An American Life
By Earle Labor
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374178482, 480pp.)
Publication Date: October 1, 2013
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A revelatory look at the life of the great American author—and how it shaped his most beloved works
Jack London was born a working class, fatherless Californian in 1876. In his youth, he was a boundlessly energetic adventurer on the bustling West Coast—an oyster pirate, a hobo, a sailor, and a prospector by turns. He spent his brief life rapidly accumulating the experiences that would inform his acclaimed bestselling books The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf.
The bare outlines of his story suggest a classic rags-to-riches tale, but London the man was plagued by contradictions. He chronicled nature at its most savage, but wept helplessly at the deaths of his favorite animals. At his peak the highest paid writer in the United States, he was nevertheless forced to work under constant pressure for money. An irrepressibly optimistic crusader for social justice and a lover of humanity, he was also subject to spells of bitter invective, especially as his health declined. Branded by shortsighted critics as little more than a hack who produced a couple of memorable dog stories, he left behind a voluminous literary legacy, much of it ripe for rediscovery.
In Jack London: An American Life, the noted Jack London scholar Earle Labor explores the brilliant and complicated novelist lost behind the myth—at once a hard-living globe-trotter and a man alive with ideas, whose passion for seeking new worlds to explore never waned until the day he died. Returning London to his proper place in the American pantheon, Labor resurrects a major American novelist in his full fire and glory.
Earle Labor is the acknowledged major authority on the novelist Jack London and the curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport. He is also Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Centenary College of Louisiana.
Praise for Jack London: An American Life: “A lively and authoritative biography.” —Caleb Crain, The New Yorker“Labor is the world’s foremost Jack London scholar. His working-class background and deep erudition make him the right man to chronicle the life of this most popular American author. Now curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center and emeritus professor at Centenary College in Louisiana, Labor has produced what will most likely remain the authoritative biography for generations to come . . . If you want to acquaint yourself with the writer whom much of the rest of the world equates with Melville, Hemingway and Faulkner, then begin with Labor’s elegantly written, thoroughly researched and steel-eyed biography. He fills in the gaps between London’s impoverished youth, rise to fame and untimely death at the age of 40—in brilliant and plain prose that does honor to London himself.” —Eric Miles Williamson, The Washington Post“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 . . . 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.” —John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal
“[A] first-rate literary biography . . . [an] authoritative new life of Jack London (1876-1916) . . . Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life doesn’t take away any of its subject’s glamour or fascination. To the contrary. The book is not just definitive, as one would expect from the major London scholar of the past fifty years, it is also exceptionally entertaining . . . As Earle Labor makes clear in his fine biography, Jack London was a remarkable man and a writer of impressive variety, richness, and accomplishment.” —Michael Dirda, Virginia Quarterly Review
“What a life. What a man. What a book. Only superlatives can describe this definitive biography of the nation’s most popular and successful novelist of the early 20th century . . . Earle Labor has devoted much of a lifetime to the study of London and his works and has given us a book so meticulous in its fast-moving detail that the reader feels he is almost at London’s side . . . Biographer Earle Labor summarizes Jack London succinctly: ‘… few writers mirror so clearly the American Dream of success and the corollary idea of the Self-Made Man.’” —Pete Hannaford, The Washington Times“Earle Labor’s new book about London, subtitled ‘An American Life,’ is an obvious labor of love (no pun intended). As curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport, La., and professor emeritus of American literature at Centenary College of Louisiana, Labor is the acknowledged national authority on the life and work of London. Labor’s work was graced by personal friendships with London’s two daughters, Joan and Becky, as well as his own discovery of Charmian London’s personal diaries in a safe at the ‘Cottage’ in Sonoma, Ariz.—diaries that London’s wife herself called ‘disloyal’ because of their intimate frankness. To these new sources were added a number of previously undiscovered London letters and discussions with the descendants of London’s bohemian friends in the Bay Area . . . Labor sets out to ‘neither maximize nor minimize’ [London’s faults] but only to accept London on his own terms as a natural-born seeker; a gifted artist of exceptional intelligence, sensitivity and personal charisma; a man driven by a Nietzschean outlook on life at a time when literature was stuck between Victorian romanticism and the modernism that wouldn’t be born until after the First World War . . . Labor’s book recalls the man himself with great charm of manner.” —Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle “[Jack] London scholar Labor extracts every drop of excitement, folly, romance, ‘creative ecstasy,’ grueling effort, and despair from the vast London archives, including the relentless press coverage of him . . . Labor’s unceasingly vivid, often outright astonishing biography vibrantly chronicles London’s exceptionally daring and wildly contradictory life and recovers and reassesses his complete oeuvre, including many powerful, long-neglected works of compassionate, eyewitness nonfiction. Let the Jack London revival begin.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist“[Labor’s book is a detailed, almost page-turning biography of London’s life . . . But Labor . . . offers much more than straight biography: he depicts London’s writing habits, which jibe with the autobiographical fiction . . . Labor’s details—London in elementary school, London drinking alcohol, London at sea, and so on—reveal the writer in life asserting his life as a writer. Labor verifies what happened, blow by blow, and what happened in London’s life because the fiction that only he could write . . . Highly recommended.” —A. Hirsh, American Library Association
“At long last, Jack London gets the authoritative biography he so richly deserves. Earle Labor is the true-blue dean of London studies. This portrait is brilliantly researched, elegantly written, and brimming with new facts about the brave author of The Call of the Wild. Highly recommended!”
—Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and author of Cronkite
“There was a time—before the Great War and the frontier’s closing drove the creative spark inward—when American novelists launched the reader off into unfettered narratives as raw, brawny, explosive, and drenched in gritty personal experience as the nation that inspired them. Jack London was among the last of the great ones. Now comes London’s London, the biographer
Earle Labor, to turn the light of truth-telling back upon this magnificent half-forgotten outlaw of our literature.” —Ron Powers, author of Mark Twain: A Life
“Not so long ago, Jack London was considered a literary titan and a great American hero akin to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway—as famous for his wild adventures as for his bestselling books. Earle Labor’s eloquent, deeply researched biography has brought London and his fascinating world back to life in all its vivid, colorful detail. This will stand as the definitive biography of London for many years to come.” —Debby Applegate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
“In Jack London: An American Life, Earle Labor sifts through the myths of London’s self-invented ‘American Kipling’ persona to reveal a remarkable and at times remarkably frustrating man. London was famously charismatic, but to those closest to him, he could be vindictively cruel. He was ambitious and productive—he published 50 books before he was forty, Call of the Wild when he was only 27, and wrote 1,000 words every day without fail—but was also a depressed and self-destructive alcoholic. He may have even been bipolar. Despite being the best-selling author of his day, London was constantly broke, often writing to pay his debts. He was an adventurer and thrill seeker, but also an ardent radical socialist. Labor captures all these facets of his, as his wife Charmian put it, ‘kaledoscopic personality,’ while still conveying his remarkable talent and obsessive self-improvement. The London in An American Life is as fascinating for his turmoil and dysfunction as he was in his time for his globetrotting and adventuring.” —Thomas Flynn, The Daily Beast“Earle Labor, a scholar whose academic career focused on the life and works of Jack London, has written an exceptionally well-documented, and, if there is such a thing, authoritative biography of one of America’s great writers . . . Labor, a professor emeritus of American literature at Centenary College of Louisiana and curator of a Jack London research center there, draws heavily from letters and diaries to tell London’s life story in rich detail, with much attention to his declining health even as London pursued his final adventures. This biography is well-written, though not a breezy narrative, and should be satisfying to anyone who loved reading London’s books.” —David Shaffer, The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis) “[A] loving biography of the writer . . . Recognized as the dean of Jack London studies, Labor has been an active London scholar for 60 years, has edited volumes of his stories and letters, and curates the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana . . . Labor’s effort is likely to be as definitive a treatment as anyone needs . . . Earle Labor leads us skillfully through the many ‘stories’ that constituted London’s life: working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an ‘oyster pirate’ on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands.” —William H. Pritchard, The Weekly Standard
“In this comprehensive account, more richly detailed than any prior biography of Jack London, Earle Labor debunks common myths. This is a London revealed by his personal writings, along with accounts from those who knew him best. Labor’s crisp prose quotes extensively, allowing the reader to interpret the full character of this noted writer, rancher, and traveler. In placing London within the context of the tumultuous Progressive Era, Labor further explains the contradictory choices and beliefs of this complex individual. The result limns a portrait of a brilliant, creative, sensitive yet self-assured man who died prematurely, on the cusp of still greater offerings.” —Clarice Stasz, author of Jack London’s Women
“This engrossing biography paints a sympathetic (though not uncritical) portrait of London’s dynamic ambition and energy. Born in San Francisco in 1876 to an impoverished single mother, London (White Fang) took up factory work to support his household while still a child, and by age 18 had worked as an oyster pirate, sailor, and rail-riding hobo. Omnivorous reading and sporadic education fueled his desire to write, and a year spent surviving the Yukon Gold Rush (1897–1898) provided him with inspiration for his earliest nonfiction and fiction. As rendered by Labor (The Portable Jack London), London’s official biographer and curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, La., London was a complex and often contradictory individual—a writer who turned every experience into literary fodder; who disciplined himself to produce 1,000 words per day; and whose by-his-bootstraps lifestyle fueled his devotion to socialism and social justice. But London’s enthusiasms also had their dark side: he was a reckless spendthrift who had to churn out mountains of copy for pay to stay ahead of his creditors; he was an incautious celebrity whose public exploits often made him tabloid fodder; and he was a free spirit who could be self-destructive at times. Here, London emerges as a rugged adventurer with a soft heart, and a larger-than-life character who might have figured as the hero in one of his own brawny bestsellers.” —Publishers Weekly
“[Jack London] may prove the definitive biography of the sailor-adventurer-prospector turned rancher-author . . . The biography delivers a riveting portrait of his subject, drawing on letters and reminiscences of brawls and drinking incidents from London’s youth . . . The incidents in London’s life are delivered in a literate, colorful and compelling manner . . . The new work further cements Labor’s place, and Shreveport’s, in the world of Jack London studies. A fixture at the local college more than 50 years, Labor’s efforts and scholarship and the largesse of the late alumnus-trustee Samuel Peters brought to Centenary the Jack London Research Center, drawing students, scholars and Londonistas from around the globe.” —John Andrew Prime, The Shreveport Times
“I rarely read biographies such as this—accurate, gripping, written like an adventure book but always with an understated sense of reality that reminds the reader this really happened.” —Davide Sapienza, Italian translator of Feltrinelli’s edition of Call of the Wild
“Quite a few books have been published recently about Jack London’s fabulous life, but Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life is undoubtedly the definitive biography. Written by the internationally acknowledged maestro of Jack London studies, the book demonstrates both the detailed scholarly documentation and the intelligent empathy with London’s complex mindset that one has missed in previous biographies (which, incidentally, have also been vitiated by sensationalist canards about London’s alleged drug addiction, homosexuality, and suicide).” —Per Serritslev Petersen, University of Aarhus, Denmark “A highly sympathetic, knowledgeable portrayal strives to correct the ‘caricature’ of this dynamic, brief life. Having tracked his subject’s career since his scholarly research on London in the 1960s, Jack London Museum curator Labor . . . is an ideal biographer to capture the dazzling spirit and adventures of the acclaimed American author . . . As Labor fondly delineates, London did live large, seeming to be in a terrible hurry, starting with his childhood digestion of stories by Washington Irving, Poe, Stevenson and Kipling. He crammed his higher education into a few months and then restlessly took off again for the high seas, writing and speaking widely on socialist issues involving exploitation of the workers and social justice, diving into passionate love affairs and embarking on South Pacific adventures in his custom-made boat. All the while, London wrote like a fevered soul—1,000 words per day without fail—following what he called ‘the spirit that moves to action individuals and peoples, which gives birth and momentum to great ideas.’ Labor grasps the fire and fight of this most American of authors. A vibrant biography that will surely entice readers back to the original source.” —Kirkus
“[Labor’s] affectionate, meticulous and beautifully written Jack London: An American Life . . . [is] the definitive biography of the iconic ‘American Kipling.’” —Tom Lavoie, Shelf Awareness
“If any biography [of Jack London] is definitive, it is probably Labor’s . . . Jack London lived to the fullest, saying, ‘We only live once, and we’ll be dead a long time.’ People will be reading him, and about him, for a long time.” —Bruce Ramsey, The Seattle Times