Mostly remembered today as the man who wrote White Fang, in his time Jack London was one of the most popular living American authors. He was as celebrated for his wideranging command of styles (adventure stories to science fiction and political polemics) to his wildly wolfish and nomadic lifestyle. London was a heroic striver or sadistic bastard, depending on who you asked. He showed up in last year’s historical gothic horror novel The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates as a bullying alcoholic who appeared able to drink everybody under the table and then write a bestselling novel about it.
In the Weekly Standard‘s review of the new London biography by Earle Labor, William Pritchard notes that London’s prodigious literary output (50 books, 200 short stories, 400 nonfiction pieces) looks so impressive not just due to how swiftly it was delivered (he died at age 40) but to how much life he packed in when not writing:
…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. This is only the beginning of a list that doesn’t include his two marriages, his fathering two children with his first wife Bella, or his periodic intakes of large quantities of alcohol—all the while becoming, by 1915, the highest-paid author in America.
George Orwell called London “A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” which seems to get it about right.