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Lively but not definitive
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.