December 27, 2013
Man Against Nature
By HENRY GIARDINA
An American Life
By Earle Labor
Illustrated. 461 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.
“The superficial reader will get the love story & the adventure,” Jack London wrote, in 1903, of the story that would become “The Sea-Wolf,” “while the deeper reader will get all of this, plus the bigger thing lying underneath.” These are the typically blunt words of a writer who seemed to think of his work in terms of purchase value. Here, he might have been describing his own life: much adventure, a sort of love story, a weird bang of a finish. In a new biography by the London scholar Earle Labor, the “bigger thing” has a harder time coming out: Perhaps it doesn’t exist.
As a rollicking, turn-of-the-century tale in his own style, the London story reads well. Born in 1876, London was the illegitimate child of a philandering astrologist (who later, in a creative move, denied paternity by claiming impotence). He came of age in a golden era of political corruption, when the octopus of the Southern Pacific Railroad monopoly still held the West Coast in its grip. Growing up, he found himself in places where human cruelty flourished, was formed by witness to it and developed a rare aptitude for conveying it in fiction. By the age of 22, he’d worked as an oyster pirate, served time in prison, ridden the rails as a tramp, joined a seal-hunting schooner bound for Japan, marched with Coxey’s army of the unemployed and searched for gold in the Klondike rush. In an effort to make a go at writing (the goal of which, ironically, was to help him avoid a life of hard labor), he turned these firsthand experiences into profitable novels and stories, among them the brilliant “The Sea-Wolf,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Martin Eden” and the nonfiction “The People of the Abyss.” By his mid-30s, he’d established himself as one of the most popular storytellers in a genre he helped create: a particularly violent style of naturalism in which one man battles the cruel, capricious ways of both human nature and Mother Nature, and often loses. By 40, he’d settled at his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen, Calif., where he would feast for a time on a two-mallard-a-day diet (a delicacy) before dying of uremia in November 1916.