Friday, June 14, 2019
Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone
A superb telling of an amazing life
Jack London: Sailor on Horseback, a biography by Irving Stone, was originally published in 1938. It began as an authorized biography when Stone was invited by London’s widow, Charmian Kittredge London, to the London family ranch in California to utilize the family’s personal archives. Later Charmian withdrew her blessing and disowned the biography, however, when Stone dug a little too deep. I have read several biographies of London, as well as his own autobiographical writings like John Barleycorn, The Road, and The Cruise of the Snark. I had previously avoided Stone’s book because I thought it was a biographical novel, and I had read some disparaging comments about its level of fictionalization. After reading it, however, I discovered it to be a work of nonfiction, and it turned out to be a truly enjoyable and riveting read.
Despite accusations against Stone by Charmian and others, I didn’t find anything particularly sensationalized about Stone’s account. London’s life was so sensational in the first place, it would be difficult to write about it without making it sound sensationalized. For the most part the portrayal of London is a positive one, though ultimately tragic. Stone clearly admires his subject, but this account is not merely an adulatory tribute. Stone draws attention to London’s faults, but does not delve too deeply into them. London’s white supremacist views on race, for example, are mentioned but not examined in great depth. Perhaps that just wasn’t a hot-button issue in 1938, and London’s opinions on race were certainly not uncommon for Americans of his era. As far as London’s dark side goes, Stone mainly emphasizes his childlike handling of financial matters, his naive trust in friends and family, his marital infidelities, and his tendency toward bouts of crippling depression. London’s alcoholism is also dealt with frankly, but not to the extent of its coverage in John Barleycorn.
It is no wonder that Charmian hated this book, because it really portrays her in a negative light. In this account she comes across as conniving, smothering, unattractive, and infantile. Stone not only holds her responsible for breaking up London’s first marriage but also for negatively altering London’s literary style in the latter half of his career. This book provides a clearer, more thorough insight into London’s two marriages than any other biography that I’ve encountered, including Charmian’s own The Book of Jack London, which is biased, disingenuous, and worst of all, dull. Whereas Charmian tried to hide Jack’s illegitimate birth in her book, Stone brings the facts out into the open. She was also outraged that Stone made London’s death seem like a suicide, but a century later scholars are still debating the exact cause of death.
In my opinion, from a scholarly standpoint, the best biography of London, in terms of comprehensiveness, depth of research, and just good writing, is Earle Labor’s 2013 book Jack London: An American Life. However, for the average reader who just wants to learn about London’s fascinating life, doesn’t care about literary criticism or Jack London Studies, and doesn’t need footnotes or a bibliography, Sailor on Horseback is really the best way to go. It is an excellent read for novices or diehard fans alike. If all you know about London is The Call of the Wild and White Fang, you will be amazed at the breadth, depth, and variety of his adventures and achievements. I have been an avid fan of London’s writing for over 30 years and have read everything he ever published, but Stone’s account of his life has really renewed my interest in this important author and remarkable man. Reading Sailor on Horseback makes me want to go back and reread some of my favorite London novels and stories and do further research into his amazing life.
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