Jay Williams is the senior managing editor of Critical Inquiry, as well as the editor of Signature Derrida and editor/publisher of seven numbers of the Jack London Journal. His most recent book Author Under Sail: The Imagination of Jack London, 1893-1902 is now available.
I first thought of the title Author under Sail when I was writing my dissertation in the eighties on Jack London’s The Star Rover. I wanted to play with Irving Stone’s title, Sailor on Horseback, and point to the absence of a literary biography. No biography of Jack London—and there are plenty—focuses on London in his principal occupation. Even Earle Labor’s new biography, released just before mine, imagines London as something other than an author, something that I think Labor thinks is grander or larger than life: the American Adam. So, I began with making a list of all works written by him, not in the order of publication, but in the order of composition. And I began to see how complicated his authorial career was. For example, at the beginning of the second volume (now in progress) I look at the sequence of The People of the Abyss, a newspaper report on a new mining building at University of California, Berkeley, The Call of the Wild, and an essay called “Getting into Print.”
All these, he wrote in a period of eight months. I think readers will quickly see why this sequence is significant. First, we see how prolific he was. Second, we see how easily he moved from one genre to the next. Third, if we remember that by this point in his career he was famous and well compensated, we realize he wrote whatever and whenever he wanted, unafraid to tackle the seemingly insignificant daily event as well as the grander sociological study, neither of which would earn him much money. Fourth, and this is more difficult, we can see how each genre influences the other. He writes a newspaper article, and then the first sentence of his next work begins with the line “Buck did not read the newspapers.”
We might know how indebted London was to newspapers for the composition of The People of the Abyss, but we might hesitate to take that first line of The Call of the Wild seriously and probe it deeply if we did not know how much newspaper writing and reading influenced everything he did. That is, to take just one facet, the call of the wild is, of course, the call of the primordial, but would we think that call is opposed to the call of the newspaper boy: Extra! Extra! Read all about it!—if we didn’t know that the continuity of his composition process required it? Or would we think to wonder about the violence of the perhaps most famous phrase in London’s essays—“you cannot loaf after inspiration, you must light out after it with a club”—if we didn’t realize that he wrote that line just after completing a novel with a subsection entitled “The Law of Club and Fang” and with a main character who is beaten into submission with a club? Why does London believe his imagination is something that must be beaten with a club? My book attempts to answer that question.
Given the book’s emphasis on ghosts and spirituality in general, a friend of mine, Chris Gair, once suggested that the title should be Author under Soil. Traditional biographies, if they tackle the presence of ghosts in London’s life, look at his parents’ biographies, specifically, their occupations as mediums and astrologers. This focus solely on the biographical obscures the presence of multitudinous ghosts in his work that beg for release from their epistemological limbo. In story after story, the Northland—that place where London found himself, he says—is pictured as a graveyard, a ghostly landscape filled with dread. Move forward a dozen years or so and we find London saying in his great work John Barleycorn, “Life is ghostland.” We could say that first London showed how the Southland could easily be transported to the Northland. Then he reversed the flow and showed how the Northland infiltrated and consumed the Southland. Having awakened the undead—led in their progression by the great Ghost Dog himself—London could not escape them even in his voyages across the Pacific Ocean.
One of his final stories, “The Red One,” combines the Arctic fear of the dead with the tropical fear of the unknown. Not incidentally, this combination brings together seemingly disparate locales into a concept we now know as the Pacific Rim, and suddenly we realize that London has been imagining and elaborating this concept from the get-go. His first work of art—“Story of a Typhoon”—and his last—Cherry—take place in the Pacific. London prided himself on being an American writer and especially a Californian writer. But no one knew better than he how much California and the West Coast were part and parcel of something larger, both geographically and culturally.
I would be remiss not to say something about his politics. He self-identified as a political writer, and biographies often imagine a rather simplistic trajectory for his career: from Boy Socialist to disillusioned adult. The fact is that every work he produced, from the simplest, most obscure newspaper article to his most famous novel, was written with politics in mind. Even when he resigned from the Socialist Party he was advocating revolution. Biographers tend to read London’s attitudes toward politics in the voicings of his characters. And so Billy Roberts in The Valley of the Moon, for example, becomes a figure of London’s retreat from socialism. But when we realize how much political writing he was engaged in in the final five years of his life, we see the absence in that novel of the kind of politics London actually advocated. He described what doesn’t work: trade unionism, anarchism, political apathy. Far from parroting London’s political beliefs, Billy (and Saxon, for that matter, or Tom, Saxon’s brother, or Bert, their mutual friend) is an unreliable narrator. There wasn’t room aesthetically for London’s views. London may have wanted to farm, but he did it in conjunction with his revolutionary socialist beliefs. Billy and Saxon just want to live a clean, open-air life apart from what they slowly realize is an economic prison. That much they had learned from London, but wanted to destroy that prison and resigned from the party because, like Billy and Saxon, it just wanted to ignore the real problems.
London is an intense and complicated career, and sometimes I wonder if I have done justice to it. But as Saxon says, a good start is better than a dozen bad ones, and I hope the title is a good start. Jack London was first and foremost an author, and his career bears closer scrutiny than the usual lip service paid to his immense, ever-widening popularity. I just hope that the current and historically unprecedented disparity between the rich and the poor make his life and writings even more pertinent, even more popular.