Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor

My great grandfather - looking nearly as roguish as Jack London.

My great grandfather Edgar Robert Rayner –  looking nearly as roguish as Jack London.

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

My great grandfather’s early life mirrored that of Jack London. Born in San Francisco to a seamstress whose husband abandoned her, my relative Edgar Rayner moved as a small boy to the more hospitable climate and open space of Oakland. There, family legend says, he helped the slightly older Jack London with one of his paper routes – working for candy. To test the veracity of this tale I pulled Jack London: An American Life off the shelf and was quickly swept away by the author’s style and telling of London’s remarkable, but short life.

The author, Earle Labor, is the curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana and a Wilson Professor of American Literature at Centenary College of Louisiana. Drawing upon London’s diaries, those of his “Mate Woman” Charmian, and interviews with friends, lovers, and family, Labor deftly sorts through the myths and painful truths of London’s meteoric life with an easy to read (almost novelistic at times) approach.

As a child, London was dreadfully poor and obliged to work numerous odd jobs to make money for his family including stints as paper boy, cannery employee, Klondike gold prospector and oyster pirate. I was shocked to read how young he was during all these daring adventures – still in his teens for the most part. While my great grandfather was working safely as a dry goods salesman, London was fearlessly jumping trains, fighting hobos, and drinking his pals under the table, all while writing, writing, writing.

Labor pays a great deal of attention to London’s reading and writing habits – providing useful tips to the aspiring author though few can hope to match London’s prodigious output. A life-long voracious reader, word collector, and disciplined writer, London churned out 1000 words a day, even when under extreme physical duress such as the time he contracted an exotic illness that caused his hands to swell to twice their normal size.

For London, reading was his life-line and his way out of the depressing circumstances of his youth. When he discovered the glories of the Oakland Public Library he recalled that he “read mornings, afternoons, and nights. I read in bed, I read at the table, I read as I walked to and from school, and I read at recess while the other boys were playing.”  Years later, in a letter to Ina Coolbrith, librarian at the Oakland Public Library, California’s first poet laureate, and later librarian of the Mercantile Association (with whom the Mechanics’ Institute merged in 1906) he wrote, “I was an eager, thirsty, hungry little kid – and one day, at the library, I drew out a volume on Pizarro of Peru….you praised me for reading books of that nature. Proud! If you only knew how proud your words made me…You were a goddess to me.”

A young Jack London.

A young Jack London.

Prior to reading this book I had assumed, through my childhood readings of London’s “dog books” (Call of the Wild and White Fang) and having grown up around his old stomping grounds (what Oaklander doesn’t adore London’s Klondike shack outside of the First and Last Chance saloon) that London was merely “a rough, savage fellow…who likes prizefights and brutalities, [and] who has a clever turn of the pen.” I was amazed to find that though indeed a man’s man, London had a tender heart and an active, often mercurial mind. Those qualities, paired with his dreamy blue eyes and taste for adventure made him indeed swoon-worthy both physically and literarily.

This biography was a labor of love for the author as he spent over forty years amassing his research. I would say he has done a masterful job at resurrecting the amazing character of Jack London, bringing to life the turbulent times in which he lived and focusing attention on the breadth of London’s work. London wrote of adventure, love, nobility, and “big living” and thus deserves his place in the pantheon of California writers.  I, after reading this book, certainly will read more of him.

Jack London, at least for a time, haunted the Library of the Mechanics’ Institute though Librarian Mary O. Carmody claimed “he was inclined to be a bit careless about returning books”. Despite that questionable borrowing record, MI has an impressive collection of materials about and by Jack London.

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