If you’re looking for a man’s man who is also a writer, the name that should appear before you is Jack London. He crammed a lifetime of activities into his abbreviated life, and died probably declaring that he hadn’t missed much. His life was tumultuous and he thrived on it. He was an explorer, a journalist, a socialist–and an alcoholic. He wrote incessantly and became rich doing it. For a while he was one of the most famous writers in the United States.
He was born in California of questionable parenthood and experienced early problems as a child. At age 13 he was working 12 to 18 hours a day in a cannery. After that he became an oyster pirate and a sailor on a sealing schooner. For a while he bummed around as a hobo and was even jailed for thirty days for vagrancy. An inveterate reader, he spend a lot of his time in libraries , and eventually decided to attend college. After one year in
Berkely, where he spent a liberal amount of his time listening to the adventurous tales of sailors who frequented a local saloon called Heinold’s, he went off to join the Klondike gold rush, where he suffered from malnourishment and scurvy, causing his gums to swell and eventually the loss of four teeth. However, from these experiences he produced many of his greatest stories. (Pictured below is the long line going up the Chilcoot Trail of Canada and the US on the way to the Klondike.)
In 1904 he accepted an assignment as correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner and covered the Russo-Japanese War. He managed to get arrested three times by the Japanese authorities, however, the last time being released only due to the intervention of no less than the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.
London’s most famous book is probably The Call of the Wild which is the anthropomorphized story of a dog stolen in California and forced to become a sled dog in Alaska. The dog first receives cruel treatment but eventually is taken by an owner who is kind to him. Along the way he must fight hard to survive the harsh conditions as others around him die. In the end he goes off into the forest to live with wild animals and answers “the call of the wild.” I read this story as a teenager and was stunned by its power and sensitivity. I became a Jack London fan forever. The book was originally published in four installments by the Saturday Evening Post in 1903 but later London sold it to Macmillan for two thousand dollars, a hefty sum in those days. The book has never been out of print since that time.
Many people would consider Jack London’s best work to be his short stories, particularly those about the Yukon. I would be one of those people. “To Build a Fire” is universally claimed as one of the finest short stories ever written and is a mainstay in high school and college classrooms. Other great stories are “Law of Life,” about an aging Eskimo man who must be abandoned by his family to die
because there is no longer any food to feed him, and, less known, “A Thousand Dozen,” an extraordinary story about a man who decides to ship a large quantity of eggs up to the Yukon to sell for a huge profit and make himself rich. A particular favorite of mine, which has so much to say about the pain of growing old, is the story, “A Piece of Steak,” about an aging boxer whose children must go to bed hungry so that he may eat the last food in the house to strengthen himself for a boxing match that evening against a younger fighter. The fight represents living or starving for the old boxer’s family.
London’s stories are usually raw, vivid, and in-your-face, contrasting the pitty-patty ones circulating in society today. London became an avowed socialist from all of the suffering and inequality that he saw in his travels. He once lived in the poorest section of London for a few months to
experience first hand the people attempting to survive there from day to day. It was dangerous to go there and London was warned not to do it, but he did, and from it came one of the most powerful nonfiction books ever written: The People of the Abyss. The message here is real, poignant, and resonates for all time.
Jack London became very wealthy in his time and built a fabulous home in California, a 15,000 foot stone mansion called Wolf House, which, unfortunately burned down two weeks before he was scheduled to move in.
He died in 1916 of mounting problems. He had uremia, complications from late stages of alcoholism, and might have passed away from an overdose of morphine which he took for pain. He had lived a full and active life, perhaps too much so, and in the end paid the price of overindulgence. He was buried at his wish beneath a simple large stone.
It is likely there won’t be another one like him. And I can’t resist saying this: compared to Jack London, Ernest Hemingway was a wimp.