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Realism without falsity
by Jeffrey Hart
A review of Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley
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On opposite coasts of the United States, Jack London and Stephen Crane fashioned the direct yet nuanced voice of the twentieth century. Contemporaries born in the late nineteenth century, both worked in the same direction, their prose breaking with the Victorian genteel tradition and using the vocabulary and rhythms of living speech, anticipating Hemingway and many other important writers to follow. Both London and Crane, moreover, called for urgent social reform as slums grew worse in the country’s major urban areas.
Despite the warm early reception of London’s work, it is Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage (1885), which described the experience of a federal soldier in a battle resembling Chancellorsville, that has become a fixture in the canon of American literature. Its direct, descriptive style, however, has much in common with London’s prose. The Red Badge of Courage begins:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet.
The disciplined prose of Jack London’s passage from The Sea-Wolf (1904) makes for an excellent comparison:
Not but that I was afloat in a safe craft, for the Martinez was a new ferry steamer, making her fourth or fifth trip on the run between Sauselito and San. The danger lay in the heavy fog which blanketed the bay, and of which as a landsman I had little apprehension. . . . A fresh breeze was blowing, and for a time I was alone in the moist obscurity—yet not alone, for I was dimly conscious of the presence of the pilot, and of what I took to be the captain, in the glass house above my head.
Why does London’s body of work receive less attention?
Although a great deal has been written about London, we have lacked a first-rate modern biography to give a complete picture of his achievement. James L. Haley has now provided one in Wolf: The Lives of Jack London. The difficulty facing Mr. Haley as a biographer is suggested by the following summary of the complex life—or lives—of Jack London. In a well organized, lucid exposition, Mr. Haley has produced a compelling account of his resistant subject.
He grew up in unpromising circumstances. Born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876, he was the illegitimate son of a free-loving Spiritualist named Flora Wellman who held séances and communicated with the dead. There is no evidence that she was ever married to the man presumed to be his father, William Chaney, a journalist, lawyer, and astrologer who, in fact, maintained that Flora had become pregnant while having an affair with a man named Lee Smith. Chaney was abusive toward Flora and, when she became pregnant, demanded that she have an abortion. She refused, but attempted suicide with laudanum and also a handgun that misfired.
Her situation stabilized somewhat when she married John Griffith London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran, who became young John Griffith London’s stepfather (he changed his name to Jack as an adolescent). The family settled in Oakland, where John completed grade school. In 1885, encouraged by a friendly librarian, Ina Coolbrith, who was later be named poet laureate of California, he read Ouida’s long Victorian novel Signa, an experience that awakened literary ambition. In 1896, he joined the Socialist Labor Party and spoke energetically in public for reform. His growing concern for the poor would be reflected in such works as The War of the Classes (1906) and The Iron Heel (1908), a dystopian novel that foresees an oligarchic tyranny in the United States.
In 1897, at age twenty-one, London completed a semester at the University of California (Berkeley), but soon left because he lacked tuition. Seeing a chance for financial independence, he joined the gold rush to the Klondike, as hundreds of others like him surged north into Canada. Newspaper headlines heralded great promise:
News of the Klondike had already reached Seattle when the ship docked, and she was met by a crowd of 5,000 who watched more than a million dollars in gold come off the ship. The expedition proved dangerous and futile: winter in the Klondike was deadly, and a “Klondike plague,” the prospectors’ term for scurvy, bleeding gums, loose teeth, and flaccid skin brought on by a limited diet of bacon, bread, and beans, took its toll. London made his way out as a coal stoker on a ship that took him south to Port Townsend, Washington; from there his eight day’s wages secured him a steerage berth to San Francisco. The gold dust he managed to bring back was worth all of $4.50. Empty-handed, he did not leave the frozen north of the vast arctic without making one new resolution; he had sworn to himself to become a writer, no matter what it took.
After repeated rejections, he received a letter from Overland Monthly accepting a short story, “To the Man on the Trail,” based on his experiences in the Yukon. Though he received only $5 for the story, appearing in a journal that had published Mark Twain and Bret Harte was promising. Following this first story, The Overland Monthly published “The White Silence” and “The Son of the Wolf,” and five more in the course of a year. Success came when the Overland stories were published in book form as The Son of the Wolf by Houghton Mifflin in 1900. The volume received enthusiastic reviews: The New York Times’s verdict was that the “stories are realism, without the usual falsity of realism” and the notice in the Kansas City Star claimed, “It is to be doubted if Kipling ever wrote a better story than ‘The Son of the Wolf.’”
In the summer of 1902, London traveled to England on the hms Majestic, appalled at the luxury on the great ocean-liner, which would return packed with refugees seeking a better life in America. For six weeks he undertook an investigation into social conditions in the East End of London, resulting in The People of the Abyss. The same year also saw the publication of his first novel, A Daughter of the Snows. In 1903, The Call of the Wild, about a dog named Buck, was published by Macmillan and became a bestseller. In the Afterward to Macmillan’s 1964 reissue of the novel, Clifton Fadiman commented:
Perhaps you know a better one, but to me this is the most powerful dog story ever written. . . . Into the unforgettable beast Buck, one hundred and forty pounds of cunning and savagery, he put everything he most deeply felt about the animal instincts that lurk, not only in dogs, but in all of us human beings.
I can’t say I like this terrifying book, because I don’t share London’s worship of force.
London’s literary successes were accompanied by an increasing interest in political activism. Early in 1904, he joined C. T. Kelly’s Army of the unemployed, an ally of Jacob Coxey’s Army, which planned to march across the country to Washington, D.C. to demand relief for the unemployed workers. London left the hapless throng in Hannibal, Missouri, and was arrested for vagrancy in Niagara Falls. Convicted, he spent thirty days in the Erie County Penitentiary. In 1906, London lectured at a slew of American universities on political topics and also brought out the related War of the Classes, as well as The Fish Patrol and a novel titled The Game. Not one to shy away from a bustling schedule, it was also the year he began construction on his
In 1907, Jack and his wife Charmian set out from San Francisco in the Snark for a sail through the South Seas, visiting Tahiti. Before Adam, Love of Life, and On the Road were published. In 1908, they sailed on the Snark to the Samoan Islands, Fiji, and then Australia at the end of the year. The Iron Heel was published. Back in America, Jack recuperated from the various illnesses he had contracted on the voyage and, in October 1909, published Martin Eden. He and his wife Charmian established themselves on their ranch. Revolution and Lost Face were published. In 1911, they sailed in San Francisco Bay and then rode on horseback through northern California and Oregon. South Sea Tales, The Cruise of the Snark, Adventure, When God Laughs, and Burning Daylight came out.
In 1912, Jack and his wife headed east and vacationed in New York, and then sailed out of Baltimore on the Dirigo, a four-masted barque, for a journey around the Horn that reached Seattle by late July. Returning to their California Beauty Ranch in August, London began writing John Barleycorn about the trip. Three more books, A Son of the Sun, Smoke Bellew, and The House of Pride were published; London was now earning $70,000 a year. In 1914, he went to Mexico to cover the Revolution for Colliers’s Weekly but this job was interrupted by an attack of dysentery. In 1915, his continuing publication included The Mutiny of the Elsinore and The Strength of the Strong. The following year he traveled to Hawaii, and wrote The Scarlet Plague and The Star Rover.
In 1916, London’s health took a downward slide. He suffered from chronic uremia, which was potentially fatal, as well as painful kidney stones and rheumatism. According to Haley, he may have been taking salvarsen, a dangerous arsenic-based treatment for venereal disease. On November 22, 1916, he administered a morphine injection to himself from which he failed to awaken, despite an injection of atropine by a physician. Haley doubts that it was suicide—he suggests London’s death was the result, rather, of declining health and amateurish self-medication.
Haley’s biography is a welcome and necessary study of Jack London’s life and times. Much of London’s writing, however, was journalism, and the critical job that remains is to establish a selection of the works which have lasting value as literature.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 April 2011, on page 75
Copyright © 2013 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.comhttp://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Realism-without-falsity-7023
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