ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A literary critic once remarked: The greatest story that Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived.
During his short life, London sought adventure in the far corners of the world. He traveled from the frozen Yukon to the South Pacific, and he wrote gripping tales of survival based on his experiences. He wrote the "The Call of the Wild," "White Fang," "The Sea Wolf." A new biography tells the story of London's life adventures. Tom Vitale reports.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: "Jack London: An American Life" is the product of 60 years of research. Biographer Earle Labor is curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, La. Labor wrote his first book about London in 1974, but the 85-year-old scholar says with Jack London, there's always more to write.
EARLE LABOR: Well, he was a fighter. He was a terrific competitor. He was also a genius. He had terrific personal charm or charisma. Everybody talks about that. At the same time, while he was physically tough, he was emotionally sensitive. He could cry over the death of his favorite animal, or over the tragic episode in a novel.
VITALE: London's character was shaped by extraordinary circumstances. He was born in San Francisco in 1876, to a poor family. When he was 14, he quit school to work in a cannery; 15 hours a day, for 10 cents an hour. By the time he was 18, he had sailed to the Bering Sea on the crew of a sealing schooner and hoboed across the country, hopping freight trains to Niagara Falls, where he was arrested for vagrancy and spent a month in the Erie County Penitentiary.
It was a traumatic experience. The only known recording of Jack London's voice is a 1915 letter he spoke into an early dictation machine. Dr. Carl Haber, at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, restored the scratchy sound from a wax cylinder. On the recording, London says he can scarcely think about the abuse he experienced as a teenager in prison, much less write about it.
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JACK LONDON: What I found there was unprintable and almost unthinkable.
VITALE: Radicalized by his experience, London joined the Socialist Party. He read voraciously, and began to write stories and essays. He spent one semester at Berkeley, then quit to join the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. After a winter in the Yukon, London returned with only $5 worth of gold, but a priceless load of stories.
JEFF DANIELS: (Reading) Buck did not read the newspapers or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.
VITALE: London's 1903 novel, "The Call of the Wild" - read here by actor Jeff Daniels - tells the story of Buck, a kidnapped ranch dog sold to Gold Rush prospectors, who brutally train him to adapt to his new life.
DANIELS: (Reading) A dozen times he charged and as often, the club broke the charge and smashed him down. After a particularly fierce blow, he crawled to his feet, too dazed to rush. He staggered limply about, the blood flowing from nose and mouth and ears; his beautiful coat sprayed and flecked with bloody slather.
VITALE: "The Call of the Wild" was a sensation. It sold a million copies, and made Jack London the most popular American writer of his generation. He used this fame and money to embark on new adventures. He went to the Far East as a war correspondent. He sailed the Pacific in his own ship for two years, including a visit with headhunters and cannibals. And he wrote about it all, says Jeanne Reesman, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and director of the Jack London Society.
JEANNE REESMAN: He encountered a lot of people of different ethnicities, and he was able - often - to see the world from their point of view; you know, to take the point of view of a young slave rebelling against his colonial masters in the South Seas, for example. Most people in America really didn't know anything about those people.
VITALE: Jack London wrote a thousand words a day, and he almost never revised what he wrote. Biographer Earle Labor says London needed to publish because he was always broke.
LABOR: He was a dreamer and a visionary, and his dreams and visions almost always outran his finances. But he was - he wanted the best of everything. He wanted the best barn. He wanted the best home. He wanted the best boat. I think in some ways, he was trying to make up for what he had been deprived of when he was a kid.
VITALE: Jack London drank heavily on and off throughout his adventures, and his lifestyle caught up with him. On Nov. 22nd, 1916, he died suddenly from kidney disease. He was only 40 years old. He left behind 52 books and 200 short stories, work that has influenced writers from George Orwell to Jack Kerouac. But Earle Labor says London's artistry is only now being recognized by the literary establishment.
LABOR: I think one reason is that he writes so clearly that anybody with a good basic education can understand what he's saying. That puts the critics out of business.
VITALE: A journalist who visited Jack London weeks before he died reported that London said: I would rather be ashes than dust. The function of a man is to live, not to exist.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.
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