Monday, July 30, 2012

Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley

A competent retelling of an extraordinary life
Since his death almost 100 years ago, Jack London’s legendary life has inspired many biographies, none of which has yet been deemed worthy of being called definitive. This latest attempt at encapsulating the life and spirit of America’s greatest author, published in 2010, comes from James L. Haley, who previously penned several books on Texas history, including a biography of Sam Houston. The book opens with an impressive preface, in which Haley not only praises London’s skills as a writer, but also acknowledges his influence on American cultural history and his relevance to the present day. Unfortunately the rest of the book doesn't live up to this preface, and the biography that follows is a rather straightforward chronicling of London’s life events.

Much of the book is simply a rehash of London’s autobiographical writings and semi-autobiographical fiction. Haley lifts scenes from John Barleycorn, The Road, Tales of the Fish Patrol, Martin Eden, The People of the Abyss, The Cruise of the Snark, and others; rearranges them in chronological order; and rewrites them in workmanlike prose far inferior to London’s original writing. Had I not recently reread all those works I might have enjoyed this book more, but Haley’s account of London’s adventures renders them dull and lifeless by comparison.

Beyond regurgitating what London has already written, Haley has obviously delved deeply into London’s correspondence, and uses it to provide a wealth of information on London’s interaction with his family, friends, acquaintances, and business colleagues. Haley spends an inordinate amount of time speculating upon London’s possible homosexuality. London spent time on sailing ships, in prison, and in hobo camps, where he most likely witnessed homosexual relationships. Even Haley admits there’s no proof that London participated in relationships of this sort, either consensually or unwillingly, but the lack of evidence doesn’t stop him from dwelling on it. Haley also examines the author’s intimate “bromance” with poet George Sterling in minute detail, but his hypothesis that the two were having sexual relations is never convincing. If the best conclusion that he could come up with is that it is “not improbable” that the two men had a physical relationship, then it’s probably not worth devoting so many pages to the topic.

London led such a full and fascinating life that there’s little need to pad the book with a lot of literary criticism. Haley wisely refrains from too much textual analysis, the bane of most literary biographies. He does provide one-paragraph summaries of some of London’s works, and only spoils the endings of a few of the major ones—The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf—assuming that anyone reading London’s biography would have already read those works.

There’s nothing new here that’s going to shake the world of Jack London studies or cause literary scholars to jump up and take notice. Yet, for the average fan of London’s books, it’s a pretty good synthesis of existing information on the author and his life. Haley tells the story with a balanced perspective, neither mudslinging nor adulatory. Perhaps at times he seems to relish depicting the mature author as an overgrown child—all narcissism, pettiness, and tantrums. A little more admiration for London’s remarkable achievements would have been welcome, but overall I think Haley’s treatment is relatively fair and objective. London aficionados will find this book a useful summary of his life, but, far from being definitive, it’s an extraordinary story only adequately told.

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