My list of the century's best novels was all but set when I recently picked up a book I'd never heard of, by an author I'd ignored. What a pleasure it was to find I had overlooked a classic: Jack London's Martin Eden. First published in 1909, London's story of a young sailor striving to win love and fame as a writer is a touching portrayal of youthful idealism and its demise. A blistering critique of the magazine trade, it's also one of the best how-to books in American literature.
Since then I've been reading London's works and what others have had to say about them. I had dismissed him in the past as the dog guy, the author of the popular action tales The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf. In fact, his work has always had a huge audience, especially overseas, where today he remains the most widely read American author. Many critics still belittle his literary achievements, but a growing number find his writings a source of fascination, if for different reasons. London has been called a self-taught primitive, a "mythopoeic genius" who, in the words of critic Earle Labor, "often wrote better than he knew." Others say he's been underrated as a serious thinker. They note that few popular writers have been so concerned with the big ideas, both social and scientific, that lie beneath the surface of their entertainments.
Is London another Melville or an early Stephen King? To read his work today is to encounter a literary reputation that's still a work in progress. His status as an American icon, however, has never been challenged. He was one of the first global celebrities and thus a key to understanding the mechanics of modern star making. An early champion of surfing, progressive farming methods, radical politics, the ideas of Carl Jung—and writing for the movies—he's a herald of the California consciousness that over a century has come to dominate American pop culture.
The ties between London's life and his work are complex, as suggested in Jack London: A Life (St. Martin's, 1998), Alex Kershaw's enjoyable biography. Born in San Francisco in 1876, London grew up across the bay in Oakland. His mother was a moody, self-absorbed spiritualist. His biological father, an astrologer, bailed on the family early on and refused to acknowledge London as his son when the young writer later tracked him down. After dropping out of school at 14, London worked a string of jobs, then sailed on a seal-hunting ship across the Pacific. Later, living as a hobo, he ended up in jail for vagrancy—a trauma that figured in his lifelong outrage over the injustices of capitalism. In 1897, he headed to the Klondike in search of gold, only to stagger back to the Bay Area a year later, utterly broke but hell-bent on writing.
His literary career began with a furious period of self-education, vividly portrayed in Martin Eden. Determined to claw his way out of the lower classes with no tool other than a rented typewriter, Martin, London's thinly disguised alter ego, discovers that success will have its price. London never passed up a chance to slam the American bourgeoisie, especially its narrow-minded, sexually fettered daughters. But the overcivilized females of his day were only the most blatant victims of what he saw as a wider malaise.
London was an ardent socialist—though perhaps the most unlikely socialist since Oscar Wilde. His political beliefs are clearly evident in the works he considered among his best: The People of the Abyss (1903), his nonfiction account of life in the slums of London's East End, and The Iron Heel (1908), a bit of grim prophecy masquerading as a novel in which organized labor is crushed by a global capitalist oligarchy. But the books he churned out at a thousand words a day, well or ill, made him lots of money, and he loved to spend it. When he decided to sail around the world with Charmian Kittredge, his second wife and soul mate, he began building a gorgeous boat, the Snark, which became a financial and nautical nightmare. The same bad luck dogged his experimental farm near Glen Ellen, California.
London's misfortune could be partly traced to his fondness for the bottle, which he chronicled in John Barleycorn (1913), an early alcoholic memoir. And yet every disaster also had its silver lining; each became the raw material for his next best-seller—and fuel for the Jack London myth. In Male Call: Becoming Jack London (Duke, 1996), Jonathan Auerbach argues that London's effort to cultivate this romantic persona shaped his entire career. A certain mystery still surrounds London's early death in 1916 at age 40. Poisoned by his failing kidneys, he may or may not have hastened the inevitable with a morphine overdose. "After all," writes Auerbach, "it matters little whether or not he committed suicide, as long as in so sensationally dying, Elvis-style, his name would continue to circulate past his bodily demise. In the end, Jack London still could not resist playing himself."
For modern readers, the most troubling aspect of London's work tends to be his belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority. In The Critical Response to Jack London (Greenwood, 1995), editor Susan M. Nuernberg notes that the rap on London has shifted over the years in curious ways. The critics of his day were mostly blind to his racial chauvinism for the simple reason that they shared it. On the other hand, "many early readers claimed that London was inept at portraying believable female characters whereas most recent critics find him somewhat ahead of his time in portraying the new woman." The "new woman" was a label used in the early 1900s for someone like Charmian, an adventurer (in and out of bed) who could match London's courage step for step.
By showcasing the esteem that London has enjoyed among foreign critics, Nuernberg's survey lends support to the claim that London should be taken seriously as a thinker. Auerbach disagrees. In his view, London may have studied Darwin, Marx, and other heavyweights, but his grasp of their ideas was rarely profound. From this perspective, London's real strength remains that of an action writer, albeit in the sense that Jackson Pollock was an action painter: an artist whose work seethes with raw energy and emotion, thanks in part to his fast and furious (even sloppy) mode of creation.
In my opinion, the best thing about London's work lies dangerously near the worst thing: Both originate in his willingness to confront the scientific ideas of his day and make them part of his private cosmology. Few novelists have tried as hard to peel back the layers of culture, searching for some basic truth about the human animal hidden beneath our socially acquired second skins. In doing so, London anticipated many current interests: evolutionary psychology, for instance, and ethology, the study of animal behavior. At the heart of his work is a very modern understanding that humans are simply another life form, bound like all others to this island in the cosmic sea.
One of the first popular fiction writers to see the poetic beauty in modern scientific thought, he was also one of the last. Even in London's day, the scientist and the novelist had all but lost touch, veering off in search of what they assumed were different things. London had the rare intelligence—and audacity—to realize that both are storytellers seeking the same truth.