July 3, 2005

AN APPRECIATION: Jack London, Brain Merchant

Look: We could spend a lot of time debating Jack London. God knows the pseudo-scholars have, when they haven’t merely ignored him, hoping he’d fade away.

We could devote precious hours to sitting around in circles (not to mention talking around in circles) about Jack London’s Socialist and Utopian politics, about his Nietzschean and Freudian philosophies. We could write papers – condemning or defending or both (don’t laugh: one cannot delve too deeply into London-abilia before standing ankle-deep in such published blather) – about his portrayal of women, men, Indians, Caucasians and, of course, dogs. We could analyze, scrutinize and pulverize Jack London’s treatment of masculinity and morality, his approach to sexuality and spirituality, and (the all-time favorites of English Majors Who Know Just Enough Psychology To Be Dangerous) his relationship with his father.

But then we’d be wasting time not reading Jack London’s stories. And his stories are well worth reading because Jack London was one of our country’s great storytellers.

Jack London’s full name was John Griffith London. He was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco – and he lived dozens of extraordinary lives before his death a mere 40 years later. He left school when he was 14 years old, tackling an assortment of odd jobs: in a cannery, a jute mill, a laundry and a power plant; working first as an oyster pirate, then “jumping ship” to become a member of the Fish Patrol in San Francisco Bay. When he was 17, he shipped out to Japan, hunting seals. By the time he was 21, he was back in North America, heading up to the Klondike for the Gold Rush of 1897. Once there, he soon decided to abandon manual labor and instead become what he called a “brain merchant,” a writer.

London began as a so-called regionalist, writing stories that took place in the Yukon and often featured Malemute Kid as his central character. His yarns became enormously popular with readers and tremendously profitable for their author. With such tales as “To Build a Fire” and “The Call of the Wild,” he soon gained wide acclaim, across Russia and Europe as well as throughout the United States. Finally, in 1916, at his home in California, he died of uremia, a form of kidney disease.

Jack London is sometimes dismissed as a not-serious writer, a mere adventure scribe, a plot-spinner for boys. While he freely admitted to often writing for the money (in fact, by some accounts, he died the wealthiest writer of his day) his best writing endures and even obscures the remarkable story of his own life. Born 41 years after Mark Twain, the same year as Sherwood Anderson and 23 years before Ernest Hemingway, Jack London maintains a firm place in our literary heritage, reminding us always to push on, fear not and brave what comes.

Adapted from Michael Burke’s “Braving Jack London,” which appeared in the winter 1998 edition of Sport Literate magazine.


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