By Gerald Hausman
Bokeelia, FL, USA
Before there was Hemingway, there was Jack London. As iconographic heroes of a new age of literature, realism, these two major authors mirror one another. The difference is that London wrote during the Gilded Age and into the beginning of the "Modern Age" while Hemingway was a member of the Lost Generation of the 1920s.
There are other differences. Hemingway, as most of us know, lived until 1961 and died of a gunshot wound at the age of 62. Jack London, his body all but worn out at age 40, died of renal failure. Both men were larger than life, they dared to live beyond the conventional boundaries of discretion. They were avatars of a new prose – not just realistic warriors of outdoor adventure writing, but commanders of a brand new language. They brightened a dull landscape of popular writing full of cliches and time-worn tricks of the trade. They brought readership to people who seldom read books.
So much for the iconographic similarities. Jack London came first and undoubtedly Hemingway learning something from him as well as from Sherwood Anderson whom he much admired. What makes London so admirable as a writer is that he in a sense was the earliest American writer to reach so large an audience. And yet his work was unmistakably "literature" not just popular journalism.
I have read nearly all of the biographies of Jack London, and all of them are worth reading, but none so fires the imagination as Jack London: An American Life. For one thing it corrects many of the famous London myths and it portrays him as an early victim of poverty leading to his hard won achievement of the American Dream. He was the high watermark for the Dream, the original self-made man, the "rugged individualist" touted by Teddy Roosevelt. And yet, somewhat ironically, London believed in helping the common man through social measures and was a socialist.
He was nothing if not a contradiction. The constancy was his impeccable prose. I taught his novels in the classroom for many years. Sadly, I saw some of them stay just out of reach of my students. London, as a product of his times, seemed out of sync with our times, my students said. But every one of these recalcitrant readers read the collected short stories.
I captured my students with "To Build a Fire" and kept their interest with the South Sea tales. London's meteoric rise as a short story writer sustained him here and in Europe. In Europe his socialist writings were also popular and I would suspect so will this book be. Earle Labor's writing is lucid, fun to read, and I believe, extremely accurate. This book reads like a novel. Read it, you'll see what I mean.