A couple of days ago I posted about the appearance of this new Jack London biography (Farrar, Straus, 2013) by my friend and mentor Earle Labor--a project he had been working on for decades. I also explained my background with Earle--our initial meeting in 1990, our ensuing friendship, his help with my own Jack London publications. And--as I also wrote last time--I finished reading the book over this past weekend and wanted to say just a few things about it--some obvious, some not so.
- The organization is very conventional and "reader-friendly": He begins with London's birth in 1876, ends with his death in 1916, barely forty years later. Throughout, Earle's purpose (similar to London's in his own writing) is to be transparently clear--and he is. Just about any moderately educated, curious reader will be able to charge through Jack London with very few problems.
- Earle is a literary scholar of the first order, but he reins in that sort of scholarship (though its shadows are evident everywhere) and seems to have adopted as a guiding principle: What do readers want--and need--to know about Jack London? The literary scholarship is easily available elsewhere (much of the best is in Earle's own books), and he figured--correctly, in my view--that general readers are not principally interested in literary movements and literary analysis. There is some (especially concerning London's late-life love affair with Jung) but nothing whatsoever that impedes reading--or will cause folks to skip paragraphs or even chapters. He does focus at times on the composition of the books. For example, when did he write The Sea-Wolf? What were his working conditions? What was he trying to do? How was the book received? That sort of thing.
- The Jack London you'll discover in these pages is a human being--not a saint, not a flawless vessel. Earle points out his infidelities, his failures as a father, his varieties of intransigence, his lack of commitment to some of his works (some--many?--of which he wrote principally for the money), his inability to live within his means. And on and on. We also see his virtues, of course--his loyalty to his friends, his affection for his second wife (Charmian), his great ideas, his ambitions, his ferocious work ethic, and the like.
- The book is full of new insights and information--and corrections of the sorts of misinformation that has filled careless biographies of London, practically from the very beginning. It's like re-reading a story you read long ago--a story whose outline you can remember--maybe a few details. And then, re-reading, you see the story again in all its original clarity. Well, in some cases, the "original clarity" was not ever really there; Earle provides it here. He addresses/destroys the suicide story ignited by Irving Stone in his biographical novel Sailor on Horseback (1938), and to every major event in London's life--e.g., his struggles to become a writer, his relationships with women, his failed attempt to circumnavigate the globe in The Snark, the building and loss of his dream house (Wolf House--whose ruins still stand in Glen Ellen, CA), his attempts to create an ideal ranch--he adds fresh information--and illuminates the old--in ways that bring London to life once again, even for a recovering London-freak like me.
- I am extraordinarily flattered that Earle mentioned me in the acknowledgements--and in his notes and bibliography. (This is a reason I knew I could not review the book for a newspaper or magazine: I'm biased!)
As I wrote the other day, no one will ever again know what Earle Labor has spent a professional lifetime unearthing. But now ... we have Jack London: An American Life, the best London biography--by far--and a legacy whose significance is impossible to overstate--in London world, in American letters.