by Will Katerberg.
If you’re interested in the history of the American West, you should get ahold of Earle Labor’s new biography, Jack London: An American Life, which I’ve been reading.
I read novels and short stories by London (1876-1916) when I was a kid, but didn’t think much about them. They were adventure stories, with animals as the main characters. The two I remember best are about dogs: The Call of the Wild (1903), about a dog named Buck is stolen in California and taken to Alaska, where he learns to survive as a sled dog and among wolves; and White Fang (1906), about a dog-wolf hybrid born in the wilds of Alaska, who survives an Indian camp and dog-fighting ring and then is “tamed” and brought to California.
But these were more than adventure stories. The basic conflict in them, between cruel wilderness and soft civilization is the myth of the frontier West and North, played out between tame California and wild Alaska, with dogs as the frontier figures and much as men and women. A violent naturalism characterized London’s writing, like the work of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, showing how urban and natural environments shaped people’s character, often in brutal ways.
London also wrote dystopian fiction, such as The Iron Heel (1908), in which a capitalist oligarchy takes over the U.S., and a utopian pastoral novel, The Valley of the Moon (1913), where a working class couple leave the city behind, search for farmland of their own, and spend time in an artist’s colony.
London was an urban frontier character and ne’er-do-well in his own right: born and raised in San Francisco and Oakland, a man on the make who worked as an oyster pirate, “rode the rails” as a hobo, sailed the seas on sealing schooners and freighters, spent time in jail, lighted out to the Klondike to make his fortune in gold, wrote sensationalist journalism, traveled with the Japanese army, and used these experiences to create his own legend and persona. He used his fortune to purchase a 1000-acre farm in the Sonoma Valley. It failed economically. Charges of plagiarism dogged him.
An iconic, entrepreneurial frontier life, right? Well, London also was a socialist, a labor activist, a member of the Bohemian Club, and a government employee. He went from being an oyster pirate to arresting his former partners when he took a job with the California Fish Patrol. London had complex views of Asian peoples, for his time. He warned against simpistic “yellow peril” fears; and, building on his international travels, he predicted the rise of Asia, challenges to Western imperialism, and racial wars.
London thus embodied the many and contradictory currents of the frontier West and North of the turn-of-the-century: rural and urban, entrepreneurial and socialist, opportunism and failure. Like many frontier characters, in history and fiction, he lived hard and died young, at 40. In his travels he’d suffered from scurvy and tropical infections, and he’d long abused alcohol and morphine, likely hastening his death.
Earle’s biography is detailed and engagingly written, focusing on the man, not pausing much to analyze London’s writing or views in-depth or to show his significance as a “life and times” biography would do. But the story of the man is fascinating in its own right. As in his writing, London’s own story is the frontier West in its many contradictions and cross-currents.
William Katerberg’s areas of focus are intellectual history, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.