THE BLOG

Jack London Mystery Goes On and On

05/04/2015 11:51 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016
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Writers, those lovers of ambiguity and paradox, live nuanced lives. Their biographies ought to be nuanced, too, and should reflect the complexities of their art and their personalities. Jay Williams's Author Under Sail: The Imagination of Jack London, an intensely-argued, analytical work, often feels like a movie that's shot just in close-ups with the camera focused on London himself and on the immediate circle of friends and editors who gathered around him.

An avalanche of words and details nearly buries the reader and flattens the narrative. Williams himself has a habit of disallowing nuances. Instead, he insisted that with Jack London it's all or nothing. "Jack London is not representative of his literary generation," he writes. Further on he explains, "He did not write books in order to become a name. He did it to retain and expand his humanity." A bit further on he insists that London "consciously rejected European and East Coast models of authorship." Couldn't he have rejected and accepted at the same time? And couldn't he have written for fame and also to find his own humanity? That would seem so.

It's only near the end of his book that Williams begins to make the kinds of connections that make for intriguing reading. "He wants to write for money so that he doesn't have to write for money," he explains of Jack London, who made a small fortune as a writer at the start of the twentieth century and then spent a fortune in the same period on machines, yachts, houses, books.

Born in San Francisco in 1876, the bastard son of a young woman who ran away from home and her common law husband, London has long been a mysterious figure to his biographers and critics in large part because he never came clean about his birth and his origins, though they influenced everything he did and said and thought. He wrote a story about a dog named Bâtard, using the French spelling, as though to be discreet and insinuated his own life into his canine character.

No author was more a product of his time than London and no author was more of an outlaw and rebel who went against the American grain. Ever since Georgia Loring Bamford, a close friend, wrote The Mystery of Jack London in 1931, those who have explored the work and the life of London have either recycled the mysteries or denied the existence of any mystery at all. That's what Earle Labor does in his hefty 2014 biography, Jack London: An America Life that covers London's polyphonic existence, from birth to death, with amusing anecdotes all along the way. The book was widely reviewed, from The New Yorker to The London Review of Books and sold well, too, which means that Jay Williams will face an uphill battle to make his book known. Moreover while London scholars may well turn to Author Under Sail, it seems unlikely that it will reach a large audience if only because it's 600 pages and only exhumes the nine years, from 1893 to 1902 when Jack London served his apprenticeship as an author.

Williams seems to be unsure how he feels about London, and unaware that he has uncertainties. At one point he writes that London "did not fully understand the symbolic nature of language." That sounds like harsh criticism. Who does have full understanding? Williams himself? At another point, Williams insists that, "As a writer, even as a newspaper writer, he was always unsure of his relationship with his audience." There he goes again with words with words like "always" that don't allow for nuances.

Author Under Sail excels when it suggests, implies, and gives impressions. Williams never once mentions Sigmund Freud and his theories, though Author Under Sale offers a blatantly Freudian interpretation of Jack London, the author whose biological father abandoned him and whose mother married John London the Civil War vet who became Jack's father. At the very end of his critical study, when London meets his future long-time editor George Brett and signs up with his publishing company, Macmillan, Williams writer, "He had finally found a home and a father." At that point, why not bring in Freud? Williams mentions all sorts of minor intellectual and cultural figures. The omission of Freud, whom London read and admired makes one wondered about the sources for this book and while the author is so candid.

The mystery of Jack London seems to be all tied up in the narrative of his parents, his origins and genesis, subjects that he never honestly or candidly described, though Williams calls him an artist who aimed for "sincerity." Perhaps he did aim for sincerity. He certainly aimed to write with all his heart and soul. At the same time, he never aimed to tell the truth, or at least only veiled and masked reports of the truth which is why, as Williams suggests, London was a "ghost writer," a writer who wrote about ghosts and a figure who took on the persona of his twin and double, Jack London's own ghost of a writer.

The California author of The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf couldn't all the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help him God. He was far too compromised in his own personal life to adhere to honesty as a policy. Jack London lived a lie, though he argued that in order to live with one's fellow, one had to lie. And lie he did until he died in 1916 at the age of 40 taking with him to the grave the mystery of Jack London that no one, not even Jay Williams has ever solved.