Jack London: A Life

Being from California will provide one with a particular attitude and sense of pride. That is what one will take above anything else from Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: A Life. The book begins unusually for a biography: London is 40 and dying, plus we’re thrown into this story as if it is a work of fiction, in the present tense and following London through his routine. “Once a ‘blonde beast’ with the face and body of a ‘Greek god’, he is not yet forty but feels like an old man: his ankles are swollen, his deep blue eyes are bloodshot and lifeless.” London’s fast-living lifestyle which packed more into 40 years than most would into 10 100-year lives has completely and painfully deteriorated everything about him. If one were able to view what happened mentally to the man at this horrid point, one would find the inside mirroring the out. London was broken, like a toy whose battery is running low. He was an animal who fought many battles, but whose life was now ending, however fast or slow. London had many brushes with death and so to claim his life was ending suddenly seems inaccurate.

In London’s early life, we find him recklessly finding his way, paying no attention to humanized rules, but obeying universal laws by necessity. He would have broken them, too, if he could. He wasn’t one to observe time schedules or to take notice of what others his age were doing and succumbing to the pressure of the masses. He joined a march on Washington, but did so after, “…it had already left Oakland for Sacramento.” He knew what he wanted and this knowledge was good enough for him. London rode the rails with the other unemployed who were headed to Washington D.C. to demand $5 million with which they could work to build roads. This human necessity to have money was at the heart of Jack’s mind. Money dominated him, both causing his hurried nature as well as torturing him later because of brimming debt.

Careless is a word perhaps best describing this wild man’s nature. But he did think of life in terms “better” and “worse,” as all politicians do. London knew where he was going as far as the physical destination each time he set out, but the wild man’s nature made him unconcerned with the elements along the way.

Writing of Alaska, journalist Rex Beach wrote, “There’s no drama up here, no comedy, no warmth.” How untrue Beach would prove those words. Even he would write successful books about the treacherous region both he and London would explore and experience to the extreme.

The adventurous London had money fueling his moves yet again. Not that he had any when he left for the Klondike, but surely his inspiration for leaving was both money and selfish desire. But the desire of which I write is not a horrible selfishness as can be found with athletes looking for the ball, but rather human will, with which some seem to be born more. But, for the sake of argument, some also live well past 40. In any event, London was there, a risk-taker, an unsure risk-taker, taking commendable steps for the reader’s benefit. He would not yet know it in Alaska’s snowy terrain, but what he was doing was providing entertainment, tugging on the rope which moves the curtain for his one man show, butterflies swarming about his stomach, but yet feeling the tug and resistance of that rope. We were, unknowingly, awaiting this storyteller’s appearance. He emerged, full-fleshed, later.

I can’t imagine many writers experiencing such warmth from the cold hand of New York publishers, today or then: S.S. McClure wrote, “If you will send us everything you write we will use what we can, and what we cannot we will endeavour to dispose of to the best possible advantage.”

The Klondike writings were Jack’s own cast shining star, illuminating the literary world in a flash, flying from California to New York and propelling London into what would prove to be his real career. His other rough careers were not for him but probably helped to kill him. Being a writer was only out of necessity for Jack. So many other physical trades went against him and he against them, but they paved the way for his stories of perseverance which bred great true stories of perseverance for others paying for their sweat but hopeful for more in their lives.

London was always an athlete and even wanted to be a professional prize fighter, but his body wasn’t built for it. Perhaps if he wasn’t made to be the family’s bread winner by the age of 14 he would have not taken the early lumps which knocked his physicality out of serious contention. Did London know better than to live a dangerous life?

London, the animal, puts himself into his arguably most famous story, The Call of the Wild. He seems to be Buck, rising as a persevering presence in whatever climate he is placed in by the human authority figures, proving his superiority over the flawed. Buck, the perfect beast, is either a template for Jack or Jack is a template for Buck. Either way, Kershaw observes London’s stories and reports on them with great summaries in A Life. He tells how Buck, “fearlessly attacks the tribe, killing several, then rejoins a wolf pack.” London wasn’t a human murderer. That is one of the few names London can’t fairly be called, but he murdered self-doubt and he murdered outside doubt, too, just like his dog Buck does in The Call of the Wild. Both bring heart to the snow, and the heat pumping through their organ melts people’s pre- and ill-conceived notions of them.

I don’t find London’s writing to be purely out of anger as much as it is from experience alone. He surely had enemies – most obviously documented here: Capitalism – but he really is writing for every one because not one person can stand up to their individual adversity. Though he would think of himself as superior, London still believed in a base and general human strength.

But depression loomed large in his life, right when he was “supposed” to be at the top of his game, after writing The Sea Wolf. Kershaw writes that in 1905 he began, “what he called his ‘long sickness’: a feeling that, despite all he had achieved, it had meant nothing.” He was spitting on success, claiming to never have liked writing, continuing to eat poorly. London was stubborn, living what he wanted and doing so humanely because after all, he was a man and writer for the people, having risen up from the people as a beacon of hope and a buoy on which people could hold. If London’s real life is a good enough tale – and it is – he provided any doubters with fictitious stories, but he didn’t want to, at least not most of the time.

If the life of a full-time adventurer existed, London’s resume and drive would make him the ideal candidate. But yet, finances haunted him who supported many other than himself and so his pen was busy, pushing out 1000 words daily, no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” This routine is great evidence of how harsh London was, but also how generous. He wrote for others mostly, and he just happened to also be a beneficiary.

With his documented busy life, London never devoted himself wholly to anything, making some wonder if he was perhaps over-adventurous. No one spends all his time with one hobby or habit, but when a man like Jack, who worked for himself with no man above him, keeps too many hands in too many jars, he doesn’t fully grasp anything, but that seems okay. After all, he is still wildly respected and influential in a variety of avenues from literature to politics to agriculture.

Perhaps Kershaw’s most entertaining moments come from London himself. The book has many letters written from Jack to others but it also comes with passages from London’s stories. From Martin Eden, “The pressure on his eardrums was a pain, and there was a buzzing in his head…Coulors and radiances surrounded and battled him and pervaded him.” We must receive these delicious samples in a biography of a writer. Missing from musician biographies are listening samples to coincide with the music being described. This of course is a much easier task for writer bios and we should be thankful because those bios exist that don’t provide the reader with writing samples.

This book, at times, reads like Kershaw is a salesman and he’s inserting proof of the cutting power of the knife by embellishing these letters and story paragraphs. Kershaw, as one finds, is definitely a raving fan in this book and it might be worth picking up some of his other writings to see just how obviously influential London is to Kershaw. Kershaw has received much praise for his work, not nearly as much as London did in his lifetime, so we’re told, but a bio of Kershaw’s climb to the top might be interesting.

Of course London’s literary and personal life – which were one in the same – wouldn’t have been complete without its detractors. Like just about everyone, London felt the crushing hand of criticism around his neck, but his was too strong to be crushed, though I’m sure the grip at least temporarily cut off some artistic oxygen. “As early as 1903 he had been attacked for alleged similarities between sections of The Call of the Wild and Edgerton R. Young’s My Dogs of Northland.” London was surely not a liar and didn’t claim to be drawing from other sources but, again, in this regard London’s ignorance showed through. And now, over 100 years later, no one really seems to care how much London borrowed to spin his exciting and relatable adventure tales. But academic circles wouldn’t accept him until years, decades even, past his death. Yet, London wasn’t writing for their “snobbish” approval: he wrote professionally and, it just so happens, honestly and with tearing passion, for even endeavors done for the attainment of money can be and are achieved with honest and raging desire. London, one must only need his writings to know, is proof of the co-existence.

London and his second of two wives, Charmian, would travel together on adventures, her being his “Mate Woman.” But she was too concerned for their future because of Jack’s being spread so thin that she couldn’t help but tear up when these sea adventures, during which Jack was accessible, ended. The two, though, did live a very happy marriage and she supported him wholly, even following his 1916 death. One can really sense the passion and affection the two felt for one another when he reads Kershaw’s book. The love spills out of many of the 305 pages, but when the feeling wasn’t love, it was still passionate and there is a tremendous mix of deep emotions that Kershaw beautifully relates in this book.

The passion didn’t end even as Jack’s life was coming to an end, largely because the 1000 words-a-day habit didn’t end even when he was plummeting toward death. This is perhaps because debt loomed so largely over London that the pen – his vocational tool – was his way of chipping away at the weight of the debt.

The deep pessimism Jack felt in 1914 is displayed rather well in his novel of the year The Mutiny of the Elsinore. Kershaw writes, “The book’s hero, John Pathurst, echoes Wolf Larsen and Jack at this most pessimistic, believing that the ‘chemical ferment’, as Jack described existence, is a struggle which ends in nothing more than death. This is an obviously depressing comment coming from a writer who writes of a sometimes depressed man. One must wonder if the word “manic” appropriately applies to London’s situation, but this ultimately doesn’t matter except for people who want to feel more like London, and even that is dangerous. One should write only like himself and encourage others to follow their own “adventure path.” I think London, though he had great heroes of his own, would agree that a life is one’s own unique experience.

I think Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: A Life is a great read for everyone, but be sure to prepare your goods for an adventure when you finish.

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