Monday, August 13, 2018

The Book of Jack London, Volume 1 by Charmian Kittredge London

Tedious rehash of stories better told elsewhere
The Book of Jack London is a biography of the great American author and adventurer. Published in 1921, five years after his death, it was written by London’s widow Charmian Kittredge London. Not surprisingly, the book is a rather biased account of Jack’s life, prone to hero worship and often sugar-coating any unseemly details. To cite one example, Charmian passes Jack’s stepfather off as his biological father, thus concealing the sketchy details of his birth, which may or may not have been out of wedlock. Despite such inaccuracies, the book is packed with a sufficient amount of detail that just about every subsequent London biographer has used it as a primary source.

Charmian’s account of Jack’s life was lengthy enough to be published in two volumes, with Volume 1 ending around 1905. This results in much of the content of the first volume having taken place before Jack and Charmian met. Thus, much of what’s related in the first volume is second-hand information. In fact, those familiar with London’s work will recognize most of the anecdotes from his own published writings. Charmian lifts heavily from London’s autobiographical works, most notably from his memoir John Barleycorn, with bits and pieces of The Road, The People of the Abyss, and various nonfiction articles thrown in.

As one of the great practitioners of American literary naturalism, London often wrote his novels in a stark and almost brutal prose that evoked the harsh wilderness landscapes in which his stories took place. In some of his lesser known works, however, there were times when he felt the need to prove himself a poet and would indulge in overly romantic, flowery language. Unfortunately, Charmian’s writing falls squarely into the latter camp. Her pretentious, thesaurus-wringing prose is a constant annoyance throughout the book and renders previously exciting stories an ordeal to read. What you get for most of the book is a rehash of John Barleycorn, retold in this god-awfully verbose and convoluted syntax.

About two-thirds of the way through, even Charmian seems to realize that this has grown tiresome, so she starts to reprint Jack’s correspondence to two friends: Cloudesley Johns, a fellow struggling writer and lifelong penpal; and Anna Strunsky, a close friend and authoress with whom Jack collaborated upon the novel The Kempton-Wace Letters. Charmian reproduces these letters verbatim, with very little editing. While they shed a little light on Jack’s personality, most of their content deals with the submission of manuscripts and payments from publishers. This correspondence may provide some welcome detail for researchers, but feels out of place in a book devoted to London’s life story. If you wanted to read unedited letters, you could do so to your heart’s content in the three-volume The Letters of Jack London. Charmian also reproduces some of London’s personal notebooks of his tramping days, as well as some letters from his time covering the Russo-Japanese War. Though penned in choppy, abbreviated prose, they still yield some insight into his travels.

In the final few chapters of Volume 1, it begins to become clear that Jack and Charmian have become more than friends, though that’s not stated explicitly because he’s not yet divorced from his first wife. Hopefully Volume 2 will contain more first-hand information from Charmian’s perspective. As far as Volume 1 is concerned, diehard London fans will find little here that they weren’t already aware of. For those who just want a good biography of London, Earle Labor’s excellent 2013 book Jack London: An American Life is likely the best there is.

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