In a Boat of His Own Making

James Camp

  • Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor
    Farrar, Straus, 439 pp, £21.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 374 17848 2
  • The Sea-Wolf by Jack London
    Hesperus, 287 pp, £9.99, August 2013, ISBN 978 1 78094 200 1

Jack London’s writing routine was the single unchanging element of his relatively brief adult life. From the age of 22 until his death at 40, he wrote a thousand words every day, a quota he filled as a rule between 9 and 11 a.m. He slept for five hours a night, which left him with 17 hours of free time. But in his writing hours he was prolific: he produced short stories, poetry, plays, reportage, ‘hackwork’ and novels, many of them bestsellers. In 18 years, he published more than fifty books. ‘I’d rather win a water fight in the swimming pool,’ he said, ‘than write the great American novel.’

Jack London in 1916
Jack London in 1916

In his off hours, London ‘wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew’, as he wrote in John Barleycorn, his ‘alcoholic reminiscences’. He was a child labourer in Oakland at 14, a Bay Area pirate at 15, a transcontinental hobo at 16, an able-bodied seaman at 17, a New York State prisoner at 18, a California ‘work beast’ at 20 and a Yukon prospector at 21. He escaped penury at 23, when after a frantic apprenticeship he began selling short stories. The bulk of them were set in the Yukon or in the South Pacific and drew on the life he’d left behind. The Call of the Wild, published in 1903, made him a celebrity at 27, and subsequent additions to his CV – candidate for mayor of Oakland, no-good husband, doomed sea captain and arthritic debauchee – were a matter of public record. London’s life had a mythic quality in the eyes of his contemporaries. Earle Labor, his latest biographer, who was born in 1928, sees him in this way too. ‘The careers of few writers,’ he writes, ‘mirror so clearly the American Dream of Success and the corollary ideal of the Self-Made Man.’

Labor’s bland subtitle, ‘An American Life’, may be meant as a riposte to previous biographers. ‘The greatest story Jack London ever wrote,’ Alfred Kazin said in On Native Grounds, ‘was the story he lived.’ But his afterlife has been uneven. Irving Stone was the first to tackle it, in Sailor on Horseback (1938), in which he more or less invented the evidence for London having killed himself with two vials of morphine. Subsequent biographers, even those who reject Stone’s theories, have been lurid in other ways. In Jack London: A Life (1997), Alex Kershaw compared London to ‘another self-educated man who mangled Nietzsche – Adolf Hitler’.

Labor leaves Hitler out of it and barely mentions Nietzsche, whose importance to London is unarguable. But those looking for a more wholesome figure won’t find one in this book. The hero of excess is still on display, as is the nihilist, controversialist Übermensch. London as a writer is somewhat reduced. Labor’s book is light on the published work, and lighter still on the inner man. In the epilogue he passes on a ‘rumour’ supposedly current ‘among the fisher folk of Scandinavia and Finland … that Jack London is still alive … in a boat of his own making’: not the words of someone who sets much store by the immortality offered by libraries.

Labor is in some respects London’s ideal biographer, since his hero wasn’t too keen on writing either. Few artists can have been on worse terms with their chosen medium. ‘Every time I sit down to write,’ London wrote, ‘it is with great disgust. I’d sooner be out in the open, wandering around most any old place.’ Labor attributes such talk to London’s ‘thoroughly professional’ attitude, but the fiction hints at discontent. Wolf Larsen, the anti-hero of The Sea-Wolf (1904), talks about his even more fearsome brother, Death Larsen, who ‘is all the happier for leaving life alone … My mistake was in ever opening the books.’ London used to sign letters ‘Wolf’, and the mansion that remained uncompleted on his death was to be called Wolf House.

London’s best works are epics of downward mobility, in which the only way to survive is to regress. In The Call of the Wild, Buck, an ‘unduly civilised’ dog, is abducted from San Francisco and shipped to the Yukon to join a sled team. London used the template over and over again. In the story ‘Love of Life’, a malnourished prospector is returning from the tundra with bags of gold when he slips in a creek and sprains his ankle. As he limps hunger redefines his notion of what’s necessary. ‘The life that was in him,’ London writes, ‘drove him on.’ He casts off his possessions, first his gold, then his gun, his knife and his hat. He loses several teeth chewing a bone. At last, he loses his sanity, becomes a ‘mere automaton’: even the mind is excess baggage.

Like most of London’s writing, ‘Love of Life’ has memorable descriptions of panic and weather; it also has clichés, overstatement and a happy ending. London seemed a canonical figure when he was alive: he was briefly the most highly paid writer in America, valued by magazine editors alongside Edith Wharton. He’s now remembered for a handful of short stories and his ‘dog books’. As early as 1942, Kazin was writing that London seemed to be ‘slipping away even as a boy’s hero’. By 1953, he was the punchline of one of Nabokov’s jokes. Pnin tries to buy a ‘celebrated work by the celebrated American writer Jack London’, but the sales assistant doesn’t know who he’s talking about. ‘Let me see, you don’t mean the book on the English statesman? Or do you?’ Pnin is moved: ‘The vicissitudes of celebrity!’

The ‘celebrated work’ in question, Martin Eden (1909), turns on those same vicissitudes. The hero is a self-taught writer who rises from anonymity much as London had, then kills himself out of disenchantment. ‘He was the fad of the hour,’ Martin thinks near the end. ‘Fawn or fang, it was all a matter of chance.’ Martin Eden is a semi-autobiographical novel in social realist mode rendered slightly surreal by authorial bitterness. Martin strives for fame as a writer and ardently courts a girl called Ruth Morse, an angelic virgin from a bourgeois family which looks down on him because of his working-class background. Fame comes, but with a postscript: his friend Russ Brissenden, who writes with an ease that makes Martin envious, shoots himself in the head – writing, it turns out, wasn’t enough. Brissenden was based on the Bay Area poet George Sterling, a friend of London’s who didn’t actually commit suicide until 17 years after Martin Eden was published (he used cyanide). Ruth had a real-life model too, Mabel Applegarth, though the views she expresses seem to be London’s. ‘If I were a woman,’ he wrote to Applegarth in 1898, ‘I would prostitute myself to all men but that I would succeed – in short, I will.’

London’s mother, Flora Wellman, was a runaway from a rich family in Ohio. She held séances at which the ghost of an Indian chief called Plume spoke from her mouth. She used the séances to help her make financial decisions; she also met men at them, among them her first husband, William Chaney, a fellow spiritualist. In 1875 Wellman told Chaney she was pregnant; he denied being the father. After he went out, she took a small dose of laudanum, borrowed a pistol from a neighbour and then, according to reports in the press, shot herself in the head. She survived. Actually, she probably didn’t discharge the pistol: the weapon didn’t smell of gunpowder; no gunshot was heard; she was unscathed. The press reported a further rumour that Chaney had left her because she refused to have an abortion; the backlash forced him out of town. ‘There was a time,’ Chaney later told London, ‘when I hated her with all the intensity of my intense nature, and even thought of killing her and myself.’

The fatherless infant, then named John Griffith Chaney, was handed over to a wet nurse called Jennie Prentiss. Prentiss was black, a freed slave; she called her new charge her ‘white child’. She also introduced Wellman, by now divorced, to John London, a farmer, who became her second husband and provided his stepson with his surname. (His paternity remains uncertain.) The family was peripatetic and became less and less prosperous. London said his stepfather was ‘too intrinsically good’ for the ‘soulless scramble’ of life. Wellman, goaded on by the ghost of the Indian chief, browbeat her husband into a series of unwise agricultural schemes. After a disease killed their chickens, they left the countryside for Oakland.

As a child, London became an unlikely reader, first of travelogues and adventure stories, and later of epic novels from the Oakland public library, along the way developing an ambition, recalled in John Barleycorn, to ‘see all I had read in the books come true’. Did that mean becoming an author or a hero? Among his favourite books was Ouida’s Signa, the story of an orphan who makes it big as a violinist. But the last pages of the copy London read had been torn out: ‘He might have hitched his wagon to a different star,’ Labor writes, ‘had he known that in the end the hero kills himself over the love of a heartless tart.’ The counterfactual isn’t convincing: London wasn’t risk averse. ‘One cannot really come to appreciate one’s life,’ he once wrote to a friend, ‘save by playing with it and hazarding it a little.’

At the age of 14, London went to work at a cannery because his parents couldn’t afford to send him to high school. He was paid two dollars a day and hated it. Not having a normal job became his life’s work. He got a loan from the Prentisses, bought a skiff, and became an oyster pirate on the North California coast. ‘Every dark night’s raid,’ Labor writes, ‘was an invitation to get shot or arrested.’ He oddly leaves out a crisis that in John Barleycorn London describes as formative. One day ‘Young Scratch’ Nelson (his nickname came from what his father, ‘Old Scratch’, did to other men’s faces), started buying London rounds. The boy was unworldly enough not to realise that he was supposed to reciprocate. He was already drunkenly making his way home when it struck him that he should have been buying too. He had been a ‘thrifty, close-fisted boy’ but these men were ‘magnificently careless’: ‘I was deciding between money and men, between niggardliness and romance. Either I must throw overboard all my old values of money and look upon it as something to be flung about wastefully, or I must throw overboard my comradeship’. After a period of reflection, he returned to the bar, opened a tab and got everybody drunk. The controlling principle of his adult profligacy was now in place.

Labor allots a separate chapter to each year of London’s life from adolescence onwards and the first few are repetitive: he discovers a new way to make money; has a ‘close call with death’ (sometimes several); experiences disillusionment. In everything he did, bingeing was the paradigm. How to document all this hard living is a technical difficulty every biographer of London must negotiate. Labor relies on quaintness: ‘He had the proverbial hollow leg.’ London himself wrote two autobiographies. The later one, John Barleycorn, suggests he could be bad company, (‘I have seen much, done much, lived much’), but the first, The Road, which deals with his days as a tramp, is altogether more upbeat. London started hoboing at the age of 16 and returned to it every so often until he was 19. He’d met some ‘road kids’ in Sacramento whose slang entranced him. ‘With every word they uttered,’ London writes, ‘the lure of The Road laid hold of me more imperiously,’ and the writing displays a self-delighting inventiveness seldom equalled in his fiction.

Labor thinks the key to this period lies in London’s stint at the Erie County Penitentiary, where he was imprisoned for thirty days for vagrancy when he was 18. Prison primed him for socialism. On his release, keen to better himself, he enrolled at Oakland High School, where he studied for a year, then at Berkeley, where he studied for 11 months. He became a socialist and a demagogue, spending a night in jail after one public diatribe. Soon he went to the Yukon. The ‘stampede’ phase of the Klondike Gold Rush lasted a year, beginning in the summer of 1897. London was part of a prospecting team subsidised by his brother-in-law. According to Labor, he thrived in the extremes of the Arctic. No gold was discovered, but less than six months after his return London sold his first short story to the Overland Monthly.

At the end of John Barleycorn, London says that he’s decided to drink ‘but, oh, more skilfully, more discreetly, than ever before’, and the delusion that he could outsmart his appetites grew more painful as it became easier for him to satisfy them. It compelled him into a marriage with a woman he didn’t love, Bessie Maddern, shortly after the appearance of his well-received first book, The Son of the Wolf, in 1900: ‘I shall be a cleaner, wholesomer man’ etc. They had two daughters, but he had a series of affairs and in 1903 bought a 38-foot sloop, the Spray, to facilitate them.

The Call of the Wild appeared that same year. Needing money, he sold comprehensive rights to the novel to Macmillan for a $2000 advance and so never earned royalties on a book that brought millions to his publisher. Of its reception as an allegory, he wrote: ‘I plead guilty, but I was unconscious of it at the time. I did not mean to do it.’ He’d meant to write a story about a good dog. The success of The Call of the Wild led London into new forms of confusion over whether he wanted to be a hero or an author. He had already made a symbolic run for mayor of Oakland in 1901; he made another in 1905. He became a sought-after speaker, though his politics weren’t easy to reconcile with his tendency to go too far. He was the dissolute favourite of his circle in San Francisco. In 1903, he lived in the slums of East London for a month, then wrote a rage-filled book about it, The People of the Abyss, which sold well. (‘I am made sick by this human hellhole called London Town,’ he wrote.) Almost everything he wrote sold well; demand for his ‘virile truck’ (London’s phrase) was high, and his debacles made him even more famous.

In 1904 William Randolph Hearst sent him to Asia to cover the Russo-Japanese War. The press corps was in lockdown at a hotel in Tokyo, and the fighting was far away in Manchuria, but London went by boat and on horseback from Tokyo to the fringes of ‘Ping Yang’. He had a fever, frostbite, saddlesores and body lice; he was imprisoned twice and was saved from Japanese martial law only by the intervention of Theodore Roosevelt. In its combination of publicity, futility and ill health, London’s trip to Manchuria prefigured the rest of his life. White Fang, published in 1906, was conceived for its ‘marketing possibilities’: the story of a feral animal, three-quarters wolf, domesticated by a noble-hearted man, it reverses the premise of The Call of the Wild. Soon London would be purchasing plotlines from the young socialist Sinclair Lewis ‘at $5 apiece’.

*

As London’s work declined his personal life became the stuff of parody. He clumsily divorced Maddern in 1904, and married Charmian Kittredge the following year. Both events made the headlines. Her appetites were on a scale similar to his, and he described her as his ‘Mate-Woman’. For fun the couple used to box, a detail that has led some (Labor not among them) to speculate about their sex life. Kittredge was a more judicious drinker than London, and weathered their ‘purple passages’, as he called them, better than he did.

Martin Eden kills himself en route to Tahiti, in ‘his loved South Seas’ on a trip intended to be restorative. London wrote the novel during a similar voyage. He set out from San Francisco in April 1907 to circumnavigate the globe in a 43-foot sloop called the Snark. Kittredge and a small crew were with him. There were surf lessons in Hawaii, suckling pigs in Polynesia, an erupting volcano in the Solomon Islands, but the trip was constantly troubled. At Guadalcanal Island in July 1908, he made the mistake of smoking ‘hasheesh’ with the Englishman George Darbishire, who soon after died of dysentery. This gave London a hangover he never got over, to add to malaria and a ravaged digestive tract. In December he abandoned the Snark in Guadalcanal. He was 32.

He wrote a cheerful book about the fiasco, The Cruise of the Snark (1911). ‘Funny way to make a living!’ he remarked to his wife. ‘I carry my office in my head, and see the world while I earn the money to see it with.’ By his mid-thirties, London was an invalid. ‘Never again will I have the thumbs of my youth,’ he wrote, also noting his ‘smashed ankles’. There was irony in the evaporation of his vaunted energies but it was, as he foresaw, inevitable. ‘One pays according to an iron schedule,’ he wrote in John Barleycorn: ‘For every feat of telescoping long days and weeks of life into mad, magnificent instants, one must pay with shortened life, and oft-times, with savage usury added.’

London spent his last years in the Sonoma Valley, where he had bought an estate in 1905. He cut a figure of ghostly glamour, even though his outgoings always ‘threatened to exceed his income’. He thought up ways to make money from his land but didn’t succeed. Wolf House, the mansion he had begun to build for himself, burned to the ground before it was even finished. He no longer wrote well though he continued to be prolific. Writing had appealed to him as a way of evading the brutality of work but it turned out to be brutal in its own way. He became cynical, promising his publisher ‘crackerjack dog books’ for his ‘dog public’. In his final days, he ate mostly duck, vomiting it up when he thought no one was looking. Perpetually seeking a ‘way out of his daily grind’, he died in 1916 without finding one, of uraemia.