Jack London: An American Life

Earle Labor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




480 Pages



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Jack London was born a working class, fatherless Californian in 1876. In his youth, he was a boundlessly energetic adventurer on the bustling West Coast—an oyster pirate, a hobo, a sailor, and a prospector by turns. He spent his brief life rapidly accumulating the experiences that would inform his acclaimed bestselling books The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf.

The bare outlines of his story suggest a classic rags-to-riches tale, but London the man was plagued by contradictions. He chronicled nature at its most savage, but wept helplessly at the deaths of his favorite animals. At his peak the highest paid writer in the United States, he was nevertheless forced to work under constant pressure for money. An irrepressibly optimistic crusader for social justice and a lover of humanity, he was also subject to spells of bitter invective, especially as his health declined. Branded by shortsighted critics as little more than a hack who produced a couple of memorable dog stories, he left behind a voluminous literary legacy, much of it ripe for rediscovery.

In Jack London: An American Life, the noted Jack London scholar Earle Labor explores the brilliant and complicated novelist lost behind the myth—at once a hard-living globe-trotter and a man alive with ideas, whose passion for seeking new worlds to explore never waned until the day he died. Returning London to his proper place in the American pantheon, Labor resurrects a major American novelist in his full fire and glory.


Praise for Jack London: An American Life

“A lively and authoritative biography.”—Caleb Crain, The New Yorker
“Mr. Labor—an excellent writer, who knows the London canon backward and forward, brings this most American of authors to vivid life. Jack London: An American Life is almost as much fun to read as its subject’s best work . . . Mr. Labor, a professor of American literature at Centenary College in Shreveport, La., is the country’s foremost London scholar. He wisely lets London’s life and art unfold without judgment. Despite his continuing popularity, London has often been dismissed as a mere writer of boys’ tales. But at his best he is among the greatest writers that this country has produced. If you want proof, just read his short story ‘To Build a Fire’ and then read this terrific book.”—John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal

“[A] first-rate literary biography . . . [an] authoritative new life of Jack London (1876-1916) . . . Earle Labor’s Jack London: An American Life doesn’t take away any of its subject’s glamour or fascination.  To the contrary.  The book is not just definitive, as one would expect from the major London scholar of the past fifty years, it is also exceptionally entertaining . . . As Earle Labor makes clear in his fine biography, Jack London was a remarkable man and a writer of impressive variety, richness, and accomplishment.”—Michael Dirda, Virginia Quarterly Review


“Earle Labor’s new book about London, subtitled ‘An American Life,’ is an obvious labor of love (no pun intended). As curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport, La., and professor emeritus of American literature at Centenary College of Louisiana, Labor is the acknowledged national authority on the life and work of London. Labor’s work was graced by personal friendships with London’s two daughters, Joan and Becky, as well as his own discovery of Charmian London’s personal diaries in a safe at the ‘Cottage’ in Sonoma, Ariz.—diaries that London’s wife herself called ‘disloyal’ because of their intimate frankness. To these new sources were added a number of previously undiscovered London letters and discussions with the descendants of London’s bohemian friends in the Bay Area . . . Labor sets out to ‘neither maximize nor minimize’ [London’s faults] but only to accept London on his own terms as a natural-born seeker; a gifted artist of exceptional intelligence, sensitivity and personal charisma; a man driven by a Nietzschean outlook on life at a time when literature was stuck between Victorian romanticism and the modernism that wouldn’t be born until after the First World War . . . Labor’s book recalls the man himself with great charm of manner.”—Gaylord Dold, The Wichita Eagle

“[Jack] London scholar Labor extracts every drop of excitement, folly, romance, ‘creative ecstasy,’ grueling effort, and despair from the vast London archives, including the relentless press coverage of him . . . Labor’s unceasingly vivid, often outright astonishing biography vibrantly chronicles London’s exceptionally daring and wildly contradictory life and recovers and reassesses his complete oeuvre, including many powerful, long-neglected works of compassionate, eyewitness nonfiction. Let the Jack London revival begin.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist

In the Press

Book World: ‘Jack London: An American Life,’ by Earle Labor - The Washington Post
Earle Labor’s biography cuts through the myths and errors surrounding one of America’s best-known authors.

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

I was impotent at that time, the result of hardship, privation & too much brain-work. Therefore I cannot be your father, nor am I sure who your father is.
The future was anything but promising for the child who entered the world on January 12, 1876. His mother was scarcely strong enough to nurse him, and his putative father had abandoned them both. During the first few weeks following his birth, the infant destined to win international fame as Jack London appeared to have no future at all.
His mother
Read the full excerpt


  • Earle Labor

  • Earle Labor is the acknowledged major authority on the novelist Jack London and the curator of the Jack London Museum and Research Center in Shreveport. He is also Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Centenary College of Louisiana.