with an effusive paean to the eternal feminine and an affirmation of “The Spirit Triumphant” just before Darrell Standing goes calmly to his execution. For he knows that his spirit—​the only self that matters—​will live on.

London published a great many fantastic stories and parables. In “When the World Was Young,” a respectable businessman by day is a savage Tarzan by night. “War” is a dreamlike conte cruel, worthy of Ambrose Bierce, about the fate of a lone rider scouting for enemy invaders. “The Water Baby” reveals London’s late-​life enthusiasm for Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious; it is a serene, mythic tale packed with archetypal symbolism: “This I know: as I grow old I seek less for the truth from without me, and find more of the truth from within me.” It was the last story he wrote before his death.

Most readers, however, would choose “The Red One” as London’s finest short work of science fiction. Reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it tells of a lepidopterist named Bassett who hears a strange musical sound on the shore of one of the Solomon Islands. To discover its source, he travels into the jungle, is severely wounded by headhunters, grows delirious, and nearly dies. He is saved by a native girl and taken in by her tribe, where he grows friendly with its medicine man and chief “head-​curer.” Through Ngurn he learns that the tribe worships the source of the sound as “The Red One,” sometimes called “The God-​Voiced” or “The Star-​Born.” Though finding Balatta repugnant, Bassett resolves to make love to her so that she will lead him, despite strong taboos, to the object of his quest.

What Bassett ultimately discovers, at the bottom of a pit and surrounded by the bones and bodies of human sacrifices, is an alien artifact, a gigantic, possibly sentient, red sphere of no known metal. Its interior, Bassett speculates, could easily contain “the speech and wisdom of the stars.” He wonders how its creators’ experiences might compare to humankind’s: “Had they won Brotherhood? Or had they learned that the law of love imposed the penalty of weakness and decay? Was strife, life? Was the rule of all the universe the pitiless rule of natural selection?” 

To most readers, London’s haunting story will generate the fundamental science-​fictional response: a sense of wonder. Yet it is also an allegory about heads—​heads contrasted with hearts and heads as repositories of learning and wisdom and life itself. The various characters are trapped inside their skulls, unable to grasp other ways of understanding the world. Even the reader’s expectations are turned on their head: The sexist and racist Bassett is cruelly exploitative of Balatta, and distinctly unsympathetic, while the headhunter Ngurn is witty and kind and wise.

“The Red One” can thus be understood as a critique, and condemnation, of the white man’s supercilious attitudes to native people. Such a conclusion may be surprising, since some of Jack London’s work exhibits the regrettably common prejudices of his time, though the man himself was far more complex than the easy epithet of “racist” allows: As a young man he loved and was loved by a girl who was half black, half Jewish; he alone among white journalists praised boxer Jack Johnson’s pugilistic mastery; and many of his stories—​like this one—​show a sympathetic appreciation of other races and cultures.

But however one decodes “The Red One,” there remains the question of its sexual imagery. The red sphere is located inside a declivity and to produce its music must be struck by a long pole supported on a sling. Like so much of London’s fiction, this is a work that can support multiple interpretations.

Jack London has been read and admired by people of every age and nationality, from eleven-​year-​old French boys thrilling to the story of Buck in L’Appel sauvage to the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges who, I suspect, would have been a fan of The Star-​Rover. As Earle Labor makes clear in his fine biography, Jack London was a remarkable man and a writer of impressive variety, richness, and accomplishment. It is hardly too much to say, in the borrowed words of Samuel Johnson, that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” 


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