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My Highlights from “Jack London: An American Life” by Earle Labor

The biography of famous American writer and adventurer Jack London who, in my opinion, led one of the most interesting and adventurous lives of anyone who has walked this earth.

Earle Labor did an incredible job creating a picture of who Jack London was based on piles and piles of research. Even using pieces of London’s own novels to tell his personal story. As I read it, it was humbling to keep in mind that he accomplished all he did with so much less of the technology we have today.

While he was far from perfect (as we all are), I think men can learn important lessons about manliness from Jack London.

You can read about more of my favorite books from 2015 here.

Below are my Kindle highlights. Some are interesting quotes, some are great writing, others I just liked. Each highlight is separated by paragraph. Enjoy: 

But what that editor failed to appreciate were those three essential factors that would distinguish London’s contribution from that of most of the others: human interest, romantic imagination, and sympathetic understanding. Fueled by creative genius, these qualities would make him one of the most popular writers in the world.

In his learning program, he gave special attention to vocabulary, scribbling the definitions of new words on scraps of paper, carrying these in his pockets or fastening them to a clothesline in his bedroom, using and repeating each word until confident he had mastered it, then replacing that scrap of paper with still another unfamiliar word until it, in turn, was mastered. He spent most of the daylight hours writing, taking time off only for meals, eaten with a book in his left hand. Evenings he spent in the Oakland Public Library, where his friend Fred Bamford introduced him to significant works on history, literature, politics, and science. Nights he spent reading, limiting himself to a maximum of five hours’ sleep. Only occasionally did he interrupt this schedule by taking on an odd job to get money for writing paper, stamps, and tobacco. In the back pages of his notebook “NO. 1 MAGAZINE SALES FROM 1898 TO MAY 1900,” he jotted down the names and addresses of more than fifty magazines, newspapers, and publishing syndicates, ranging from The Atlantic and Frank Leslie’s Boys’ and Girls’ Weekly newspaper to The Saturday Evening Post and Youth’s Companion. Baffled by the incessant stream of rejection slips, he studied the popular newspaper and magazine stories, trying to find the magic formula for success. Like Martin Eden, he “reasoned out the perfect formula” for the newspaper storiette: it “should never be tragic, should never end unhappily, and should never contain beauty of language, subtlety of thought, nor real delicacy of sentiment. Sentiment it must contain, plenty of it, pure and noble [but it must be the] ‘I-may-be-poor-but-I-am-honest’ brand of sentiment.” And like Martin, Jack resorted to this kind of hackwork. Because the models he was using were at best second-rate, his imitations were third-rate, and he was revulsed by this kind of sentimental claptrap even as he tried to produce it. What he envisioned was “an impassioned realism, shot through with human aspiration and faith … life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soul-reaching left in.” His visions could not be communicated through sentimental formulas. In “unlearning and learning anew,” he reread the old masters—not only modern fictionists such as Poe and Melville but also Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton—along with contemporary virtuosos such as Kipling and Stevenson. He was particularly impressed by Kipling’s “plain style,” and practiced copying page after page of Kipling’s work in order to get the hang of it for himself. At the same time, he read Herbert Spencer’s “The Philosophy of Style,” which he said taught him “the subtle and manifold operations necessary to transmute thought, beauty, sensation and emotion into black symbols on white paper [and] to select the symbols that would compel [the reader’s] brain to realize my thought, or vision, or emotion.” He also learned that “the right symbols were the ones that would require the expenditure of the minimum of my reader’s brain energy, leaving the maximum of his brain energy to realize and enjoy the content of my mind, as conveyed to his mind.”

“I have reached a conclusion,” he said to Mabel: “there is no such thing as inspiration. I thought so once, and made an ass of myself accordingly. Dig is the arcana of literature, as it is of all things save being born with a silver spoon and going to the Klondike.”

No longer working nineteen hours a day, he settled into a more professional routine, one he would follow the rest of his career: a minimum one thousand words a day, six days a week.

“Have to get in a dig now,”

Don’t you tell the reader the philosophy of the road (except where you are actually there as participant in the first person). Don’t you tell the reader. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. But HAVE YOUR CHARACTERS TELL IT BY THEIR DEEDS, ACTIONS, TALK, ETC. Then, and not until then, are you writing fiction and not a sociological paper upon a certain sub-stratum of society.

Every man, at the beginning of his career … has two choices. He may choose immediate happiness, or ultimate happiness … He who chooses ultimate happiness, and has the ability, and works hard, will find that the reward for his efforts is cumulative, that the interest on his energy is compounded. —LONDON TO CLOUDESLEY JOHNS

The love-element will run throughout, as the man & woman will occupy the center of the stage pretty much all of the time … My idea is to take a cultured, refined, super-civilized man and woman … and throw them into a primitive sea-environment where all is stress & struggle … and make this man & woman rise to the situation and come out of it in flying colors … The motif, however, the human motif underlying all, will be what I call mastery … The superficial reader will get the love story & the adventure; while the deeper reader will get all this, plus the bigger thing lying underneath

But London’s rendering of that character is complex, comprising recognizable parts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Satan, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and the author’s own darker self.

Eight days later, he wrote to Cloudesley, “I’m having the time of my life writing the story.” Here was the fictional articulation of London’s own private dreams of revolutionary glory. The book’s hero, Ernest Everhard, a natural aristocrat with blacksmith’s biceps, is Jack’s idealized clone. With his Spencerian philosphy and his Marxist rhetoric, he is also Jack’s metaphysical replica. Moreover, his mate, Avis Cunningham Everhard, is modeled after Charmian; and her love affair with Ernest reflects that of Charmian and Jack. Although not his artistic best, The Iron Heel is London’s bravest book.

On the other hand, The Road was destined to become a classic that inspired such peripatetic authors as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Kerouac.

For more than one hundred years “To Build a Fire” has been universally acclaimed as a superb model of literary naturalism, and the author created his chilling classic while basking in Hawaii’s halcyon breezes.

By this time the Londons could find little seclusion anywhere on the globe. They were great newspaper copy, often garnering front-page headlines. Jack had learned early the commercial value of his exploits, and by 1907, he had become expert in transmuting his personal experiences into cash. “Funny way to make a living!” he told Charmian shortly after their arrival in Hawaii. “I carry my office in my head, and see the world while I earn the money to see it with.”

The next day, he followed Ford out into the “deep water where the big smokers came roaring in.” He had always been a good swimmer, but this was something new. Simply to get through and over these monstrous waves was a battle. Man, puny man, versus Nature, mighty Nature: here was the primal challenge that underscored London’s personal code.

“Koolau the Leper”

It was Ernest Darling, the famous “Nature man.”

Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie, Glad did I live and gladly die, And I lay me down with a will, This be the verse you grave for me, Here he lies where he longed to be, Home is the sailor home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.

“A Piece of Steak,” destined to become a classic of the ring. Featuring the hard-fought contest between an aging former champion and an aspiring young contender,

London’s most interesting short stories, “The Night-Born,” in which he dramatizes the contrast between the “Man-Mean City,” exemplified in the death of a young boxer, and the virginal purity of Nature-in-the-Wild.

They delighted in climbing high up the masts—even up the mainmast, swaying dizzily with the deck ninety feet below: “Here, remote, ecstatic, above the ‘wrinkled sea’ and the slender fabric of steel, we lived some of our finest hours, enthralled by the recurrent miracle of unbored days, love ever regenerate, and contemplation of our unwasted years.

I have had a very fortunate life, I have been luckier than many hundreds of millions of men in my generation [and] while I suffered much, I have lived much, seen much, and felt much that has been denied to the average man. Yes, indeed, the game is worth the candle.

He was surprised by London’s attitude toward his chosen profession: “Literature is the last thing, apparently, that he wants to talk about. If left to his own resources, he unfailingly drifted round to the interests and problems of his great ranch in California, where the difficulties of practical farming have been impressed upon him.

Later in their meeting, London talked about “the experiences of deep-sea sailing [and] the thrill of continuous adventure” on his Snark voyage. Lydgate was impressed that, in his conversation, London was so “easy, natural, direct, and simple … More remarkable, perhaps, considering what he [had] gone through, [was] the absolute freedom from slang and profanity.

London recounted his daily two-hour stint of working “in the morning, rain or shine, Sundays or holidays, the only exception being when he [was] off on a trip like the Congressional outing.” Lydgate noted that Jack was “somewhat of a radical, or even an iconoclast” in his attitude toward literature: “He holds very lightly to the accepted canons and rules of literary practice. He claims that literature was made for man and not man for literature.”

Jack immediately started his greatest work of science fiction and, regardless of genre, one of his most remarkable creations: “The Red One.” Charmian sensed the psychological significance of this story when she wrote, “Sometimes I wonder if it can be possible, in the ponderings of the dying scientist, Bassett, that Jack London revealed more of himself than he would have been willing to admit—or else, who knows? more of himself than he himself realized.”

C. G. Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious

I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live—not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. —“CREDO”

Among the fisher folk of Scandinavia and Finland it is rumored that Jack London is still alive. He has gone away in a boat of his own making, or is breaking trails in the snowfields of the North. He has left his Valley of the Moon, and no one knows the port for which he has sailed, nor the goal toward which has set his face. —ANONYMOUS

Total highlights: 30

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