A famished man and a sick wolf lie down together, exhausted, after days of mutual stalking.
As the man drifts in and out of consciousness, he feels the wolf lick his hand: “The fangs pressed softly; the pressure increased; the wolf was exerting its last strength in an effort to sink teeth in the food for which it had waited so long.”There are hints in London’s writing, however, that love is likely to flourish amid need.
Gold prospectors fight against winter, writers against poverty, and dogs against hungry dogs.
The focus of his best prose narrows to essential need.
There is another question, too: In the absence of money, food, heat, or other necessities, can there be love?
The hero of London’s best-seller “The Call of the Wild” (1903), who happens to be a dog, does find love, and he expresses it by closing his mouth around one of his master’s hands “so fiercely that the flesh bore the impress of his teeth for some time afterwards.” The master recognizes “this feigned bite for a caress,” but, in London’s short story “Love of Life” (1905), a similar bite has a darker meaning.When she told the man she was living with, an astrologer, that she was pregnant, he denied that the child was his.She tried suicide, first by overdose and then by pistol, or at any rate she told the San Francisco that she did. The infant Jack was given for nursing to a former slave, Daphne Virginia Prentiss, known as Jennie, who became his lifelong friend.As Earle Labor relates in his lively and authoritative biography “Jack London: An American Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), London’s writing returned again and again to the poverty from which his success as a writer freed him. He began as a manual laborer and became a landowner and celebrity who lived by his wits. Here are the plots of his four best novels, in the order in which he wrote them: a tame dog turns wild; an acclaimed writer becomes a sailor; a wild dog is tamed; a sailor becomes an acclaimed writer.One of his characters, a right-wing sociology professor, adopts a working-class alias in order to do fieldwork, only to discover that the alias, who brawls and drinks, is so much looser, warmer, and sexually richer that he abandons himself to the identity forever. His true self, the variations suggest, was to be found in the transitions. His mother was a San Francisco seamstress, piano teacher, and medium, who uttered war whoops when possessed by her spirit control, an Indian chief named Plume.His mother married an acquaintance of the Prentisses named John London, a carpenter and a Civil War veteran, who provided a new surname. He was eight before he had a store-bought item of clothing (an undershirt, which he cherished).But Jennie and one of his stepsisters cared for him, and his salvation was the Oakland Free Library, where, in order to multiply the number of books he could check out, he signed up everyone in his family for library cards. His mother and the man he thought was his father failed at running a grocery store, failed at raising chickens, and failed at keeping a boarding house.“You cannot understand, nor never will.”He spent his short life—he died at forty—trying to make people understand.In his writing, which ranged from realist novels to memoirs and science fiction, he became a psychologist and economist of extremity.“I was deciding between money and men, between niggardliness and romance.” For the rest of his life, even though he became, by Labor’s estimate, “the highest-paid author in America,” he had trouble spending within his means.After a few months, he abruptly switched sides, joining the marine police.