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Jack London: An American Life Hardcover – October 1, 2013

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Frequently Bought Together

Jack London: An American Life + Jack London : Novels and Stories : Call of the Wild / White Fang / The Sea-Wolf / Klondike and Other Stories (Library of America) + Novels and Social Writings: The People of the Abyss / The Road / The Iron Heel / Martin Eden / John Barleycorn (Library of America)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (October 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374178488
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374178482
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #84,567 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Jack London (1876–1916) improvised a fast-burning life of reckless adventure that served as the wellspring for his magnificently dramatic writings, from The Call of the Wild to Martin Eden. A good student and insatiable reader ever-grateful for the public library in Oakland, California, young London, poor and fatherless, worked demeaning jobs, then took to sea as an oyster pirate. He learned to fight and drink and became a socialist and constant wanderer. His Klondike escapades yielded a gold mine of stories and inspired his lifelong practice of writing 1,000 words a day, no matter what. London scholar Labor extracts every drop of excitement, folly, romance, creative ecstasy, grueling effort, and despair from the vast London archives, including the relentless press coverageof his exploits. What writer today could ignite the front-page frenzy that surrounded London and the love of his life, Charmian? His fearless second wife, literary accomplice, and stalwart companion on perilous South Sea journeys, Charmian kept a diary from which Labor extracts riveting disclosures leading up to her robust, sexy, carousing husband’s precipitously failing health and early death. Labor’s unceasingly vivid, often outright astonishing biography vibrantly chronicles London’s exceptionally daring and wildly contradictory life and recovers and reassesses his complete oeuvre, including many powerful, long-neglected works of compassionate, eyewitness nonfiction. Let the Jack London revival begin. --Donna Seaman


“A lively and authoritative biography.” —Caleb Crain, The New Yorker

“Labor is the world’s foremost Jack London scholar. His working-class background and deep erudition make him the right man to chronicle the life of this most popular American author. Now curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center and emeritus professor at Centenary College in Louisiana, Labor has produced what will most likely remain the authoritative biography for generations to come . . . If you want to acquaint yourself with the writer whom much of the rest of the world equates with Melville, Hemingway and Faulkner, then begin with Labor’s elegantly written, thoroughly researched and steel-eyed biography. He fills in the gaps between London’s impoverished youth, rise to fame and untimely death at the age of 40—in brilliant and plain prose that does honor to London himself.” —Eric Miles Williamson, The Washington Post
“Mr. Labor—an excellent writer, who knows the London canon backward and forward, brings this most American of authors to vivid life. Jack London: An American Life is almost as much fun to read as its subject’s best work . . . Mr. Labor, a professor of American literature at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., is the country’s foremost London scholar. He wisely lets London’s life and art unfold without judgment. Despite his continuing popularity, London has often been dismissed as a mere writer of boys’ tales. But at his best he is among the greatest writers that this country has produced. If you want proof, just read his short story ‘To Build a Fire’ and then read this terrific book.” —John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal

“[A] first-rate literary biography . . . [an] authoritative new life of Jack London (1876-1916) . . . Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life doesn’t take away any of its subject’s glamour or fascination.  To the contrary.  The book is not just definitive, as one would expect from the major London scholar of the past fifty years, it is also exceptionally entertaining . . . As Earle Labor makes clear in his fine biography, Jack London was a remarkable man and a writer of impressive variety, richness, and accomplishment.” —Michael Dirda, Virginia Quarterly Review


“What a life. What a man. What a book. Only superlatives can describe this definitive biography of the nation’s most popular and successful novelist of the early 20th century . . . Earle Labor has devoted much of a lifetime to the study of London and his works and has given us a book so meticulous in its fast-moving detail that the reader feels he is almost at London’s side . . . Biographer Earle Labor summarizes Jack London succinctly: ‘… few writers mirror so clearly the American Dream of success and the corollary idea of the Self-Made Man.’” —Pete Hannaford, The Washington Times

“Earle Labor’s new book about London, subtitled ‘An American Life,’ is an obvious labor of love (no pun intended). As curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport, La., and professor emeritus of American literature at Centenary College of Louisiana, Labor is the acknowledged national authority on the life and work of London. Labor’s work was graced by personal friendships with London’s two daughters, Joan and Becky, as well as his own discovery of Charmian London’s personal diaries in a safe at the ‘Cottage’ in Sonoma, Ariz.—diaries that London’s wife herself called ‘disloyal’ because of their intimate frankness. To these new sources were added a number of previously undiscovered London letters and discussions with the descendants of London’s bohemian friends in the Bay Area . . . Labor sets out to ‘neither maximize nor minimize’ [London’s faults] but only to accept London on his own terms as a natural-born seeker; a gifted artist of exceptional intelligence, sensitivity and personal charisma; a man driven by a Nietzschean outlook on life at a time when literature was stuck between Victorian romanticism and the modernism that wouldn’t be born until after the First World War . . . Labor’s book recalls the man himself with great charm of manner.” —Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle
“[Jack] London scholar Labor extracts every drop of excitement, folly, romance, ‘creative ecstasy,’ grueling effort, and despair from the vast London archives, including the relentless press coverage of him . . . Labor’s unceasingly vivid, often outright astonishing biography vibrantly chronicles London’s exceptionally daring and wildly contradictory life and recovers and reassesses his complete oeuvre, including many powerful, long-neglected works of compassionate, eyewitness nonfiction. Let the Jack London revival begin.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist
“[Labor’s book is a detailed, almost page-turning biography of London’s life . . . But Labor . . . offers much more than straight biography: he depicts London’s writing habits, which jibe with the autobiographical fiction . . . Labor’s details—London in elementary school, London drinking alcohol, London at sea, and so on—reveal the writer in life asserting his life as a writer. Labor verifies what happened, blow by blow, and what happened in London’s life because the fiction that only he could write . . . Highly recommended.” —A. Hirsh, American Library Association

“At long last, Jack London gets the authoritative biography he so richly deserves. Earle Labor is the true-blue dean of London studies. This portrait is brilliantly researched, elegantly written, and brimming with new facts about the brave author of The Call of the Wild. Highly recommended!”

—Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University, fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and author of Cronkite


“There was a time—before the Great War and the frontier’s closing drove the creative spark inward—when American novelists launched the reader off into unfettered narratives as raw, brawny, explosive, and drenched in gritty personal experience as the nation that inspired them. Jack London was among the last of the great ones. Now comes London’s London, the biographer

Earle Labor, to turn the light of truth-telling back upon this magnificent half-forgotten outlaw of our literature.” —Ron Powers, author of Mark Twain: A Life


“Not so long ago, Jack London was considered a literary titan and a great American hero akin to Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway—as famous for his wild adventures as for his bestselling books. Earle Labor’s eloquent, deeply researched biography has brought London and his fascinating world back to life in all its vivid, colorful detail. This will stand as the definitive biography of London for many years to come.” —Debby Applegate, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher


“In Jack London: An American Life, Earle Labor sifts through the myths of London’s self-invented ‘American Kipling’ persona to reveal a remarkable and at times remarkably frustrating man. London was famously charismatic, but to those closest to him, he could be vindictively cruel. He was ambitious and productive—he published 50 books before he was forty, Call of the Wild when he was only 27, and wrote 1,000 words every day without fail—but was also a depressed and self-destructive alcoholic. He may have even been bipolar. Despite being the best-selling author of his day, London was constantly broke, often writing to pay his debts. He was an adventurer and thrill seeker, but also an ardent radical socialist. Labor captures all these facets of his, as his wife Charmian put it, ‘kaledoscopic personality,’ while still conveying his remarkable talent and obsessive self-improvement. The London in An American Life is as fascinating for his turmoil and dysfunction as he was in his time for his globetrotting and adventuring.” —Thomas Flynn, The Daily Beast

“Earle Labor, a scholar whose academic career focused on the life and works of Jack London, has written an exceptionally well-documented, and, if there is such a thing, authoritative biography of one of America’s great writers . . . Labor, a professor emeritus of American literature at Centenary College of Louisiana and curator of a Jack London research center there, draws heavily from letters and diaries to tell London’s life story in rich detail, with much attention to his declining health even as London pursued his final adventures. This biography is well-written, though not a breezy narrative, and should be satisfying to anyone who loved reading London’s books.” —David Shaffer, The Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)

“[A] loving biography of the writer . . . Recognized as the dean of Jack London studies, Labor has been an active London scholar for 60 years, has edited volumes of his stories and letters, and curates the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana . . . Labor’s effort is likely to be as definitive a treatment as anyone needs . . . Earle Labor leads us skillfully through the many ‘stories’ that constituted London’s life: working as an adolescent in a cannery and as an ‘oyster pirate’ on Oakland’s waterfront; going on a seal hunt in the Bering Sea; riding the rails across America, with an interlude of 30 days spent in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy; finding out how the poor live in London’s East End; joining the gold rush to the Klondike; running for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket; sailing to the South Pacific and visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa; observing cannibals in the Solomon Islands.” —William H. Pritchard, The Weekly Standard

“In this comprehensive account, more richly detailed than any prior biography of Jack London, Earle Labor debunks common myths. This is a London revealed by his personal writings, along with accounts from those who knew him best. Labor’s crisp prose quotes extensively, allowing the reader to interpret the full character of this noted writer, rancher, and traveler. In placing London within the context of the tumultuous Progressive Era, Labor further explains the contradictory choices and beliefs of this complex individual. The result limns a portrait of a brilliant, creative, sensitive yet self-assured man who died prematurely, on the cusp of still greater offerings.” —Clarice Stasz, author of Jack London’s Women


“This engrossing biography paints a sympathetic (though not uncritical) portrait of London’s dynamic ambition and energy. Born in San Francisco in 1876 to an impoverished single mother, London (White Fang) took up factory work to support his household while still a child, and by age 18 had worked as an oyster pirate, sailor, and rail-riding hobo. Omnivorous reading and sporadic education fueled his desire to write, and a year spent surviving the Yukon Gold Rush (1897–1898) provided him with inspiration for his earliest nonfiction and fiction. As rendered by Labor (The Portable Jack London), London’s official biographer and curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, La., London was a complex and often contradictory individual—a writer who turned every experience into literary fodder; who disciplined himself to produce 1,000 words per day; and whose by-his-bootstraps lifestyle fueled his devotion to socialism and social justice. But London’s enthusiasms also had their dark side: he was a reckless spendthrift who had to churn out mountains of copy for pay to stay ahead of his creditors; he was an incautious celebrity whose public exploits often made him tabloid fodder; and he was a free spirit who could be self-destructive at times. Here, London emerges as a rugged adventurer with a soft heart, and a larger-than-life character who might have figured as the hero in one of his own brawny bestsellers.” —Publishers Weekly

“[Jack London] may prove the definitive biography of the sailor-adventurer-prospector turned rancher-author . . . The biography delivers a riveting portrait of his subject, drawing on letters and reminiscences of brawls and drinking incidents from London’s youth . . . The incidents in London’s life are delivered in a literate, colorful and compelling manner . . . The new work further cements Labor’s place, and Shreveport’s, in the world of Jack London studies. A fixture at the local college more than 50 years, Labor’s efforts and scholarship and the largesse of the late alumnus-trustee Samuel Peters brought to Centenary the Jack London Research Center, drawing students, scholars and Londonistas from around the globe.” —John Andrew Prime, The Shreveport Times

“I rarely read biographies such as this—accurate, gripping, written like an adventure book but always with an understated sense of reality that reminds the reader this really happened.” —Davide Sapienza, Italian translator of Feltrinelli’s edition of Call of the Wild

“Quite a few books have been published recently about Jack London’s fabulous life, but Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life is undoubtedly the definitive biography. Written by the internationally acknowledged maestro of Jack London studies, the book demonstrates both the detailed scholarly documentation and the intelligent empathy with London’s complex mindset that one has missed in previous biographies (which, incidentally, have also been vitiated by sensationalist canards about London’s alleged drug addiction, homosexuality, and suicide).” —Per Serritslev Petersen, University of Aarhus, Denmark

“A highly sympathetic, knowledgeable portrayal strives to correct the ‘caricature’ of this dynamic, brief life. Having tracked his subject’s career since his scholarly research on London in the 1960s, Jack London Museum curator Labor . . . is an ideal biographer to capture the dazzling spirit and adventures of the acclaimed American author . . . As Labor fondly delineates, London did live large, seeming to be in a terrible hurry, starting with his childhood digestion of stories by Washington Irving, Poe, Stevenson and Kipling. He crammed his higher education into a few months and then restlessly took off again for the high seas, writing and speaking widely on socialist issues involving exploitation of the workers and social justice, diving into passionate love affairs and embarking on South Pacific adventures in his custom-made boat. All the while, London wrote like a fevered soul—1,000 words per day without fail—following what he called ‘the spirit that moves to action individuals and peoples, which gives birth and momentum to great ideas.’ Labor grasps the fire and fight of this most American of authors. A vibrant biography that will surely entice readers back to the original source.” —Kirkus

“[Labor’s] affectionate, meticulous and beautifully written Jack London: An American Life . . . [is] the definitive biography of the iconic ‘American Kipling.’” —Tom Lavoie, Shelf Awareness

“If any biography [of Jack London] is definitive, it is probably Labor’s . . . Jack London lived to the fullest, saying, ‘We only live once, and we’ll be dead a long time.’ People will be reading him, and about him, for a long time.” —Bruce Ramsey, The Seattle Times

“In Earle Labor’s biography of the literary icon, Jack London: An American Life, London comes across as a complex, larger-than-life man. Dozens of biographies have covered London’s life and work, but Labor’s is an especially well-balanced, thoughtful and definitive account.” —Leslie Ashmore, Los Altos Town Crier

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Customer Reviews

This book reads like a novel.
Gerald Hausman
Such a life as London lived can never be fully encompassed, yet Earle Labor manages the task as well as can be done..
Dr. Earle Labor has devoted a life of study of Jack London.
C. M Mills

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By ookkees on October 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Over 40 years in the making, this biography is built solidly upon original research into the life of Jack London. Well-known myths and fallacies are left behind leaving only the truth to shine through. Dr. Labor has striven for the utmost accuracy, revealing both the bright and dark sides of his subject. Did Charlie Chaplain once impersonate a waiter to serve Jack London and Wyatt Earp at a Los Angeles Restaurant as one report states? He very well may have, but the episode is NOT in this book because it could not be independently verified. That is the accuracy for which he has striven.

London's life was as much of an adventure as any of his best books...and was the basis for much material in his books. If there is one shortcoming to this biography, it is the limitation of space. Much interesting material had to be jettisoned in order to fit the work into the space allowed by the publishers. Still, if you only read one biography of Jack London, this is the one it should be. You cannot choose a better one.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
As an early pal saw Jack, he strove "to be the conqueror". This, Earle Labor argues, was London's greatest asset and his greatest liability. After a second lowly paid and repetitive, dangerous job feeding a machine, he refused to bow to the "work-beast" again.

Instead, he relied on his strength, his determination, and his wits. He finally sold a couple of "yarns" at the age of twenty-one. Most writers at this stage would have little to go on from their experience. Jack had plenty.

Labor takes us through the early years, already crammed with possibilities for the later London to draw upon. As a teenager, Oakland cannery worker, oyster pirate, fish patrolman, hobo, able-bodied seaman, he did all this before returning to high school and, briefly, the U. of Cal. Although he had to drop out to work again, after his menial labor, he vowed to find a better way to make a living.

Then, the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush spurred him and his uncle north to the Yukon. Labor memorably captures the excitement and dread of this hyped event. While we never learn how London eked out his five dollars worth of gold, this is not Labor's concern. He wants us instead to learn how Jack began to listen, watch, and ponder what he saw all around him. Out of this, soon after, nearly eighty stories would emerge when, finally, he left hard labor behind for a career as a paid writer.

What distinguished London from his contemporaries who had beaten him back to cash in on writing about the Klondike and the Northland, Labor finds, was Jack's "human interest, romantic imagination, and sympathetic understanding". He gets the silence in, the primitive pull of the landscape, where its woods and animals lurked, and where foolish men fell to the harsh climate.
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Format: Hardcover
Why read this book ? The reasons for your present reviewer are varied:
a. Jack London (1846-1916) is one of the greatest American authors. London wrote such memorable dog stories as "The Call of the Wlld": "White Fang" and "To Build a Fire" an almost perfect short story..
b. London gives us a pellucid picture in turn of the century America. Author London was strongly influenced by European naturalism and realism in literature.
c. London has influenced such American authors as Ernest Hemingway with his macho lifestyle, handsome athleticism and addiction to testing his limits against the challenges of nature tooth and nail. London was a social darwinisst.
c. London was a lifetime socialist who cared deeply about the poor and despised in our midst. London was also an animal lover who begin an organization devoted to their protection from humankind predators.
d. London wrote several worthy novels most of which had autobiographical elements taken from London's life experiences. Among the best are "Martin Eden" about an aspiring author in the London personal and "The Sea Wolf."
Jack London married twice producing two daughters. London was a loving but also absent father following his divorce from his first wife Beatrice. Charmaine his bohemian and cultured second wife had two stillbirth tragedies; she and London were deeply in love prior to his early death at age forty.
Jack London held many jobs in his short life including newspaper boy, factory worker, clam fishing pirates along the California coast, boxing and various seagoing ventures. This employment provided grist for his literary mill. London did not graduate from the University of California though he did boost a library of over fifteen thousand volumes.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Marlo Faulkner on October 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Earle Labor, the dean of London scholars, got it exactly right with this definitive biography. The facts are there. Dr. Labor incorporates those facts, timelines, Lonon's complicated life and the published works into a piece that is also a pleasure to read. As a fiction writer, I luxuriated in the finesse of Labor's talent for giving the reader everything a London fan/scholar would wish for in a reading experience extraordinare.

Previous biorgraphers were merely extrapolators, drawing conclusions from slight scholarship and/or personal slants and prejudices. Labor's approach is that of a fine writer who has spent a life in London research in order to give readers information and insight into a writer who is, indeed, a great American literary giant.
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