Book Review: Wolf, The Lives of Jack London-4/19 Reverse Spins, by William C. House ---
Wolf, The Lives of Jack London, by James L. Haley; Basic Books. $29.95.
This ranks as one of the best books ever written about Jack London—believe me, I've read most of them. Alex Kershaw (Jack London, A Life) did a fine job as well. But this book captures the essence of the man, the flaws as well as the largesse that burned brightly at a most interesting time in American history. The title says it all—Jack London packed more lives in 40 years than most of us see in several. And as the author says, he is probably the most misunderstood writer in American history. You may only know him as a writer of boys adventure tales; rather, his life was filled with contrast, ups and downs, a thrilling roller coaster ride seen in retrospect. He was born in 1877 in poverty, missing out on most of his childhood at ten cents an hour, only to eventually rise as the highest paid writer in America. His mother was a spiritualist, channeling an Indian warrior named "Plume," frequently giving war whoops during seances to the everlasting chagrin of a young Jack London. His father was a somewhat famous astrologer who never acknowledged that he was the father. London once described his religion as atheist but he wrote a book about reincarnation late in life and even read Blavatsky's "The Secret Doctrine." At age 15 he borrowed $300 from his black former wet-nurse nanny and bought his first boat, a 14 ft. sloop inheriting a two man crew including Mamie, a slightly older free-spirited lass and soon an intimate of the "Prince of the Oyster Pirates." They stole oysters from the rail road in the bay off Oakland, a reputable occupation at the time since the government unfairly took away fishing rights from the locals. Seeing the writing on the wall, he then switched sides and joined the Fish Patrol to stop pirating. At the too young age of 17, he signed on as an accomplished sailor on a sealing schooner. He had to prove himself constantly against hardened seaman and a bloody brutish job. Back in the States he tramped cross country with a hobo army. On his way to find gold in the Yukon, he lugged a half ton of provisions, 100 lbs at a time, up the Chilkoot Pass by himself, on his back. On the opposite side, he navigated white waters that killed countless prospectors before him. The privations he went through trying to become a writer once back in the bay area is a lesson for all who aspire so. In fact, he wrote a semi-autobiography about it called Martin Eden that many writers including Irving Stone say inspired them to become writers. He went undercover as a homeless person in London, England, writing about the terrible conditions in The People of the Abyss. In The Iron Heel, he wrote about an oligarchy taking over America which comes to fruition in 1984. Forty years later a young Englishman would be influenced by this book. His name was Eric Arthur Blair, but you may know him by his pen name: George Orwell. He was a dogged war correspondent in Japan and Korea for Hearst, where it toook the President's intervention to get him freed from a Japanese jail. He warned America 35 years before Pearl Harbor to be wary of the Japanese. He was a socialist when it meant something different at the turn of the century but always the ardent capitalist in his personal life. He was a bohemian long before Kerouac and the hippies. He was a member of the Bohemain Club on the Russian River way before it became infamous. He built a beautiful boat called the Snark and planned to sail around the world with his wife Charmian and a small crew. Various tropical diseases in the South Seas made him abandon the trip. He introduced Hawaii and surfing to the American public. His "Beauty Ranch" in Sonoma County imported Asian terraced farming techniques coupled with organic farming. Luther Burbank was his friend and consultant on growing exotic things. He built California's most spectacular mansion at the time, with a large reflecting pool in the middle. The entire house was made of redwoods and red lava blocks—sitting in the middle of a redwood grove. The day it was finished, it burned down in the middle of the night. He was devastated. He covered the Mexican revolution along with a NY Times reporter. They both decided the Pancho Villas weren't any better than those in charge on the opposite side. The American Socialist Party vilified him for it. He resigned from the Socialist Party. The list goes on. . . . The Call of the Wild only scratches the surface of the man. You get the idea. It's a well written and entertaining book and a life worth pondering. Editor