Jack London is dead. Okay, I'm late. He died in 1916 after a mere 40 years among us...or among them.
The review of a new biography of the man, Wolf: the Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley (Basic Books), caught my eye in the Economist. This should not surprise anyone since he has been a favorite writer for many boys, and I was no exception. I had a fondness for those northern adventure books, like Call of the Wild and White Fang. Farley Mowat's Lost in the Barrens was another one I remember well. Later, I moved on to Joseph Conrad. But enough about me.
What struck me about this fellow, London, is that on the one hand he wrote fine adventure novels that continue to thrill the young (they thrill my kids), writing on the basis of his grueling experiences on sealing ships and prospecting in the northern wastes.
Child Labourer, deckhand, gold prospector, hobo, and then forever a writer. And what a writer. Jack London was a hack who knocked out 1,000 words a day. His unceasing output fell into several categories: potboilers, high-calibre adventure novels, journalism (he served as a foreign correspondent for William Randolph Hearst during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05), and political screeds.On the other hand he was totally captive to the intellectual fashions of his day. Does that sound like the literate left you know today? How about the glitterate left?
He was a socialist. But like most socialists, he was happy with capitalism and privilege when it served him personally. Obviously, he wrote and sold books for his own enrichment. I'm fine with that, but it doesn't sound like socialism. The reviewer also notes, however, that "America's most famous socialist...travelled with an "obsequious Oriental valet" and bought yachts while claiming to speak for the working man."
At this point, I began suspecting that he was like so many celebrity leftists, who seem to attach themselves to every fashionable thought and cause. Sure enough. The reviewer tells us, "he was also a 'racialist' who believed in the superiority of the white race." It was popular at the time. What's next, I thought, spiritism and phrenology?
There is no word on phrenology (I may have my era confused on that one), but we learn next that his basket-case of a mother was indeed...a spiritist. Did London embrace it? No word on that either, but it fills out his world along predictable lines.
Like many great artists, however, he suffered much in his short life, and we have his art to show for it. More artists should stick to the craft of entertainment.