Jack London (1876-1916) enjoyed popular and critical success as a writer during his lifetime. In fact, many historians consider London the original best-selling novelist in American history because his accomplishments occurred during a period when technological advances in printing and communications made this possible for the first time. His books sold well and made him a celebrity with the masses as he preached the twin ideals of rugged individualism and the importance of banding together in common cause. Think of his most famous novels, The Call of the Wild, Sea-Wolf, and Martin Eden as well as short stories like To Light a Fire for famous examples of these themes.
London preached socialism while becoming rich, running on the Socialist platform for mayor of Oakland several times. This contradiction was well-noted during his lifetime by notables such as Mark Twain, but London managed to lose his fortunes through bad investments and personal squandering. When this happened, London would just embark on writing another book or taking on other business ventures. He was prolific. He published more than 50 books during his short lifetime as well as endorsing commercial products, such as grape juice and men’s suits.
However, London was born into poverty. His fiction drew on his early adventures as a sailor and as a gold prospector in Alaska where he first sought his fortune. When London was 21-years-old, he discovered that the man he thought was his father was merely his step-father and his biological father wanted nothing to do with him. His birth mother was by all accounts, including London’s own, a cruel, cold person. He received parental love from his wet nurse, a black woman and former slave, who later gave London the money to buy his first boat and remained a loyal family friend throughout his days. He dedicated several of his books to her.
As a socialist, London was well aware of the ills of colonialism and imperialism. His first hand experiences with black people and others of color in Hawaii and elsewhere showed him the folly of racism. Yet several of his works seem racist by today’s standards. London’s record on race is mixed. Some of his works depict Anglo-Saxons as imperfect people with a lack of understanding of different cultures that make them bad. Other times he depicts those not of the white race as embodying the negative stereotypes commonly ascribed to them in the popular press.
Jeanne Campbell Reesman’s new biography of London tries to tease through these many threads of London’s writings and explain his attitudes. She does a good job of describing the context of his times. London was a product of his age where attitudes toward race were the subject of much intellectual debate. It was a time when phrases like “Manifest Destiny” and “Great White Hope” had currency in the discussions of the day. Reesman analyzes the bulk of London’s work to show the complexity of his vision.
But there lies an inherent paradox in Reesman’s endeavor. London spoke to the common person. His books were popular with the masses. Reesman writes an intellectual treatise whose language may only be understood by academics. The book is published by a university press and Reesman’s prose is didactic at best. Her sentences are dense and paragraphs impenetrable to the common reader. She clearly writes for other scholars rather than the mass audience.
This is a shame because London’s achievements are no longer prized as they once were. His writings are no longer part of the canon of American literature taught in high schools and colleges the way they used to be because London’s racial attitudes are not always politically correct. Indeed, London was a champion of woman’s suffrage and equal rights, but his manly fictions about boats and prospecting have made him seem sexist because there are so few woman in his prose.
“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well,” London once wrote. History seems to have dealt London a bad hand as he’s now best remembered as an adventure story writer meant for Boy Scouts and teen naturalists. Reesman knows better. Her detailed explications of London’s life and writings reveal the complicated and radical thought behind his fiction. Unfortunately, few outside of the academic world are likely to read this book. And despite Reesman’s best efforts, most readers will come to the conclusion after reading her work that London’s racial attitudes are, well, “complicated”.