Customer Reviews: Jack London: A Life
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on May 9, 2002
A brilliant book because it captures the magic of London's life and reads as if he had written the book himself - fantastic stuff, and the academics should take note - this is how you bring a man and writer alive, not kill him with turgif analysis and prose. London would be proud.
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on October 12, 1998
It was about time that someone wrote a biography that is as passionate and fast paced as Jack London himself. The biography reads like a heroic novel and does justice to his life.
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on August 23, 2009
I've always loved to read Jack London, from "The Call of the Wild" to "On the Makaloa Mat" and many of the books and short stories in between. His stories always take you to another world, an adventure, and another incredible feat of survival. I've often wondered where these amazing stories came from and now I know, he lived them.

Alex Kershaw tells an amazing story of an even more amazing man. He leaves nothing out, the many strengths and human weaknesses bring us all a lot closer to one of the finest authors this country has ever produced. This is an excellent and fascinating read. I just loved this book.
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on April 16, 2002
Simply the best biography I have ever read. Jack London wrote stories that pale in comparison to the excitement and drama of his life.
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on November 27, 2007
It would appear that others have read previous London biographies and that Kershaw's work doesn't tread any new ground. I will have to take the word of the many reviewers who have stated this. That said, since this is my first Jack London biography I will review it accordingly.

Alex Kershaw does a sufficient job of describing Jack London's early life of poverty, struggle and devotion to unleashing his creative vision. His exploits on the docks, pubs and back alleys of San Francisco are documented in lively, rough fashion. Jack's wanderlust and exploits to the North are likewise given adequate treatment as are his years as a "success." In fact, for the entirety of the book we are given a good overview of the many stages of Jack's brief but fascinating life; adventures, friendships, loves, fatherhood, etc. What's missing however, is a more intensive look at the man himself. Jack's alcoholic rages, absentee roll as a father, proto National Socialism, gluttony, mood wings, regrets, emotional exhaustion, depression and realization of mortality and many, many contradictions are given superficial treatment in the beginning and middle stages of the autobiography. It's almost as if Kershaw is willing to skim over many aspects of London's personality because Jack's genius as a writer overshadowed whatever shortcomings or riddles he possessed as a man. The problem is however, as any fan of London's work will tell you, Jack is the literature and the literature is Jack. Very few writers were able to inject themselves quite so thoroughly into their work as Jack London. His presence smothers every page of his work. It's not until the end that Kershaw begins to thoroughly explore Jack London's psyche. As Kershaw clearly points out, Jack associated his physical prowess with his creative drive. The two were linked. If the body was iron, the mind was steel. For the majority of Jack's young life his body was robust, his mind Nietzschean in its discipline and resolve. As he approached the age of forty however, a still-young Jack was beset by disease and the failure of the corporeal. His vitality and energy slowly gave way to impotence and lethargy (and increasingly an inwardly-directed rage). His spirit began to collapse. Indeed, even his financial and material landscape served as a metaphor. As his kingdom crumbled, so too did the king's life force slowly ebb away. Kershaw poignantly describes Jack's slow descent and it is here that the autobiography does good service to the memory of Jack London.

Jack London A Life will give first time biography readers a good overview of Jack London; the timeline is easy to follow and Kershaw, perhaps adopting Jack's invigorating, descriptive writing style, pens the biography in a fashion that London himself would have appreciated.
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on November 10, 2013
Wow. What else can one say about Jack London's life? Few authors have ever achieved his success and recognition, and very few have achieved it so quickly. And few of them have flamed out so spectacularly. Even by the age of 16, London had lived through hardships that would have sufficed a lifetime: poverty, family insanity, grinding factory labor, oyster thievery, drinking and whoring. All of this was in arguably the most dangerous waterfront area in the U.S.: San Francisco/Oakland.

As a safer route, he then went on a 9-month whaling expedition.

But that wasn't enough. At 18, he returned from whaling and decided to settle down. He crammed for exams to pass high school, got into UC-Berkeley, and wowed the undergrads with his tale of derring-do. But instead of staying, he quit before the first semester was done and wound up joining a protest of socialists who took trains to Washington, DC, to protest working conditions. London was jailed after the protests and (and perhaps raped in jail).

But that wasn't enough. He returned to Oakland and again took up factory work, while writing on the side. But then the Alaska gold rush happened, and he joined tens of thousands of speculators. He failed, in the sense that he never really got to the gold fields and had to winter in a cabin in the Yukon with other stragglers. Without money to buy a mining stake, he built a raft and floating 1800 miles down the Yukon and returned home --- a feat that is astonishing in its own right.

And that wasn't enough. He began to write about his Alaska experiences, and within 2 years was one of the most highly paid fiction writers in the world. For the next 15 years, his output was astonishing, and his influence on popular culture was immense. His every move was front-page news, from trying to be a war correspondent for the Russo-Japanese war to a round-the-Pacific sailing venture with an all-amateur crew, to his outspoken socialist views and eventual break from the socialist party over the need to intervene in WWI.

Through it all, he wrote 1,000 or more words per day, every day. He wrote about Alaska. He wrote about downtrodden workers. He wrote about sex, with plenty of violence in it, more frankly than anyone else of his day. He wrote about the Pacific islands. He wrote about the issues of the day in his fiction and non-fiction. He collaborated on early screenplays of his best works with the emergent film industry. Oh, and he created and managed what might have been California's first organic farm. And more.

All of this --- and his loves and lovers, his spiteful mother, his endless financial woes, his hopeless alcoholism --- and he died at 40. Unbelievable.

This story is told with great dispatch in this book. It gives a wonderful grounding of his early years and his fearlessness and intensity. It explains, as best as can be explained, how this untutored genius could teach himself to think and write, by reading the very best of literature and discussing it with anyone within earshot. It places Jack London in the center of so many changes happening at the start of the 20th century. And it gives a sense of the scope and the astonishing pace of his activities.

The only weakness in the book is one that I'd lay at the feet of its subject. Jack London's writing really isn't very good. The author of this bio therefore spends a limited amount of time on textual analysis. Some of the most evocative sections of London's best works are quoted, and the biographical nature of his work is noted many times. But this book is not an exercise in literary criticism.

Again, this is due to the nature of Jack London and his writing. He worked so quickly, and he was so much more interested in conveying adventure than in conveying internal feelings, that a lot of his writing is overwrought in the way that Edgar Allan Poe's feels overwrought to us. The author of this biography points out that London was writing for a mass audience because he both wanted to reach that audience AND it was the audience that would bring him the most money. But the problem with that writing, now nearly a century after London's death, is that much of it is turgid and stale.
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on October 20, 2013
This book provided a wonderful perspective on a very complex, unique American icon. I recommend it highly for individuals who want to gain more knowledge and be entertained at the same time.
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on October 29, 1998
This is a biography that races along like a novel, but with a healthy dose of quality writing (much of it London's own words) Kershaw makes it eminently nourishing. I am recommending this book to everyone. . .
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on September 24, 2013
We are reading and studying about Jack London's life and works at an adult education class. This book was an excellent choice.
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on March 26, 2001
I've read O'Conner, Stone and Sinclair's biographies of London, plus big swaths of others, including his daughter Joan; additionally, I've read many articles. [ Seeing a video interview of his youngest daughter Becky was also interesting.] And now I've read Kershaw's biography. It covers, really, no new ground, though it does expand a bit on the voyage of the "Snark". Yet, if one wants to get into that voyage specifically, there are Johnson, Charmain London and Jack himself to fall back on, re. journals and articles of that voyage. I'm afraid I agree with the "Kirkus Review" writer concerning Kershaw's biography, [included on this site]. There was just too much rehash--crib note stuff--of his stories and books. Kershaw wasted time. He got into works of fiction, at length, that are bad--amongst London's most agonizingly blatant hack work, ("Burning Daylight"). And more than anything, he did not try and plumb the depths of his wildly contradictory acts and words, not the least of which was London's addled racism. Lastly, he did not thrust London and his fame into proper context--he began to do it, then backed off. A reader gets too little social context, and with London--that's really necessary. Still, I found the book worth reading, and if this work was the reader's first biographical exposure to London--I can see where it would work far better.
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