The Work-Beast and the Brain Merchant

Jack London by Earle Labor

We are too easily impressed when writers have done anything other than write. How many author bios mention—without enough self-deprecation—that the intrepid scribe has previously been a bartender, a dog walker, a sign painter, an aromatherapist? Jack London puts those bios to shame. He makes George Plimpton (who played football with the Detroit Lions) look like a dilettante. He reveals A. J. Jacobs (who wrote about his experience reading the Encyclopedia Britannica) to be a party trick. If London’s writing—with its savage wolves and solitary deaths and daring sea voyages—was gritty, hyper-masculine, and unbelievable, then his biography is even more so. By age twenty-one Jack London had led a life that would make Huck Finn shit himself with envy.

He had five parents: his biological mother, Flora, who was promiscuous and unkind; his putative biological father, a charlatan who sold astrological pamphlets; an adoptive father who worked a series of hard-luck Northern California farms until his body gave out; and two freed black slaves, richer than anyone he’d ever known, who nursed him as a baby and became his benefactors. As a child he worked in a canning factory and lost most of his teeth. While other children were going to school he was tilling his adoptive father’s farm. At the age of fifteen, he decided to become an outlaw and joined a gang of oyster pirates. That is a direct quote from Earle Labor’s biography, Jack London: An American Life: “At the age of fifteen, he decided to become an outlaw and joined a gang of oyster pirates.” With the scum of Oakland’s wharves he guzzled alcohol and poached oysters and evaded the murderous Fish Patrol. At drinking and seafaring and feats of courage, he was a prodigy. They called him “Prince of the Oyster Pirates.”

Jack London at sea

At sixteen he took to “the road” as a railroad tramp, rising to “the elite order of hobodom,” as Labor puts it. He caught up with an army of unemployed Americans marching (drifting) across the country to Washington DC to protest a lack of jobs. At seventeen he became a seal hunter in the Bering Sea, sailing to the Siberian coast and Yokohama with a rough international crew. An avid reader, he crammed for a two-year college prep course in four months, and his success was such an embarrassment to the prep course that he was kicked out, denied a refund, and forced to matriculate to UC Berkeley on his own. One student described him as “a strange combination of Scandinavian sailor and Greek god.”

Although he was an ardent socialist he is remembered as a rugged individualist. He aspired to write in a new style of “impassioned realism, shot through with human aspiration and faith… life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soul-reaching left in.” Preaching socialism on a soapbox in Oakland, he developed stage fright and asked a friend to take his place; when police arrived, he hopped back on the soapbox, wanting to be the one who got arrested. He leaped at the Klondike gold rush, trekking overland in frostbite conditions and shooting icy rapids, all for the chance to scrape together five dollars in gold.

He was always near death: at birth, when his mother was barely strong enough to nurse him; at age seven, after drinking several bottles of wine on a dare; every night that he escaped the Fish Patrol with his haul of oysters in the San Francisco Bay; drunkenly falling off a boat and being tossed by the sea for hours; binge-drinking during a violent political rally; debilitated by scurvy in the frozen Klondike.

Jack London in Japan

Later in life he reported on wars from Japan and Mexico, sailed the South Pacific for two years in his own boat, and built a farm near Sonoma where he practiced some of the most advanced agricultural techniques in the world. He met Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Wyatt Earp.

“Jack London was an extremist,” said a childhood friend. “In everything he did or endeavored to do, he went to the limit. There could be no half way mark; it was the goal or nothing.” His two manias were adventure and writing. When he wasn’t straining as a “work-beast” he was striving to be a “brain merchant.” He would stop writing for months during his adventures, and then he’d stop sleeping and write “everything—ponderous essays, scientific and sociological, short stories, humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas.” As a character on the page London is admirable and exciting. In real life he was probably exhausting and insufferable.

Jack London wolves

A self-mythologizing writer like Jack London requires a no-nonsense biographer. Earle Labor is appropriately skeptical of the claims London made about his own life, and he has gone to impressive lengths to write London’s definitive biography. Sometimes he is too eager to burnish London’s reputation as a major literary figure: “If the sea had served as his Harvard, ‘The Road’—and by this he meant the railroad—was his Yale.” Overzealous, Labor steps in to defend London against a simple rejection letter from an editor who was already inundated with firsthand tales of the Klondike: “But what that editor failed to appreciate were those three essential factors that would distinguish London’s contribution from that of most of the others: human interest, romantic imagination, and sympathetic understanding. Fueled by creative genius, these qualities would make him one of the most popular writers in the world.”

The intensity of Jack London’s literary output matched the intensity of his life. He pursued a kind of good-natured, all-around heroism that seems almost generic in the present day. For better or worse, his early life sounds like it was cribbed from a library’s worth of classics—from Dickens, Upton Sinclair, Pearl S. Buck, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among many others. “I still believed in the old myths which were the heritage of the American boy,” he said. Now his life is one of our better myths.

– Brian Hurley

3 Comments

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3 Responses to The Work-Beast and the Brain Merchant

  1. “By age twenty-one Jack London had led a life that would make Huck Finn shit himself with envy.” The publisher missed a huge opportunity if they didn’t include that line on the book jacket.

    Very entertainingly written review, Brian!

  2. To Build a Fire remains one of the finest little short stories written, and it inevitably put a fire under the butts of many a young lad to go out and try something crazy and take chances. And, of course, I ended up in Alaska twice and can appreciate all the better the material he shared so well.

  3. Pingback: Oh hey it’s Jack London. Shirtless. Outside my house. |

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