Friday, September 28, 2018
The Book of Jack London, Volume 2 by Charmian Kittredge London
At home and abroad with Mr. and Mrs. London
The Book of Jack London is a biography of the great American author of The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, The Iron Heel, “To Build a Fire,” and other literary classics. Written by his widow Charmian Kittredge London shortly after his death, The Book of Jack London was published in 1921 in two volumes. Volume 1 consisted mostly of secondhand anecdotes of Jack’s life before he met Charmian. In the second volume, which is superior to its predecessor, Charmian writes firsthand about her life, love, and marriage with Jack.
The book is invaluable for the copious level of detail it provides on the author’s life, such as the places to which he traveled, the people he met, the venues where he lectured, his dealings with publishers, his agricultural operations, and the leisure time Mr. and Mrs. London spent with their friends. I’ve read everything Jack London ever wrote and much of what has been written about him, but this is the first book I can recall that even mentions his trips to Cuba and Jamaica, which is just one example of this volume’s thoroughness. On the other hand, Charmian is probably best known for accompanying Jack on an aborted around-the-world yachting voyage, but she all but skips over that trip here because she’s already covered it in another book, The Log of the Snark. The same is true of much of their Hawaiian travels, which she recounted in her book Our Hawaii.
The biggest problem with The Book of Jack London is Charmian’s writing. Her pretentious prose stands as a glaring exemplar of thesaurus abuse, and her convoluted syntax hinders understanding. In constructing the narrative of her husband’s life, Charmian jumps all over chronologically and thematically while haphazardly reproducing quotations, letters, and poetry, whether relevant or not. The fact that this account of Jack London’s life is quite biased should not be surprising, given it was written by his spouse, but the extent to which Charmian sugarcoats and sanitizes every aspect of Jack’s life really tests the reader’s patience. She speaks about her husband as if he were a cross between Hercules and Romeo. When describing his final days, she paints him as a Christ figure who died for humanity’s sins. Charmian goes to great pains to show that she and Jack shared a superhuman love, not only relentlessly praising the man but reproducing every utterance of praise he ever had for her as well. Nevertheless, one can read between the lines and see that all was not paradise in their relationship, and Jack could be a difficult man to live with. One wishes Charmian had been a little more forthright about Jack’s problems instead of constantly making excuses for him.
Mr. and Mrs. London, who constantly referred to each other as “Mate-Man” and Mate-Woman” and spoke about their love in near-mythic terms, would surely have been an annoying couple to hang out with. Despite Charmian’s best efforts to portray Jack as the perfect man, he often comes across as rather childish and petty in this memoir. Charmian’s account actually lessened my admiration for the man, but not my love for his writing. Though I am fascinated by Jack’s amazing life, Charmian managed to turn it into a book that I just wanted to be over and done with. There’s no denying this book’s value as a source for subsequent biographers, however. If you’re unfamiliar with Jack London’s life story, I would recommend Earle Labor’s 2013 biography Jack London: An American Life. Only the great writer’s most diehard fans will appreciate The Book of Jack London, and even they, like myself, might find themselves annoyed and disappointed by it.
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