Sunday, March 21, 2021

Jack London Bio Offers New Insights While Raising Old Questions

At one time Jack London was the highest paid writer in America. There were two things that gave his writing such force. First, the stories he told were drawn from experiences he’d lived, adventures that transcended the norm. Second, and equally important, was his skill at storytelling.

His fame, however, came as the result of two other qualities. He was extremely persistent and incredibly prolific. Once he’d determined to be a serious writer he purportedly produced a minimum of 1000 words a day, every day, till the day he died.

The title of the biography I read this week is Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor. Although this is the first biography of London that I’ve read, I’ve been quite familiar with much of his life story because two of his novels — Martin Eden and John Barleycorn — are autobiographical.

For the record, Earle Labor is the acknowledged major authority on the novelist Jack London, serving as the curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport. What makes Labor’s labors so authoritative is that he’s read every piece of correspondence that exists, to or from London, as well the diaries of the women London’s life story.

* * * 

Like many schoolchildren I’d read “To Build a Fire” and “Call of the Wild” during my youth. My intro to Martin Eden came years later at the first writers’ conference I’d attended. One of the instructors, who by his early 30’s had published over 3000 articles, stated that young writers would glean much of value from reading that book, and indeed I did.

Earle Labor begins the story of Jack London’s life by noting his accomplishments: fifty books and international fame by the time he died at age forty. The first half of those forty years included delivering newspapers starting at 3:00 a.m. before going to school at age eight; dropping out of school at age thirteen to to work twelve to eighteen hours a day as a child laborer; becoming an oyster pirate at age fifteen, working as a sailor on a seal hunting schooner, riding the rails as a hobo, serving time in prison for something he didn’t do, searching for gold in the Klondike and more.

In some ways London’s adventures reminded me of Hemingway. Both were the kind of “man’s man” that seemed drawn to violence. (London wrote many stories about pugilists, Hemingway wrote about bullfighting.) Both seem to have had short fuses and personalities that would put them out of favor in our contemporary world.

London's ship, The Snark. He loved the open sea.
London’s first successful story was something he wrote for a contest, in part because he needed the money. Despite being a school dropout, he won the $25 prize against competition that included Stanford journalism students and the like. Getting from first base to fame took a little more time, but he was determined. To expand his vocabulary he learned a new word every day, writing it on a piece of paper, placing it in his pocket and using it in conversations until it was totally embedded.

That’s exactly the kind of thing I look for in young writers today, not just making an effort to expand one’s vocabulary but deliberately and consciously striving to improve the various aspects of their craft.

* * * 

There are aspects of Jack London’s life that are less than flattering. To his credit, Labor did not attempt to sugarcoat London’s story. I was appalled by some of the letters he wrote to his daughter. They were cruel and unwarranted., which raises the age old question as regards the relationship between an artist and his or her art. Should we think less of the art when we discover that the artist was a jerk or was a fiend?

* * * 

Three decades ago, I had a writer friend who was a big Jack London fan. I must have been discussing Martin Eden with him which opened the door to another fact of London’s life, London the Socialist. His experiences in sweat shops and other early life indignities obliged him to speak out for the underdog.

In the latter part of his life he acquired land and planned to build his dream home on a thousand acre spread in Sonoma, California. Two weeks before he and his second wife were to move into the home London called Wolf House, it was destroyed by fire. Was it arson? Had he made too many enemies advocating for socialism? My friend believed so.

Earle Labor makes a case for an alternate explanation. In 1995 some forensic scientists visited the ruins of Wolf House. The fire occurred on a day when the interior of the structure had been rubbed down with linseed oil. It was an extremely hot day and combustible fumes were in the air as the oil dried. They believe the rags ignited due to spontaneous combustion and the disastrous fire was the result.

“A good joke will sell quicker than a good poem.”

London made his mark because he learned early the kinds of stories that would sell. Here’s some advice for writers that was published in The Editor in 1903. It is an excerpt from an article titled “Getting Into Print.”

Fiction pays best of all, and when it is of a fair quality is more easily sold. A good joke will sell quicker than a good poem, and, measured in sweat and blood, will bring better remuneration. Avoid the unhappy ending, the harsh, the brutal, the tragic, the horrible — if you care to see in print things you write. (In this connection don’t do as I do, but do as I say.) Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded… Don’t write too much. Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate it over a dozen. Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.

Reading Labor’s London biography has prompted me to follow up with a return to reading some of the author’s other books and stories. How about you?

Related Links
My review of London's short story A Piece of Steak
Jack London: An American Life

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