Best writer; Permanent Triumvirate; May His Name Never Die
One way in which fiction writing is unique as an art is the degree to which idea can exist with form, thought with feeling. In this, Jack London was a master, his stories incredibly balanced between emotional whallop, visceral thrill and intellectual challenge.
It is well possible you’ve never heard of Jack London. There are a lot of tragedies in the world, for sure, but surely one of them is how few people still know who Jack London is. (I know this to be true, I once demanded it of the crowd on a Toronto subway car.)
Jack London is my award winner for Best Writer, Ever.
London was the first celebrity-in-his-own-time writer, his success outstripping Mark Twain’s. He was the first millionaire artist. He is remembered now (if he is remembered at all) for his Klondike Gold Rush stories, and South Pacific tales. The Call of the Wild, his book title, is now an English phrase. Yet he was barely literate as a teen.
All his work is free or near free on any ebook reader. Here are links to on-line versions of some of my favourite London short stories:
- The Sheriff of Kona
- A Piece of Steak (my brother loves this one. Also The Mexican.)
- To Build a Fire (London’s best known short story)
- The Law of Life
- Koolau the Leper
- Batard (best ending)
- The League of Old Men (ok, this one’s really a favourite of mine)
- The Chinago
Looking back at this list, I can’t say these are representative London. They are my choices. Just making a list at all kills me: each one of these, and a dozen others, I could call his best.
London’s stories bring you so fully into an exotic place, that suddenly entering grand cosmological and philosophical battles, played out by mortal men, seems natural. Like a science fiction writer who uses unfamiliar situations to highlight human questions, London uses foreign cultures and non-compatible world views to expose the richness of human experience and often the tragedy of it. But it’s never forced. (well, rarely.) When you begin a London story, you enter an adventure, not a debate. His stories are thrilling, human and scary. His style is unique. Having grown up without much exposure to books, then suddenly teaching himself to write and reading an almost random array of what was available at the library, London writes with a unique vocabulary. He uses words you don’t expect, because he hasn’t been pre-trained what words normally follow what. It is like reading a foreigner who has mastered English, like Joseph Conrad or Vladmir Nabokov, except in London’s case it is grounded in the wholly un-literary English he grew up with.
Jack London is also one of my favourite historical characters, so much so that he has a permanent seat on my Triumvirate. My Triumvirate? That’s the three people I keep in my imagination to advise me. My Triumvirate has, over the years, included Jimmy Buffett, Beethoven, Niels Bohr and many others. London has been there from the beginning. Advising. Never judging.
One of the great things about Jack London is that he was primarily a short story writer, which meant you’d pick up his collections. Each collection would usually include a London bio. And are they ever great. London grew up dirt poor in late 19th century San Fancisco. He was an oyster pirate in his early teens, and shipwrecked while whaling near Japan by seventeen. With a few years back in San Francisco reading everything he could find; hobo-ing across the country; spending time in jail; and becoming a socialist rabble rouser, he set off for the Klondike Gold Rush. Later, after celebrity hit, he returned to sailing, exploring the South Pacific (telling the world of Hawaiian surfing).
He is the model for adventure and experience writers from Hemingway to Kerouac, to any who try to live exotically to have stories to tell from it, including Chris McCandless, the kid who dies living in the bush in Alaska in the Krakauer book Into the Wild.
London was a genius and a man of iron strength (his work ethic and physical endurance are legendary). His novels, sadly, are not in the same class as his short stories (at least the one’s I’ve read so far; I live in hope I’ll discover a great London novel, it would be like discovering a forgotten Beatles album).
If you read any of hist stores and want to read something bigger, I’ll let you in on his best kept secret. John Barleycorn. It’s the closest he gets to a memoir. It is, in fact, a memoir of his life as a drinker, written as an examination of what alcohol meant to him during the first prohibition debates. It is, first of all, for London lovers, an intimate social portrait of the man that only touches on the events of his life as known in his standard bios. It is also the most honest and intelligent assessment of booze I’ve ever seen. It’s a brilliant read.
The Sea Wolf is an interesting read as a novel purely because it introduces one of the greatest characters in all fiction, vicious ship captain Wolf Larsen, who I am convinced was ripped off by Ayn Rand (who turned him into a hero). If you can stomach the slow, flowery first parts before getting to the great Wolf Larsen, you will be well rewarded for having him in your life and imagination.
Ah, Jack. I can see you know, as a teen in the sailor saloons of San Francisco, trying desperately to learn to be tough. Pouring through Spencer, Marx, Darwin and Nietzche as an exhausted, starving young man in the library. Whooping and hollering on a skiff running deadly rapids in the Yukon. I wonder what we today would make of an artist this strong and sure, with the skill to tell us in story the story of our world right now. Once, they listened to that kind of stuff. He was the first millionaire artist.