Jack London, as he coursed his way through life, lived in fact many lives. His keen desire to flourish pushed him to try on many world-views and lifestyles. Jack’s birth father abandoned London’s mother Flora, forcing her to push Jack, the badge of her shame as she called him, out into an adopted family home. As Flora wandered, almost hunting and gathering male providers, she eventually married John London who while not rich was of stalwart character. When Jack was finally invited back into the family and took on the London name he too became part of this provisional network. He scrounged a living working in factories and as an oyster pirate; later, doing a complete about face, Jack worked as a fisheries constable. In order to be a man among men Jack repressed his life as a precocious student for that of a brawling, drinking sailor.
The adaptation was not successful in his mind since the risks of these lives almost guaranteed incarceration or death. So Jack returned to the work force. Looking toward his fellow workers he realized that to claw oneself out of poverty would take many years and likely, with the amount of work required, result in sickness. Such a realization coupled with a dawning awareness of social evolution and radical thought compelled him to adopt a socialist philosophy, more a spirituality in his case.
Jack joined the minions of under and unemployed in group actions. He was part of a hobo army that rode the rails. Protesting and living the free life led him directly to the jail he was trying to avoid as a young tough earlier. London’s saving grace was a helpful librarian who escorted him into the life of the mind. As hungry as he was for physical sustenance London pursued studies in the hopes of finding a sustainable life in the academy or in writing. Underclass though he was, he disciplined himself learning basic grammar and how to reason adequately.
Life as a student was inspiring but ultimately not successful since his privileged companions and their parents developed a deep envy of Jack’s intellect and put barriers around his success. Jack refused to return to his labouring life at ten cents an hour; instead he became determined to be a writer. He needed life experience first and caught the gold bug ending up in the locale of his famous writings, Alaska. The prospecting life was a failure not unlike his earlier attempts to provide for himself, Flora and her family. This experience however was his means of striking intellectual gold by way of his first writings.
Success did come and it came fast for Jack. He lifted himself from penury to prestige in short order and found himself in a socialist bohemian clutch of writers and artists. The San Francisco literati embraced London. He finally found a life that could sustain him and was suitable to his personality.
Finding such a life did not however satisfy Jack whose family configurations changed as readily as his early attempts at finding the right job. Divorce, scandal and his radical views threatened to undermine his reputation and let in the wolf of poverty through the back door. The pressures of this life led to the same places of addiction and ill health he was fleeing from all his life. His relationships suffered. He was, like his mother and father before him, propelled to self-destruction, and in his case an early death. Worn out and addicted, London ultimately faced what he called his noseless enemy: death.
Wolf: The Lives of Jack London is an impressive biography that reveals the drive, creativity and intellectual strivings of a hungering soul trying to stay alive in order to flourish. Unfortunately so much survival energy was needed that entry into the desired life was denied. There were just too many physical impediments to overcome, and fundamentally a lack of transcendent hope. London’s life ends in a sad jadedness but his fictional work and his dreams of the better life can, if augmented by a powerful hope, lead us beyond tooth and fang toward community and love.