Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor

Finally, a definitive biography
Jack London has been the subject of many biographies, but no one’s ever really succeeded in producing a balanced, authoritative account of his life. Earle Labor was one of the first scholars to recognize the literary value of London’s writings and has been a leader in Jack London studies for decades. Jack London: An American Life, published at the tail end of 2013, is the culmination of Labor’s career and likely the best overall biography of London ever written.

Unlike so many previous London biographers, Labor doesn’t have an axe to grind or a sexy thesis to push, like “Jack London committed suicide,” (see Irving Stone’s Sailor on Horseback) or “Jack London had a homosexual relationship” (see James L. Haley’s Wolf). In the preface, Labor asserts that London’s success was a uniquely American phenomenon and a fortuitous product of his times. Yet Labor never really defends this thesis. He simply presents the events of London’s life in as clear and comprehensive a manner as possible, and let’s the reader judge for himself. Labor has read everything that exists on London and has interacted personally with many of the man’s friends and family. He takes the varying accounts, perspectives, and anecdotes from this multitude of sources, reconciles them with one another, and unites them into a cohesive life story. The result is incredibly detail-heavy, but never boring. I have read almost everything London’s ever written, as well as several biographies, but while reading Labor’s version I managed to learn something new on nearly every page.

There’s not a whole lot of literary criticism in this book. Labor has already covered that in other volumes, and there isn’t much room for it here. London’s life was every but as exciting and adventure-filled as one of his novels. The diverse stages of his life—writer, sailor, hobo, oyster pirate, gold seeker, socialist statesman, war correspondent, world traveler, rancher—are familiar to any London fan, but how they all fit together is often a confusing puzzle. Labor doesn’t play games with the chronology and clearly shows how all these fascinating episodes coalesce into the overall arc of London’s life. Though Labor has devoted his entire life to the study of Jack London, this is no exercise in hero worship. The biographer has plenty of praise for his subject’s accomplishments, but doesn’t shy away from his faults. At times Labor dwells on certain events longer than he should. There are four complete chapters on the cruise of the Snark, for example, and he devotes far more ink than necessary to some obscure essays, like “The Golden Poppy.” Yet, as a diehard fan of London, I can forgive sins of inclusion far more easily than sins of omission. Thanks to Labor’s relentless thoroughness, the reader really gets a clear sense of what daily life was like for London and his wife Charmian, through times both extraordinary and mundane.

One inconvenience to the serious reader results from an editorial rather than an authorial choice. Labor supports his research with copious notes, but the publisher—as is far too common these days—commits the annoying sin of not including reference numbers to the notes within the text (at least in the ebook edition), as if a few superscript numerals would scare readers away from buying the book.

The best way to learn about Jack London is to read his own works. Beyond that, if you’re only going to read one biography of London, this is the one to read. London’s perspective on his own life was far from impartial, and he didn’t always adhere to the facts, but, lucky for us, we now have Labor’s book to set the record straight.

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