'Wolf': The fantastic true-life story of Jack London
A review of "Wolf: The Lives of Jack London," James Haley's vividly drawn biography of the author of "The Call of the Wild," whose life was at least as adventurous as many of his stories.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Wolf: The Lives of Jack London'
by James Haley
Basic Books, 400 pp., $29.95
If Jack London attracts biographers it is probably because he led the kind of life they can only imagine. It was a short life, which ended at age 40 when his kidneys gave out, ruined by drink and bad medicine. But in his time, London had served as a crewman on a sealing ship, a prospector for gold in the Yukon and a yachtsman in the South Pacific. He had been a cross-country tramp and a socialist agitator. He wrote about all these things, and for a decade he was one of America's most commercially successful authors.
James Haley, the author of "Wolf: The Lives of Jack London," is a mature and accomplished historian, the author of "Sam Houston" (2004). His version of London — one of many — is vividly drawn, and is particularly good on London's early years.
London, writes Haley, was born in 1875, "the illegitimate son of an unbalanced, free-loving spiritualist mother." Raised at the edge of poverty, London quit school after the eighth grade to stuff pickles into jars at 10 cents an hour — about $2.40 in today's money. He bought a boat and stole from private oyster beds. He signed up as a crewman on a sealing ship in the North Pacific and steered it through a typhoon. He wrote about the typhoon and won a prize of $600 in today's dollars — an omen of what he was to become.
He didn't become a writer right away. On the first news of gold he rushed to the Canadian Yukon, a trek that almost killed him. He returned with no gold, but with images and ideas for the stories that made him famous, such as "The Call of the Wild" and "To Build a Fire." Nature was a recurring character in London's stories, and it was a nature that was raw and implacable.
London also fictionalized his experiences of a cruel ship's captain ("The Sea-Wolf"), of tramping ("The Road,") of binging ("John Barleycorn") and of struggling to be a writer ("Martin Eden").
London's writing put him into a circle of Bay Area intellectuals who — despite it being the Edwardian era — partied and hooked up. In his youth, London had the face and body of a Greek god, and he once told one woman that to have sexual morals was to be burdened with "low blood pressure." But London was a serious writer. In "Wolf," Haley tells how London pulled away from this group, decamping with his second wife, Charmian, to a ranch where he could write. His regimen was 1,000 words a day. He wrote for money so that he could support his first wife, their daughters, his mother, himself, his second wife, his ranch and his sailboat.
A biographer could write a 1,000-page book about him. The problem is not finding things to put in but deciding what to leave out. Haley has done a fine job. His book is a compelling story about a man who, after the death of Mark Twain in 1910, was America's most prominent author.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.
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