- - Monday, January 27, 2014

By Earle Labor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $34.50, 462 pages

What a life. What a man. What a book.

Only superlatives can describe this definitive biography of the nation’s most popular and successful novelist of the early 20th century. While some of his books, such as “The Call of the Wild” have been continuously in print ever since, he is no longer the subject of critical study in college English courses, although his work is worthy of it.

Earle Labor has devoted much of a lifetime to the study of London and his works and has given us a book so meticulous in its fast-moving detail that the reader feels he is almost at London’s side.

He was born in San Francisco. His mother, Flora, had fled a settled life in a Midwest town for adventure in San Francisco. She was soon pregnant, but the man identified as the baby’s father, claimed it was not possible. Before long, she married a man named John London who became a genuine father figure to the boy who took his name. John moved the family to Oakland, Calif., the city with which Jack identified for much of the rest of his life.

From childhood, Jack longed to succeed, though he knew not at what. He decided that whatever he did, he would be very good at it. He was muscular and strong. With good looks, a ready smile and a mop of curly hair, he attracted girls. He overcame a shy streak when the school bully went after him. He stood his ground and pummeled the bully, thus becoming something of a hero on the school grounds.

An omnivorous reader from the beginning, London began to visit the Oakland Public Library regularly and was encouraged by the helpful librarians. He began to write some musings. His mother urged him to enter a San Francisco newspaper’s essay contest. He did and won first prize — $25. Thinking he might sell some stories, he sent out several, with no results.

From then on, he decided that he had to work to help the family’s finances. One season, he worked in a factory with other child laborers and never forgot the shabby way they (and the adult workers) were treated. The foundation for his move toward socialism was laid in that factory.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, London spent almost no time at school, but what he did was amazing. Seeking his road to success, he was, variously, a professional oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay, member of the Fish Patrol, worked two shifts back-to-back shoveling coal in an electric utility, signing on as an able-bodied seaman on a freighter to Japan and back, and spent months as a hobo, riding boxcars across the country and back and spending 30 days in the Erie County, Pa., jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He developed a prodigious capacity for alcohol and spent time with this pals in the waterfront saloons of Oakland.

Once back from his hoboing, London decided to embark on a tougher adventure — seeking gold in the Klondike. He made his way to the Yukon Territory and spent a fearsome winter in the crowded mining camps that were short on food, heat and comforts. He returned with about $5 in gold, but more importantly, he had gained a storehouse of stories. Some were his own; some tales told by Klondike veterans.

Back home, he enrolled in Oakland High School, wrote for the school paper and became a skilled debating-team member. After several tries, he sold his first Klondike stories. He was sure he had found his calling. He vowed to write no fewer than 1,000 words day, a promise he kept almost without a break for the rest of his life.

His stories began to sell steadily to magazines, and “The Call of the Wild,” his first novel, was published in 1903. He never seemed to have enough money on hand to pay all the bills, so he interspersed his best writing with “potboiler” stories for mass magazines — but he always knew the difference.

In 1900, he married Bess Maddern. He was not deeply in love with her, but thought she would be a good wife and mother — and she was. They rented a house in Piedmont, in the hills above Oakland, where a small artists’ colony was assembling. Bess gave him two daughters there.

In 1903, Charmian Kittredge came into his life, and he fell hopelessly in love with her. Later that year, he and Bess separated, and she filed for divorce. When it was final, he and Charmian were married and embarked on a nonstop love story.

They traveled to Hawaii and, on the Snark, the sailboat he commissioned, sailed to the South Seas and some idyllic and some frightening adventures. Meanwhile, he had become the nation’s most famous author, turning out a book a year. Many involved adventure, some the plight of the poor (“The People of the Abyss,” his account of living in London’s notorious East End), some about man-woman relationships (“Martin Eden”).

They began to buy property in Sonoma County, and he decided he would become a farmer. He developed the property. They decided to build an exceptional house for themselves there, Wolf House, but it burned down to its stone walls just before it was completed. Nevertheless, he continued to write every day in their more modest dwelling while a steady stream of visitors called on them.

London had a prodigious amount of energy and drive from his youth on until the final year of his life, when his kidneys began to give out and other parts of him were showing the effect of tropical and other ailments he had contracted in his travels. He died Nov. 22, 1916, two months short of his 41st birthday.

Biographer Earle Labor summarizes Jack London succinctly: ” … few writers mirror so clearly the American Dream of success and the corollary idea of the Self-Made Man.”

Peter Hannaford lived in Oakland, which Jack London thought of as his hometown, and in Piedmont, a block from where London had lived from 1900 to 1903. His most recent book is “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold, 2012).

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