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JACK LONDON by Alex Kershaw


A Life

by Alex Kershaw

Pub Date: Jan. 30th, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-18119-1
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

 Another tame biographer lamely follows the call of Jack London's wild life. Kershaw, like many London biographers, suffers from an anxiety of reference, which started with the subject himself. London's bestselling versions of his life established him as not merely the California-bred, Klondike-hardened creator of the classic boys' adventure stories White Fang and The Call of the Wild, but also a celebrity--adventurer, drinker, sailor, war correspondent, socialist, revolutionary, though never wholly any of these. A self-educated literary Ragged Dick, London found his authorial calling after enduring miserable poverty, factory jobs, and rough living as a wharf rat, oyster-bed raider, and seal hunter. Rising mainly by obsessive determination, he would churn out reams of short stories, muck-raking articles, socialist tracts, and general ephemera before his death in 1924 at age 40. Adding to this voluminous output, his second wife, Charmian, would devote two volumes to him, The Book of Jack London, and his elder daughter by his failed first marriage, Joan, tried to work out their difficult relationship in Jack London and His Daughters, as well as a full-scale biography. Without making any contribution of his own, Kershaw, a contributing editor to GQ, patches together his work from these sources, as well as the two main London biographies, Irving Stone's romantic Sailor on Horseback (1938) and Richard O'Connor's stolid Jack London: A Biography (1964). The result mixes novelistic scenes and reconstructed dialogue with half-digested research and Cliff Notes summaries of London's works. Nowhere is there any real analysis of his contradictory character--the passionate socialist would take yellow journalism assignments from Hearst, his socialism was overshadowed by his social Darwinism--nor any significant attempt, aside from local color, to place him in the context of his wild times. In trying to track down the real Jack London, Kershaw retraces everyone else's footsteps. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen; maps)