I read "The Call of the Wild", by Jack London, a few years ago. It is a profound book. I recommend it highly. It contains pure Biker Blood.
Recently this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Now, based on my previous Jack London experience, I plan on reading "To Build a Fire", then "Jack London: An American Life". After that, to re-read "The Call of the Wild". Life is too short.
The trouble with many literary biographies is the and-then-he-wrote problem. Most writers, after all, lead fairly quiet lives—writing, by its nature, is a solitary profession. Earle Labor doesn't have that problem with Jack London. Far from it. For while London led a short life, it was as filled with adventure as his most famous stories, such as "The Call of the Wild" and "The Sea-Wolf." Mr. Labor—an excellent writer, who knows the London canon backward and forward, brings this most American of authors to vivid life. "Jack London: An American Life" is almost as much fun to read as its subject's best work.
By Earle Labor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 461 pages, $30
Born of uncertain paternity (he took his stepfather's name), London grew up in the Bay area of California, mostly in the poorer sections, and frequented the often lawless docks of Oakland. By the time he was 20, he had worked as an oyster pirate (stealing oysters from privately held beds), served aboard a sealing ship that took him as far as Siberia (and survived a typhoon), been a hobo who rode the rails on the tops of railroad cars, and nearly drowned after an epic drunk. In his autobiographical novel "John Barleycorn," about his lifelong love affair with alcohol, he wrote: "A stiff breeze had sprung up, and the crisp little waves were persistently lapping into my mouth, and I was beginning to swallow salt water. With my swimmer's knowledge, I knew the end was near." Fortunately for London and his millions of readers, a Greek fisherman happened by in the nick of time and rescued him.
After his hoboing landed him in jail for 30 days on a charge of vagrancy, London decided to get an education. An autodidact and a voracious reader, he became a student at the University of California at Berkeley, although he didn't graduate. Instead, he and his brother-in-law joined tens of thousands of other men on the Klondike gold rush of 1897. Mr. Labor's tale of how they got there, hauling in the year's worth of provisions that the Canadian government required for admission, is an epic in itself. London spent nearly a year in the Arctic, suffering from hunger, cold and the endless gloom of night. His diet was so poor that he developed scurvy and lost his four front teeth to it. He found no gold of course; what he did find was literary immortality.
London had begun to write even before his trip to the Klondike. His first published story, in the San Francisco Call, was about the typhoon he had survived off the coast of Japan. This would be his stock in trade for the rest of his writing career, transmuting adventures he had experienced into art.
With "The Call of the Wild," published in 1903, he achieved instant and lasting fame. London had a remarkable affinity for animals, especially dogs, and "The Call of the Wild," about a dog's journey from comfortable domesticity to the head of an arctic wolf pack to legend, is often called the greatest dog story ever told. Consider its last line: ". . . he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of a younger world, which is the song of the pack."
"The Call of the Wild" was a huge best seller and has never been out of print, but London earned only $2,000 from it—the price his publisher paid for full rights. His new fame did bring riches from later work: The first serial rights of "The Sea-Wolf" went for $10,000, easily $150,000 in today's money, in an era without income taxes. Still, it wasn't enough. Although he would become the highest-paid American author of his day, he was chronically in debt.
Afraid to ask the woman he was in love with to marry him, at the age of 26 he settled for another. Not surprisingly, the marriage was a failure. He was soon being chronically unfaithful, and then he fell in love with the woman who would be his second wife, Charmian, a true soul-mate who had, in Mr. Labor's words, "the soul of a rebel."
Even after marriage and fame, London's adventuring didn't cease. Hired by William Randolph Hearst to cover the Russo-Japanese War that broke out in 1904, he managed to get to the front despite Japanese restrictions designed to control the press accounts. He proved so obstreperous that the Japanese government, which considered war correspondents to be under military discipline, ordered him court-martialed—until an official protest from President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded them to merely expel him.
In 1907 he began a voyage around the world in a 42-foot ketch he had ordered built, the Snark (after the vessel in Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark"). The boat, badly constructed and a money pit, nearly sank more than once. But London and Charmian visited not only civilized Hawaii but the distinctly uncivilized Solomon Islands, where headhunters still practiced their trade and tropical diseases, such as the skin-and-bone-destroying yaws, abounded. London spent five weeks in an Australian hospital recovering before heading back to the U.S.
London wrote nonfiction as well as novels and short stories. In 1903, emulating Jacob Riis's "How the Other Half Lives," he went to London to report on conditions in the East End, the most notorious slum in the Western world. But while Riis only reported on conditions in the New York slums, London actually lived in the East End, dressed in rags and sleeping in flophouses.
London had early on become a passionate socialist and labor-union advocate and wrote frequently to argue for reform and lament the inequities of capitalism. Much of his fiction, as well, dealt with such reform topics of the day as child labor. "The Apostate," published by the Woman's Home Companion in 1907 and based on his experiences working in a canning factory when barely in his teens, is considered a classic of social protest.
In 1905 London had bought a 1,000-acre ranch in Sonoma County, Calif. Like the Snark, it was a terrible investment, and London turned more and more to potboilers to keep his head above the ever-rising waters of debt. His drinking, and the toll of his ridden-hard-and-put-up-wet life began to tell. By age 40 he was worn out. He died at the ranch in November 1916 and is buried there, his grave marked by nothing more than a moss-covered stone. Charmian would join him there nearly 40 years later.
Mr. Labor, a professor of American literature at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., is the country's foremost London scholar. He wisely lets London's life and art unfold without judgment. Despite his continuing popularity, London has often been dismissed as a mere writer of boys' tales. But at his best he is among the greatest writers that this country has produced. If you want proof, just read his short story "To Build a Fire" and then read this terrific book.
—Mr. Gordon is the author of "Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt."A version of this article appeared October 4, 2013, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Write What You Know.</p>