JackLondon never felt that he got enough meat. When he was seven, he stole a piece from a girl's basket—an incident that he called “an epitome of my whole life.” Although his mother claimed that “he didn't go hungry in our house!” and a childhood friend recalled being served steak during a visit,London insisted that he had been deprived. “It has been hunger, nothing but hunger!” he wrote to a girlfriend at the age of twenty-two. “You cannot understand, nor never will.”
He spent his short life—he died at forty—trying to make people understand. In his writing, which ranged from realist novels to memoirs and science fiction, he became a psychologist and economist of extremity. He was particularly fascinated by the idea of freezing and starving to death. He chose settings where life is hard to sustain—the Arctic, the urban ghetto, the sea, a plague-razed future—and where heroes must defy the odds. Gold prospectors fight against winter, writers against poverty, and dogs against hungry dogs. The focus of his best prose narrows to essential need. A man lost in snow can no longer feel or move his fingers, but can he light his matches if he holds them between the heels of his hands? If an aging boxer were able to afford steak for lunch, would he have the strength to deliver a knockout punch?
There is another question, too: In the absence of money, food, heat, or other necessities, can there be love? The hero of London's best-seller “The Call of the Wild” (1903), who happens to be a dog, does find love, and he expresses it by closing his mouth around one of his master's hands “so fiercely that the flesh bore the impress of his teeth for some time afterwards.” The master recognizes “this feigned bite for a caress,” but, in London's short story “Love of Life” (1905), a similar bite has a darker meaning. A famished man and a sick wolf lie down together, exhausted, after days of mutual stalking. As the man drifts in and out of consciousness, he feels the wolf lick his hand: “The fangs pressed softly; the pressure increased; the wolf was exerting its last strength in an effort to sink teeth in the food for which it had waited so long.”
There are hints in London's writing, however, that love is more likely to flourish amid need. “The very poor can always be depended upon,” he wrote. “They never turn away the hungry.” He was an avowed socialist for most of his life, an allegiance that he struggled to reconcile with his belief that the survival of the fittest shaped human affairs. As Earle Labor relates in his lively and authoritative biography “JackLondon: An AmericanLife” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), London's writing returned again and again to the poverty from which his success as a writer freed him. One of his characters, a right-wing sociology professor, adopts a working-class alias in order to do fieldwork, only to discover that the alias, who brawls and drinks, is so much looser, warmer, and sexually richer that he abandons himself to the identity forever.
The schism in London himself wasn't as crude. It played out over time. He began as a manual laborer and became a landowner and celebrity who lived by his wits. He was a natural who became an artist. Here are the plots of his four best novels, in the order in which he wrote them: a tame dog turns wild; an acclaimed writer becomes a sailor; a wild dog is tamed; a sailor becomes an acclaimed writer. His true self, the variations suggest, was to be found in the transitions.
London was born in 1876, into crisis. His mother was a San Francisco seamstress, piano teacher, and medium, who uttered war whoops when possessed by her spirit control, an Indian chief named Plume. When she told the man she was living with, an astrologer, that she was pregnant, he denied that the child was his. She tried suicide, first by overdose and then by pistol, or at any rate she told the San Francisco Chronicle that she did. The astrologer left town.
The infant Jack was given for nursing to a former slave, Daphne Virginia Prentiss, known as Jennie, who became his lifelong friend. His mother married an acquaintance of the Prentisses named JohnLondon, a carpenter and a Civil War veteran, who provided a new surname. As a boy, JackLondonhad no toys to play with. He was eight before he had a store-bought item of clothing (an undershirt, which he cherished). But Jennie and one of his stepsisters cared for him, and his salvation was the Oakland Free Library, where, in order to multiply the number of books he could check out, he signed up everyone in his family for library cards. He didn't use a toothbrush until he was nineteen.
His mother and the man he thought was his father failed at running a grocery store, failed at raising chickens, and failed at keeping a boarding house. At the age of ten, Jack was put to work delivering newspapers and setting up pins in a bowling alley, and at fourteen he joined the assembly line of a cannery in West Oakland, handing his wages over to his parents. “I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked the hours I worked,” he later wrote. Rebelling, he turned to stealing oysters, which fetched high prices because a monopoly controlled the private oyster beds of San Francisco Bay. To purchase a sloop, he borrowed three hundred dollars from Jennie, who had a steady salary as a nurse. “What she had was mine,” he wrote, recalling her generosity.
The fifteen-year-old London sailed, stole, fought, and drank. “I knew that I was at last a man,” he wrote in “John Barleycorn,” his 1913 memoir of alcoholism, a condition whose early stages he traced to this period. Ashamed of the frugality that poverty had drilled into him, he took to buying rounds for fellow “oyster pirates” as freely as they did for him. “I was deciding between money and men, between niggardliness and romance.” For the rest of his life, even though he became, by Labor's estimate, “the highest-paid author in America,” he had trouble spending within his means.
After a few months, he abruptly switched sides, joining the marine police. They drank as heavily as the pirates did, and one night, while intoxicated, London stumbled overboard. The water was fine; the prospect of drowning struck him as romantic. “I wept tears of sweet sadness over my glorious youth going out with the tide,” he recalled. Shedding his clothes, he swam and let himself drift out to sea until, four hours later, cold, tired, sober, and afraid, he realized that he did want to live after all. A Greek fisherman rescued him.
What he was going to live for, however, was not clear. In “Martin Eden” (1908), London's most autobiographical novel, vocation alights on the sailor hero in the South Seas, where—with a grammar, a dictionary, and a set of Shakespeare—he has been training himself to be worthy of a girl he fell for back in San Francisco: “In splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write!” In real life, London arrived by a zigzag of gruelling labor, near-criminal idleness, and desperate efforts at self-education. He went hoboing. He sailed to Japan and back on a ship that hunted seals. He took a job in a jute mill for ten cents an hour. He wrote an essay about a typhoon in the Pacific which won a prize from a San Francisco newspaper. He shovelled coal for the electric company, exhausting himself and damaging his wrists, and was outraged to discover that he had been hired to do the work of two men. He concluded that “manual labour was undignified, and that it didn't pay,” and went hoboing again. He joined a labor protest, from which he stole some of the donations offered by sympathetic locals. In June, 1894, at the age of eighteen, he was arrested for vagrancy outside the town of Niagara Falls and sentenced to thirty days in prison.
He survived because, he wrote, “I am a fluid sort of an organism, with sufficient kinship with life to fit myself in 'most anywhere.” On the train to the penitentiary, still in handcuffs, he split his tobacco with a muscle-bound con in his late thirties, who took London under his wing. He smuggled London's possessions past the guards, saw to it that he was spared hard labor, and cut him in on a racket that embezzled prisoners' bread and sold it back to them. “Certainly there should be some reward for initiative and enterprise,” London deadpanned.
London wrote that he witnessed “unprintable” and even “unthinkable” things while in prison. Were any of them sexual? How platonic, for that matter, were his friendships with other sailors, pirates, and hoboes? Labor is noticeably less interested in the question than earlier biographers have been, but the historian George Chauncey has classified sailors, prisoners, and hoboes at the turn of the twentieth century as belonging to a distinctive “erotic system” of underground homosexuality, andLondon seems to have been aware of it. He dedicated “The Road” (1907), his memoir of this time, to Josiah Flynt, the author of the essay “Homosexuality Among Tramps.” “Every tenth man practices it,” Flynt wrote. A young hobo who offered his sexual favors was known as a “prushun,” a “kid,” or a “lamb”; an older hobo who took advantage was a “wolf” or a “jocker.” Though London was called Sailor Kid and 'Frisco Kid when he first started riding the rails, he insisted that “I was never a prushun, for I did not take kindly to possession”; in 1911, when a bisexual sent him a hint-filled letter,London replied that he was “prosaically normal.” Still, he had an eye for male beauty (“I have never seen one who stripped to better advantage,” he wrote of an illiterate coal shoveller whose bunk he shared in England), and he is reported to have said that sex between men isolated from women is “a perfectly natural result of a natural cause.”
At the age of nineteen, he began high school, taking a janitorial job in the school at the same time. In a burst of reading, he realized that he was a socialist. “Awake!” he wrote, for the high-school paper. “Seize the reins of a corrupted government and educate your masses!” The San Francisco Examinerprinted a speech of his, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled him as a “boy socialist,” and he joined the Party. Later, he even wrote a science-fiction novel, “The Iron Heel,” about socialists who overthrow a plutocracy, which they define as the wealthiest 0.9 per cent of America's population.
London crammed years of high school into months, in part by limiting sleep to five hours a night. In the fall of 1896, he enrolled as a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley. A classmate recalled that a boxer on the varsity team was appalled by London's street-fighting ways. Money was tight, and he withdrew during his second semester. For a few weeks, he wrote poems, political essays, and fiction for as many as fifteen hours a day, as if on a self-imposed factory schedule. He then took a job in a school laundry, where, as the hero of “Martin Eden” says of a similar job, “all that was god-like in him was blotted out.”
It was his last stint of conventional employment. In July, 1897, news spread that gold had been discovered in the Klondike, a region in northwestern Canada. Prospecting was finders keepers, like oyster piracy—but legal. It involved a long, dangerous journey with rough men, like hoboing—but with a chance of fabulous wealth. Luckily for London, gold fever struck not only him but also his stepsister's sixty-year-old husband, who purchased ship fare, clothes, and equipment for both men. To prevent foolhardy prospectors from starving, the Mounties were refusing to let travellers cross the border unless they had a year's supply of food, and the brother-in-law was also willing to pay for their “grubstakes.” London contributed reading matter, including Milton and Darwin, for the cabin-bound winter.
“I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” London declared. He netted just four dollars and fifty cents' worth of gold dust, but he also brought back the raw material for a fictional world. Returning to California in the summer of 1898, London now read and wrote for nearly nineteen hours a day. He made a study of literary form, from Shakespeare to newspaper fiction, though in the end it was his experience of panhandling as a hobo that determined his style. “Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub,” he wrote. In a ledger, he recorded where he sent his stories and essays, as well as the copious rejections. By the next year, he had sold a Klondike story for five dollars and a tale about a mad scientist for forty. Six months later, The Atlantic bought a story, and he was off.
In the Klondike, as London reimagined it, nature and capitalism keep strict accounts. Prospectors measure out the days of life remaining to them in cups of flour; an Indian reckons his dwindling hours by the number of sticks he has left to burn; “shirks and chronic grumblers” are punished by being left to one another's company, which dooms them. The injuries that life inflicted on Londonhad left him with contrary urges: he wanted political justice, in the name of all underdogs, but he also admired the invulnerability of overpowering strength. This sometimes led him to idealizations of brute force and fantasies about race that make a modern reader wince. He was drawn to the writings of Herbert Spencer, whose theory of social Darwinism maintained that capitalism was cruel in the same way that nature was. By telling stories about animals and near-bestial men struggling for survival in a brutal environment, London made a new range of cruelties and sorrows available to fiction.
The economics of nature and capitalism in London's Klondike don't always align. After all, prospectors hunted for the medium of exchange (gold) often at the expense of something for which there is no substitute (food). In one of his stories, an entrepreneur sees that eggs are selling for fifteen cents a dozen in San Francisco and a dollar-fifty apiece in the Klondike and attempts arbitrage; nature sabotages his scheme, and takes two of his toes. London hints that property needn't, and maybe even shouldn't, be respected. When Buck, the canine hero of “The Call of the Wild,” steals bacon, the narrator comments that the theft shows him as “fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment.”
The prose of some novelists takes on erotic intensity in passages of romance; the prose of others, during moments of self-discovery. In London's case, that kind of intensity comes with descriptions of hardship, labor, and survival. In the opening chapters of “White Fang,” two men ferrying the corpse of a third through the Klondike are shadowed by wolves, which are reminiscent of “children gathered about a spread table and awaiting permission to begin to eat.” After one of the men falls, the survivor becomes fascinated by the “cunning delicacy” of his own fingers—by the subtlety of the mechanism that, for the wolves, would be merely so much protein. It's an ingenious and suspenseful psychological touch, but a few chapters later London insinuates the reader just as deftly into the mind of a predator. When White Fang, who is part puppy and part wolf cub, crouches in the mouth of the cave where he was born and faces the unknown beyond it, he snarls. “Out of his puniness and fright he challenged and menaced the whole wide world.” White Fang soon learns “the law of meat”: “Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten.” London's genius is to make such generalities vivid and sensuous. It's the excitement of blood, as well as its savor, that Londonconveys when, for the first time, White Fang eats a ptarmigan chick: “There was a crunching of fragile bones, and warm blood ran in his mouth. The taste of it was good.”
London's ability to describe nature richly but plainly foreshadows Hemingway. He is at his best in the dog novels “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” perhaps because an animal's survival is more elemental, perhaps because a dog's love of the master he works for is free of the embarrassment of gender. But some of London's work manages to bring the life-or-death stakes of the animal world to human affairs, such as “To Build a Fire,” the story of a man trying to stave off death by freezing. In “Love of Life,” a starving man enjoys a meal like White Fang's, and with similar gusto: “There were four newly hatched chicks, a day old—little specks of pulsating life no more than a mouthful; and he ate them ravenously, thrusting them alive into his mouth and crunching them like eggshells between his teeth.” Even “Martin Eden,” which takes place in the relatively civilized setting of San Francisco, vibrates with animal spirits. When the sailor Martin Eden first sees an oil painting, he dismisses it as a “trick picture,” because the image seems to dissolve when he moves close enough to see the brushstrokes; there is an echo of White Fang's puppy snarl at the unfamiliar.
Though nature may undermine capitalism in the Klondike tales, it doesn't quite overthrow it. White Fang learns “to obey the strong and to oppress the weak”—hardly an ideal of socialism—and, while Buck does join a wolf pack by the end of the book, he also learns how to acclimate himself to work. “A dog could break its heart through being denied the work that killed it,” Buck comes to realize. The paradox, as the critic Jonathan Auerbach has suggested, may represent London's experience of his vocation. When he left manual labor behind to become a writer, he went wild, in the sense that he began to live by an expression of the impulses inside him—a sense that colors his description of Buck's chase of a snowshoe rabbit: “This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame.” But London also developed a fondness for the harness. He imposed a relentless work schedule on himself, and often seemed more concerned with the quantity than with the quality of the writing he produced.
With success came romantic opportunities. In the fall of 1899, London went steady with Elizabeth May Maddern, the fiancée of a late friend, but he was soon bicycling to the house of a Russian-born Stanford student and socialist named Anna Strunsky. “It was as if I were meeting in their youth La Salle, Karl Marx, or Byron,” Strunsky recalled. In the spring of 1900, London intended to propose to Strunsky, but, mysteriously, he proposed instead to the less exciting Maddern, who bore him two daughters. Days before the wedding, he received an invitation to meet Charmian Kittredge—a free-spirited typist who became his mistress a few years later and, eventually, his second wife.
Further complicating the ménage was a bohemian poet named George Sterling, whom London met in the spring of 1901. Sterling introduced London to hashish, and London introduced him to brothels. In the idiom of their friendship, Sterling went by the name Greek, perhaps on account of his classic profile, and London was Wolf. The two boxed, wrestled, and swam together, and one ofLondon's daughters later wrote that she suspected “latent homosexuality.” Labor doesn't mention such speculation, though he acknowledges that London used the word “love.” “I speculate & speculate, trying to make you out, trying to lay hands on the inner side of you,” London wrote to Sterling in 1903. Two years later, the bromance had cooled—“The dream was too bright to last,”London commented—though they remained friends.
London suffered in these years a depression so severe that he took the precaution of giving away his revolver. Perhaps he was upset by his romantic misfortunes: his fumbling of his love for Strunsky, and the necessity of going through a divorce in order to secure Charmian. Or perhaps he was unbalanced by success. In “Martin Eden,” the delay between the act of writing and the reward of social recognition brings alienation, and Martin Eden the person becomes fixated on the idea that “Martin Eden, the famous writer, did not exist.” There may have been a physical component as well, Labor writes—an ailment that London worried “might be cancer or venereal disease.” London's own explanation was that he “had read too much positive science.” He knew too much about “the merciless and infinite waste of natural selection.” If, at root, everything is biology, are altruism and sympathy merely signs of weakness?
In 1905, London relinquished city life, moving with Charmian to the countryside north of San Francisco. Though they had some good times together, something went badly wrong with the last decade of London's life. He wrote steadily and earned prodigiously—by 1913, he was making more than ten thousand dollars a month, nearly a quarter of a million in today's money—but he spent at an even higher rate. A custom-made boat, the Snark, cost more than five times its estimate, and, even so, it leaked. Jack and Charmian intended to sail around the world, but by the time they reached Australia Jack was suffering from a cold, two rectal fistulas, diarrhea, malaria, yaws, and a mysterious illness that swelled his hands and monstrously thickened his fingernails and toenails. They gave up. London also poured money into a ranch in Sonoma County, never profitable in his lifetime, and a mansion, which burned down before it was completed.
And he drank, no doubt a factor in his poor financial judgment. “The uncertainty of the alcohol future depresses me unspeakably,” Charmian wrote in her diary in 1912. Jack in his cups was capable of berating her for not giving him a child. (She had a daughter who died soon after birth and a second pregnancy, which miscarried.) He told one of his daughters that “if I were dying I should not care to have you at my bedside”; she was then thirteen. Even Sterling found him “violent and irritable and unreasonable.”
In his last years, London suffered from gout, pyorrhea, and kidney disease, and, heedless of his doctor's warnings against a high-protein diet, insisted on meals of raw fish and near-raw duck. “Don't forget I'm naturally a meat-eater!” he told Charmian when she remonstrated. A doctor prescribed opiates on account of the pain he suffered from kidney stones, and in November, 1916, he slipped into a coma and died. His last words—said to Charmian the night before—were “Thank God you're not afraid of anything!” The death certificate blamed uremia, and Labor dismisses earlier biographers' speculations of suicide, which he sees as an attempt to “sensationalize.” He draws on reviews of the medical evidence by a doctor and a pharmacist. Neither account rules out an accidental overdose of opiates, however, so there's no medical ground for ruling out an intentional overdose, either.
In one of his last and creepiest stories, “The Red One,” London imagines that an enormous, bright-red metal sphere, a missive from extraterrestrial intelligences, has fallen in the Solomon Islands. Although the natives consider the sphere too holy for outsiders, a scientist sneaks a glimpse. He falls too ill with fever to return to it, though, and, as he languishes in a medicine man's hut, he wonders what the aliens were trying to say. “Had they won Brotherhood? Or had they learned that the law of love imposed the penalty of weakness and decay? Was strife, life? Was the rule of all the universe the pitiless rule of natural selection?” He realizes with regret—or is it relief?—that he's going to die without knowing the answer.
De THE NEW YORKER, 28/10/2013
Fotografía: Jack London en 1903