Friday, September 3, 2010

By James L. Haley
Basic Books, $29.95 387 pages, illustrated

What constitutes an “American” writer? It helps to have been born in the Western Hemisphere, but many of our Eastern literary patriarchs, while meeting the residential standard, are not thought of as uniquely American.

One who should be so considered is Jack London, the hunk from California who rose from abject poverty to become one of the most widely read authors of his day. His adventuresome story is now told in a splendid new biography by Western historian James Haley.

London’s mother was Flora Wellman, a member of a hippielike Bay Area group. A spiritualist, she brought in a little money from seances. His father appears to have been William Chaney, one of a succession of Flora’s ne’er-do-well lovers. The family was dependent at times on the 10 cents an hour young Jack earned at a local cannery.

From the time he entered his teens there were at least two Jack Londons. The first was a hard-drinking waterfront brawler, of whom Mr. Haley writes, “Raised but little loved, taught toughness by dockside brawling, taught that tenderness would be detected and attacked as weakness… Jack London by age [15] already looked out on the world with the eyes of the Wolf.”

But there was another Jack London, one who at age 10 had visited the Oakland Free Library and asked for something good to read. He left with a history of Pizarro’s conquest of Peru, and the librarian’s compliment on his choice. Jack took care when entering the library not to be observed by his dockside buddies.

In January 1893, at age 17, London was ready for his first adventure. He signed aboard a seal hunter, the Sophie Sunderland, for a voyage to the Bering Sea. Mr. Haley writes, “The ugly duckling of a boy had blossomed into a youth of head-turning beauty … but with a physique honed by constant labor and a constitution to match.” The voyage proved educational for Jack, who learned firsthand the difficulty of fending off homosexual advances from other sailors, and the fundamental cruelty of seal fishing. In “The Sea Wolf” he wrote that the decks of the sealer were “slippery with fat and blood … and the men … naked and red of arm and hand, hard at work with ripping and flensing knives, removing the skins from the pretty creatures they had killed.”

Upon returning to Oakland, London tried to settle down. He won a newspaper prize with a tale of a typhoon in the Pacific, but depended on manual labor for his livelihood. Disgusted, Jack chose the life of a hobo for a year, riding the rails until arrested for vagrancy in upstate New York. After serving 30 days, he made his way back to Oakland.

Once again, Jack sought a career. His reading and travels had made London a socialist, and he gained a reputation in the Bay Area as an orator. One press account in 1896 read, “Jack London, who is known as the boy socialist in Oakland, is holding forth nightly to the crowds that throng City Hall Park. There are speakers in plenty, but London always gets the biggest crowd.”

Still struggling as a writer, London joined the Klondike gold rush in the summer of 1897. He found no gold and almost died of scurvy, but he had the basis for a series of magazine articles that he sold for small sums on his return.

London “arrived” as an author with publication of “The Call of the Wild” in 1903 and “The Sea-Wolf” the following year. The former - the story of a dog who, taken to Alaska, reverts to form and runs with a wolf pack - is widely regarded as his best book and is still read today.

London had little opportunity to enjoy his success. His first marriage failed, and he became subject to fits of depression. An ambitious plan to sail around the world in a 45-foot yacht, the Snark, got no farther than the South Seas. He continued to travel, but spent an increasing amount of time with his second wife, Charmian, at their ranch in Sonoma County. Jack died there in 1916, age 40, of what was determined to be uremia. Mr. Haley notes, but does not accept, rumors that the author committed suicide with an overdose of morphine.

London was a survivor, and if there is a theme to his writing it is that only the strong succeed. In his personal life, however, London was hardly the “brute” that marks his fiction. Loyal and generous to friends, he never forgot the 10 cents an hour he received working in that cannery.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.

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