In this week’s episode of the Art of Manliness podcast I had the privilege of speaking with 80-something Jack London scholar Earle Labor about his new biography entitled Jack London: An American Life. Dr. Labor spent four decades working on this book! If you enjoyed reading our series on the life of Jack London, you’re going to enjoy listening to this podcast.
- The adventures and professional success Jack London had achieved before he was 30
- What college students can learn from London on developing disciplined study habits
- What London did to improve his writing
- What London meant by living a life filled with the spirit of “romance and adventure”
- What London can teach men about being a “Complete Man”
- The flaws that haunted London throughout his career and personal life
- How young men today can live a life of adventure like Jack London
- And much more!
I highly recommend picking up a copy of Jack London: An American Life. It’s a great read and super inspiring. You’ll want to head out to the Klondike or sail around the world after you’re done reading it.
Listen to the Podcast!
Listen to the episode on a separate page.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. A few years ago we did these extensive series about the life of Jack London, the writer who wrote such greats as White Fang, The Call of the Wild, Sea Wolf, and just tons and tons of virile manly short stories. After we finish the series I learned that the foremost expert and scholar on Jack London, his name is Earle Labor he’s the curator of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, he teaches American Literature Centenary College of Louisiana. He has been working on the biography of Jack London for the past couple of decades and it came out last year. I pick up a copy read it, it’s great, the best biography that I’ve read on Jack London. And I had to get him on the show to discuss the life of Jack London because to me Jack London–– there is so much we can learn as a man from his life. He just lived an incredible, fascinating life full of adventure, full of hard work, full discipline, full of romance. I mean he was the complete man. Anyways, professor Labor and I talked about the life of Jack London, his work and what lessons man can take from his life today. So stay tuned.
Brett: Earle Labor, welcome to the show.
Earle: Thanks Brett, good to be here.
Brett: Okay, so you have studied the life and career of Jack London for your entire academic career and professional career and you’ve been working on this biography for decades. What’s the origin of your interest in London?
Earle: Well, I first got the call–– I am going back over 70 years when I was in grade school in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma. We had a little library there and one day I found a book titled Jack London’s stories for boys and I got very interested in that so I read that and read the Call of the Wild then hearing more about Jack London actually for the next several years. He never was mentioned when I went to high school or none of my classes in college. However, my best friend WW-II veteran combat infantryman who’s only a couple of years older than I was but seem far older, I guess, because of the experiences he had been through. Anyhow, it was second, of course, it is a new and the modern American novel under professor George Bernard and it seems incredible because London was untouchable by most of the academic stand but Dr. Bernard along with a partner in Hemmingway and some of the other writer like Fitzgerald assigned Jack London’s Martin Eden as one of the novels in that course. My friend PB Lindsay read it he told me he said “Earle, you got to read this novel about Jack London,” and I said “What are you are talking about?” And he says “Martin Eden,” and I said “I’ve never heard of it.” He said, “Well, you’ll find it not only interesting but relevant and powerful.” Well, but at that time I was more interested in some other things, mostly extracurricular. But when I was in the navy stays at the recruit training center in Mainbridge, Maryland a weekend pass up to Manhattan and was browsing in a newsstand there and saw this 25 cent paperback of Martin Eden. I remember my buddy had recommended so I said well, I’ll give it a try. I started reading it on the bus back to the base and I was captured by Eden. In fact, I was so captivated that I finished it that night in bunk with a flashlight. And I vowed if I ever went back for degree or PhD I was going to make Jack London the subject of my dissertation and that’s where the interest really was sparked.
Brett: So yeah, that’s very fascinating. You mentioned that for a while in your education and in your schooling you didn’t hear much about Jack London and it might be because a lot of people think of Jack London as simply a popular, i.e. lowbrow adventure writer for young adults but that really does a disservice to his work. How has Jack London standing as an author changed over the years and has he gotten more respect in academia?
Earle: Well, it’s been a dramatic change in the last 50 years but I think problem from the outset was that most people including the creation and memories of the academic establishment hadn’t read much Jack London, maybe some his dog stories, some of them hadn’t even read The Sea Wolf which is one of the best sellers and in fact made into more movies than any other film I know about ––been made into, I guess, it does a different film version. What I am saying is that they hadn’t bothered to London also the fact that he was popular happened to be a kind of negative with a lot of memories of the what the established or the literary league ––let me just stop for a moment and say one reason that I think they dislike Jack London was that he’s so easy to read for the common or general reader. You don’t need a college education and you don’t need a college professor to tell you how to understand Jack London not like Ezra Pound or G.S. Elliott or James George or even William Faulkner. In other words threatened to put the critics out of business, take their bread off their table. You can understand why they might not want to deal with it. Anyhow, I am going back to, I think, the dramatic change. Well, let me give you one other story here, one of my favorite stories now I mentioned this in the Biography. 1963, Sam Baskett, Michigan State University and president of the Michigan College English Association introduced me to the annual conference of the Association as “The other Jack London scholar.” Because there were a few others, but it gives you an idea of what the situation was with the establishment, the academic establishment. I am standing quite awakening as I call it really took place. Starting about the mid 1960s with the publications of one volume edition of his letters, my own book, great short stories of Jack London was published in the Harper Perennial classic series and Franklin Walkers, Jack London and the Klondike which is still a very major work on that period in London’s life came out and perhaps most important was Henry Woodbridge’s monumental bibliography which provided a kind of basic research for London scholars and shortly after that Woodbridge founded the Jack London newsletter which gave the Jack London folks a forum where they could exchange ideas and articles and what have you. And toward the end of that decade Russ Kingman, who had a very successful advertizing business in Oakland decided to move up to Glen Ellen near the Jack London State Park and Ranch and open up a Jack London book store. And that later became a kind of make up for London fans as well as some good many scholar. He also inaugurated the annual Jack London Birthday Banquet which is still held every year and attracts participants from not only this country but overseas as well. I am trying to give me a short history go all afternoon with this. But anyhow, things really took off in the 1970s, I know that several major journals include modern fiction studies published centennial issues 1976, the centennial of Jack birth. Also we got my edition–– excuse me my book Jack London in the 29 states of the series which is the first major critical biography, first book length critical biography or study of London’s works, his artistry and also Jim McClinuck’s study of his George stories came up that year and not long after that, few years after that Chuck Watson’s book on London’s novels came out. By the way, in the 1980, editions of the letters, three volume edition of London’s letters published by Stanford got the front page reviews in both the New York Times and the London Times literary supplement so that was something that I think that kind of waked up a few people like London might be more than just a hack who wrote some boring stories. Also, within along about 1988 or so another biography about both Charmian and Jack American dreamers was the first major study of Charmian on a personal level I should say, because she had been pretty well and I think disparaged or downplayed in some of the earlier biographies.
Of course, by now we got the Jack London Foundation which was also established by Russ Kingman back in the ‘70s and it puts out a quarterly newsletter and also sponsors the annual Jack London Banquet. We got a Jack London society which has been going very steady enough for almost two decades which was founded by one of my own students Jean Reesman who has done some definitive studies on London short stories as well as the racial issue and things to that sort and they put out a quarterly journal too. So we’re moving ahead finally after all those years. So I guess that kind of gives you an idea what’s happened in the last 50 years which really been an amazing burgeoning of scholarly interest in Jack London.
Brett: So, as I read your Biography, one thing I discovered was that much of Jack London’s fiction was based on his own life and experiences and the man lived an incredible life. I mean he had so many adventures before he even turned 30 years old. For listeners who aren’t familiar with Jack London’s life, can you give us some of the highlights of his useful exploits?
Earle: Yeah, let’s see… see if I can keep this fairly brief for you because it’s such an interesting period of his life. You know he had a very tough childhood coming from a working class family and what have you sometime on the verge of poverty. He later claimed he had no boyhood at all which one is quite true but that’s the way he remembered it. Had to go to work to the factory as soon as he finished Great School sometime working 12, 15 even some ––on one case I think he said about 18 hours of stretch there. One of his powerful stories The Apostate tells about that kind of experience. Jack himself wasn’t quite like the poor young fellow in The Apostate but there was a kind of emotional autobiography in that work in terms of the terrible working conditions back before we had child labor laws and what have you. He had enough with that factory work at the age of 15 said he was tired of being factory work based and became a member of a gang out there called the Oyster Pirates of San Francisco Bay. Now, these weren’t kids or these weren’t teenager, these were full-grown man they were criminals, pretty hardened criminals in some. But he manage to get $ 300 from Jenny Prentiss who had been his wonderful African-American women who had been his wet nurse and almost like a second mother to him ever since his infancy. And she lend him enough money to buy boat from one of the veteran pirates named French Frank and so he joined that bunch of grown criminals. He said later on miracle of my life is that I lived to be 21. He said most of his buddies were either dead or in prison by then and that was true. He spent a year with the pirates. What they were doing, of course, was raiding the commercial Oyster bands around the Bay area there which was guarded. They were guarded, they had the big companies that own them or but guards out there so it was risky business, they had to do most of their, had to do their work at night and still it was touch and go with the authorities and with the policemen. He managed to survive and after a year he decided he was going to change and go to the side of the law. So he joined the California Fish Patrol and I wouldn’t going around arresting some of his buddies up where he had been but he went down south so it was a different area for him to police. He spent several months with the California Fish Patrol. And then at the age of 17 he shipped as an able-bodied seaman aboard the Sophie Sutherland on an 8-month voyage for the northwest Pacific Ocean to hunt seals. This was one of the important phases of his younger years because he got to see a lot of the world including a number of island in Japan before they actually hit the sealing grounds out there. He also got a lot of the materials that he would later use in his novels The Sea Wolf. After that voyage he came back, had to work again for a while in the factory but after another year or so he decide he was going to hit the road again and he joined the western contingent of Cox’s army––this army of the unemployed that was marching on Washington back in 1893 to a protest kind of terrible working conditions that they had and he spent several months with them. He quit that the army, he quit that group at Hannibal, Missouri and decided to lie out on his own home boy and met the road, as he called it met the railroad. There weren’t any highways to speak of and all the travel like that most of it was by train and so he have cars which is kind of a risky business too, freight cars and what have you and managed to get on East so good deal in the east. He wanted see Niagara Falls got in late one night in a side car, Pullman he called it, a box car. Strode out and took a look at the Falls at night, they were so beautiful. He flopped as he sat a nearby field to get some sleep. I want to get up the next morning to see the Falls by daybreak but he never made it as he was walking through downtown the Niagara Falls he got tapped on the shoulder and this constable who is actually a kind of bounty hunter got, I think a buck of every hobos that he arrested him and he was brought before court and sentenced to 30 days in the area county penitentiary. He said, “Judge I am not a vagabond I’ve got money.” The judge said, “Son, you are, yeah. I am going to give you 60 days.” So Jack shut up and took his 30 days. That was one of the most important experiences of his life because he said later on I saw things in that penitentiary that I can’t write about, I can scarcely think about them. We know enough now about some of the conditions especially we seen that movie The Shawshank Redemption we know enough about the way prison conditions were back then and kind of imagine some of the stuff he saw. Anyhow, that was enough to determine him to go back and get an education. So, when he got out of jail he did a little more sightseeing and then headed back to Oakland. Went to high school, spent… oh, let’s say spent, I think, a year-and-a-half before deciding he is going to try to get in college. Managed to pass the entrance exam to the University of California Berkeley by studying intensively on his own and spent one semester there then had to drop out because of financial conditions.
And then we’re going now to about 1897 when he was 21 years old. This is the time of the great “gold rush” which is, I think, the greatest gold rush in the history of American culture or whatever. And he managed to get up there and he is spend a year in the Klondike and he said later on that was where he found himself and that gives––he came back and then started writing intensively to become what he felt it would be successful writer. So, it gave him some idea of the youthful experiences.
Brett: Very good. So, you mentioned that he had a bit of formal school and did grad school, did some high school and then he went to college for a bit but he was largely self-educated. He did a lot of study on his own and teaching himself how to write on his own. Where do you think he got that discipline and tenacity to stick to a strenuous study regimens? And are there any takeaways for college aged listeners that they could use from Jack London?
Earle: But he had amazing self-discipline, it’s just absolutely astonishing. Also, he was tremendously motivated to succeed, to pull himself out of the social pit he had witnessed it. He later said that poverty made me hustle. At the same time, he had this incredible will power and self-disciplined. By the way, I’ve counted more than 600 rejections he got during the first five years of his career but he refused to give up even when his friends and family were trying to get him a steady job. Sometimes he would spend all in writing itself he’d spend 12 or 14 hours a day. He tried to limit himself to two or three hours sleep at night but he couldn’t get and then he finally managed to get set regimen of five hours a night which he stuck with the rest of his life. And he was a veracious reader and that was one of the factors I think in his success. But I am going back to your question about his self-education. He had fallen in love with books he said when he was about, I think, five years old or so and he tells about some of the earlier books he read such as Washington Irving’s Alhambra a couple of other famous travel books so what have you. Also story by an author named … about a young Italian boy who succeeds what have you. In other words he had been a veracious reader from his very early childhood and I think that was one of the reasons that he was able to maintain this kind of self-motivation to become a writer himself.
Brett: Okay, so you mentioned all the rejections London faced when he was first starting out. Besides being a veracious reader what else did he do to improve his writing?
Earle: Incidentally — let me back up a little bit here. You mentioned clipping college day listeners what could they get from Jack London…
Brett: Oh, sure.
Earle: Yeah, I back up when I just met–– I got to bring in my, if you don’t mind, I asked my daughter Andrea about this question because she was a student of mine not too many years ago in my Jack London course. By the way, I have a 22-year-old daughter and I lost my wife to cancer 25 years ago. I have four wonderful children from that marriage but Andrea has been godsend to me and she has became kind of Jack London fan. I asked her this question, by the way, I say what would you say about these two? She said that you know Jack wrote a thousand words minimum a day and she said that’d be, as she said, would leave most college students balking. she said at the same time most students would still do well to have his kind of motivation and his kind of schedule so let me ––I just wanted to bring that and if you didn’t mind. We’ll move on now and tell me what’s the next question was please?
Brett: How did he improve his writing during those years he was getting all those rejections letters?
Earle: Well, let me see if I can get that from the outset. For one thing, I think the fact that he was a reader helped him considerably. But at first when he was trying to break into the literary market place bear in mind Brett that there were about 500 magazines out in those days that we didn’t have television, we didn’t have movies, we didn’t have the radio, we certainly didn’t have computers or what have you and that the magazine was the major cultural medium or what have you at the time so there are a lot of chances for a writer to break in with short stories, poems and articles and what have you even novel series. So, he was trying to write the kind of stuff that was being published in the popular magazines. Now, most of that was sentimental crap, trap and what have you was second-rate. So, what he was trying — what he was producing was third-rate, that’s what I have read. In fact, we published some of those stories in our complete edition in the Stanford edition there and you can understand why they were rejected. But what he did, he began copying the works of Kipling. He was reading intensively such contemporaries as Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis, even some of the earlier master’s like Poe and Melville actually copying some of their works that to get a feel of what it was especially Kipling’s playing style. He also said he read Herbert Spencer’s pamphlet philosophy of style which taught him to use words that would clearly convey the meaning of his stories. In other words, unlike some of the contemporaries that are modern writers I have mentioned earlier, I am thinking of Faulkner and Henry, Henry James, James George. He wrote so clearly that the reader could understand what he was telling without any help from the professors or the critics. That’s one reason as I say he is not been very popular with the establishment.
Now, back to his year in the convict which was a turning point in his writing, he said that it was in Klondike I found myself. Said to get your true perspective up there I got mine. He didn’t do any writing up there, he did a lot of listening, and he did a lot of first-hand observing. Of course, he had some interesting experience himself. Most of what he wrote about later on was stuff that he had heard other miners, sourdoughs, and tenderfoots talked about some of the legends up there. Anyhow, when he came back he had something really substantial to work with as well as he had been over that year kind of molding and I think his style was improved even though he hadn’t been writing up there. I think he needed that period of kind of maturing or whatever. When he got back he was still little unsure of himself as you can tell from his letters back in 1898 or so when he came back. But early in 1899, the Atlantic Monthly accepted the story of his called the Odyssey of the North and they said, “Dear, Mr. London we accept your story here. Give you a $ 120 plus a year free subscription to the Atlantic Monthly if you let us cut, if you don’t mind cut about a third of it.” He didn’t like the idea of cutting it but he was going to take their offer because a $ 120 then was three or four months pay in the factories plus and this is the most important thing. If you made it in the Atlantic Monthly you are in because that was probably the most important magazine not only in America but maybe in the world. And once he got into the Atlantic Monthly he was set. Let me mentioned something else though, in terms of his success. There have been several studies of genius, successful, genius not only in writing but also in sports and music and mathematics and computers what have you and a common denominator there according to some of the experts is thousands of hours spent in practice. There is one maybe two of these experts who set ten thousand hours as the standard there of practice and Jack London would have met that standard in terms of the hours he spent reading and writing and perfecting his trade. Once he had perfected that that was it. In other words, once he began producing his best work in say 1900 or so from then on he did that without too much trouble. It was amazing he could turn out these stories, as I say, minimum of 1000 words a day. What he did often was to mold a while, he would make notes and then mold over the stories but once he started writing he will get it down there and almost without exception there were few, very few revisions that he would make. It’s amazing what he was able to produce. Anyhow, I hope I have answered your question.
Brett: You did. So, one thing that I have noticed in Jack London’s fiction then I also saw this in your biography when you talked about personal letters from Jack London was he had this idea of living a life with the spirit of adventure and romance. First, what did London mean by that? And then second, do you think people today in the 21st century are capable of living a life filled with the spirit of romance and adventure?
Earle: It’s a good question, Brett. Let me see here, I guess if you read my book you read Jack London’s same with Credo who he said it’s better to–– I mean the function of men is to live not to exist. He wants to be a meteor and all that so, I think that pretty will in one way sums up his attitude but I say in my biography he was a natural born seeker and that’s something I think that no other biographer has quite said in the same way and that this is one of our most basic primal drives that ––excuse me, that they scientists have discovered in the last few decades along with the drive from what, food, fair and all that, sex and what have you that in all mammals there is this deep seated primal seeking drive often that pushes us to seek new adventures even sometimes although it may be at the risk of life, sometime it means that this driver overrides some of the other fundamental drives. Anyhow, I am saying that Jack was a natural born seeker and had an extraordinary primal seeking drives. Like yeah, Tennyson’s Ulysses, he wanted to drink life to the least and saved whatever drop of it even if it meant risking his own life. Romance and adventure meant seeking new worlds to explore dangerous unexplored incognito including the world of the man by the way, one just drop in geographically but he was a seeker in terms of knowledge throughout his life even at the end of his life. Note for example, I talked about his discovery of the work, the theories of… just a few months before he died he said to Charmin and his wife I am standing on the edge of the world so new, so terrible, so wonderful I am almost afraid to look over into it. He has used the word almost that I think is important because he mastered his fear and underwent a very major psychological and philosophical transformation or awaken and perhaps I should call it before his death and produce some of his finest stories in last several months in his life. Actually a bit of irony here, he had been writing with what Young calls a primary of vision almost from the start. I mean The Call of the Wild for example, is full of what we called math and architect and what have you, it’s a wonderful book in terms of a universal appeal. But as I say London realized at the end he had been missing something that I think he was undergoing those significant quite spiritual awakening as well as philosophical awaken toward the end there.
Brett, I think it’s still possible but it’s much more difficult now and it’s much more difficult now for folks and it was for me when I was coming along. Oh, there is so many more restrictions and what have you. Too many young people, I am afraid, are trying to get their romance and adventure playing video games and watching spectacular videos and what have you. They are bombarded with all these things and we didn’t have when I was growing up for example and no television then. We did have the radio but when Jack was coming along he didn’t have that so young folks had to go out on their own to seek adventures instead of finding them on computer screen or TV screen or what have you. And see, I got something for Andrea here I will share with you if you don’t mind. I say this is definitely possible she said to live with the spirit of adventure that many American has seemed to be too small and too regularly. I guess that’s something else where causing by restriction or whatever that we didn’t have back in those days and she says a guided tourist in there and it doesn’t bring new schedules long for their vacation, that’s it. And also, she says financial constraints but back in Jack’s day and mine financial constraints were something we broke to out to find adventure and romance or what have you because we sometimes made money doing it. I can tell you more about my own experience later on but Jack, of course, when he got out the hobo and he manage to get food and even money sometimes to keep going out there. It’s just that it’s more difficult, I think, in every respect for folks now. It’s still there but it’s not as easy to get.
Brett: Let’s discuss the manliness of Jack London because this is the art of manliness after all. He did all these manly deeds, he was extremely competitive, extremely driven, try to be physically strong, raised hell, he was a known lady’s man etc. etc. but he is also very sensitive and had a deep rich emotional life. What do you think Jack London can teach other man about being a man?
Earle: That’s a great question, Brett. I don’t know that many of us could match London in all those aspects in what we called manliness but we can certainly practice the art manliness as you kind of demonstrated in your website to your listeners. Let me see if I can clarify this a little further in terms of what you already brought up here. First, I think it’s important to know that Jack wasn’t merely the macho man. I think London was what I would call the complete man who had accepted his sensitive feminine element as an essential component of his whole self. Now, I am getting in the union psychology here but the idea is that each of us has elements of both the masculine and feminine. I don’t mean in any kind of literal sense but in those characteristics we associate with those two genres in our psyche and in order to become a complete person we have got to assimilate and recognize and appreciate those elements. I love, for example, I am quoting that famous photographer, reporter-photographer Arnold Genthe who was a good friend of Jack, described London face as “pointedly sensitive. His eyes were the eyes of a dreamer and there was almost a feminine wistfulness about him. And yet at the same time, he gave the feeling of a terrible and uncomfortable physical force.” At the same time Jack despise cowardice in a man. He could weep but he never could whine or whimper. He was––I’m thinking of other characteristics, he was fearless. Now, I am going to say that by example a true man should be fearless but not foolish. There is a limitation there and sometimes Jack simply didn’t recognize his own limits, I think. I think also in terms of this idea of manliness from Jack we get the concept of self-reliance, self-determination but not self-absorption. In other words, not totally wrap up in oneself. I mean some of Jack’s major characters I am thinking of Wolf Larsen and Martin Eden die because they are too self-absorbed in a sense and they are not interested in nothing kind of enough to the other human beings around them. Also, of course, there is a business I think in getting close to nature if we can and if possible get closer to nature in the wild. And it is possible that it is in fact, one of my grandsons he lifts weights and he plays rugby and he goes out, climbs mountains in the Rockies every summer so he has found a way to find that adventure even though we have difficulty now-a-days doing it. I think he has got the idea of manliness for him. I hope that it gives you some idea and answer to your question.
Brett: It did. So, one thing I found as I was reading your biography is that while there is so much to admire about Jack London, he also had his flaws like any person. What were Jack London’s biggest flaws that haunted his career and personal life?
Earle: Oh, my! Well, he was subject of fits and depression. I think he was––he may have been bipolar. He hated bullish but especially in the later years of his life he can do some bullying himself especially when he was suffering from some of his medical ailments and what have you. tremendous seeking drives I think it might may consider of flaws in years or many times he endangered his life and even the life’s of maybe his wife Charmian and some of the crew members of his boat The Snark there. In other words, he was an extremist and I think that can be dangerous. He also refused to accept reality at times. He loved his wife and was in denial of the fact that he was so very, very ill up to the very end. He was also in denial about his alcoholism. He always claimed that he was not a drunker and that, I think, is true. I mean nobody ever saw him after he was drunk but out of control. In fact, his wife Charmian said he just got more intense intellectually and I think his friends say the same thing. I think there is no question though that he suffered the symptoms of alcoholism and I know that’s an ailment, I don’t know whether you consider a flaw on his character but it’s certainly a problem that he had. And he was also in denial in terms of taking enough exercise and doing the right kind of eating, stayed on healthful diet after he got older. Those are the flaws that I think of just off hand.
Brett: Okay. It sort of leads us to my next question. Let’s talk about his death because it’s something that’s very controversial. Many people including some Jack London biographers believed that London committed suicide and they used this belief to tarnish London and his legacy but you come to a different conclusion in your biography. How did Jack London die?
Earle: It’s a major issue, Brett and I’ve been contending with this for the past half century or more. This lie or whatever you want to call it started in 1938 with the publication of Irving Stone’s Sailor on Horseback and it’s been perpetrated and perpetuated ever since then. It’s amazing to me that it’s held on the way it has in the light of all evidence. I guess a lot of scholars even the serious scholars think it’s…somehow more colorful or whatever that he commit suicide but there is no a trace of evidence that he committed suicide. In fact, on the night before his death I think the last letter he wrote was a letter to his two daughters and saying that he was going to be down in Oakland, he want to take them out to a picnic the following week before he went on a trip up to New York City. There are no indications that he was thinking of suicide. There is some possibility, we don’t know for sure, there is some possibility that he may have administered, self-administered morphine the night before he died but it’s been clinically proven that that was not the…probably not the cause of his death. There have been several studies done recently by distinguish physicians and medical scientists what have you demonstrating that the probable caused of his death was stroke and heart failure. Now, he was suffering from kidney problems for the last three years of his life and there were four attending physicians during his dying hours there all of whom attributed his death natural causes. The newspapers at the time also said that his death certificate signed by Dr. Porter also attributes his death to uremia. Now, because he had been suffering from kidney problems that seem to be the logical thing but the symptoms, when they found him that last morning, he was in a sort of paralytic state. There was that what we called cyanotic coloring in his face and I think Charmin said he tried to beat bed with one arm but the other arm could not move, all of points to the symptoms of stroke I think and that’s what I have tried to make clearance in my biography of––and if you look at my end notes you will see a video of substantiation of what I have just said there about his death and even about the drug overdose which is I will say that is it’s highly debatable even in itself.
Brett: So, you are a college professor and you teach a course on Jack London and his work, what do you hope your students get out and reading Jack London’s fiction?
Earle: Yeah, let me…let’s say I think he’s got plenty to say for all of us now-a-days including my students and others. It’s a whole business of I am saying what adventure may be possible for him. The possibility may be getting out of this city and I think perhaps as important as any the importance of reading but also connecting what’s you have read with his life. I keep thinking about Emerson who said only so much do I know as I have lived and so with Jack and I think even as a students today it’s important to relate what they are reading and even what they’re viewing on video or what have you to real life to make that vital connection. The world is still a very fascinating place even though we restricted in so many ways that we weren’t when I was growing up and certainly when Jack was growing up. My students invariably have been very positive in their responses to London’s work and his talk of adventure and what have you. And I think more than once he has actually gone on the adventure trial instead of himself or herself as result to reading as Jack did and I am hoping that in any case it open their minds to world out there that they might not have dreamt of otherwise.
Brett: Herodotus, the famous historian said that biography should be used as moral instruction. Are there lessons you hope readers will take away from the life of Jack London after reading your biography?
Earle: Another good question, Brett. I am trying to––let me see how I can best approach this. Let me think–– don’t be afraid of life or life’s challenges. I think that’s one message that you get out of here. I think that’s a moral lesson avoid self pity and be open, fair and honest in dealing with your fellow human beings, be honest with yourself, be open to the new ideas and opportunities but avoid the extremes. I think Jack sometimes couldn’t draw the line there. He tends too often to go beyond that line. He was an extremist he admitted himself. I think characteristic like kindness, decency, courage all of these are lessons that can be, I would hope, they conveyed from the life of Jack London. I know this is going to sound little corny but I think the major thing that I would like my readers to get in this book is the importance of love. I mean in love in the fullest sense–– love of life, love of adventure but also love of nature, love of the other creatures on God’s Earth and that means the animals as well as the human beings. Jack was very much in love with life in its fullest sense. And I will mention again that this is a major theme in The Call of the Wild, The White Fang, and it’s also a major theme in the The Sea Wolf. If you read The Sea Wolf Wolf Larsen is the most impressive character in American fiction I think but Wolf Larsen dies because he is not in love with much even with himself I think. The survivor hero of the book in a sense Humphrey van Weyden who falls in love with his woman and becomes a total man as result of it just as Jack, I think, felt in love with Charmian London. Wolf Larsen reflects a good deal of Jack’s what he called long sickness. And he said later on that love of people and love of woman cured him which I think it may have.
Let me mention one other thing and I guess that I can put a moral kind of moral implication on this or what have you. Jack love the Earth, love mother Earth. Remember the last several years of his love he devoted to restoring the Earth out there in the valley of the moon, building, rebuilding the land, he was a pioneer in ecology. So, I am saying that and I think that could included as one of the moral implications or perhaps I would say influences I want the reader to get from reading about his life.
Brett: Very good. It was all wonderful, wonderful insights. So, I would like to talk a little bit about your life because as I was trying to find out your contact information and in our conversations and email I learn that you have had a life that somewhat mirrored Jack London’s in a few ways. You did some really strenuous and manly things as a young man but ended up a man of letters like Jack London. Can you talk a bit about your younger life and how did those experiences as a young man affect your work as an adult?
Earle: Well, I appreciate the question so bear with me.
Earle: There are some similarities. Now, let me start by saying there is no way I could match Jack London in either his physical experts or his ––certainly not in his magnificent literary experts but I did have a little similarity. In my childhood I was a depression kid. My family never suffered from acute poverty but we were on the edge. I never went hungry as a child but there were times when life was pretty ––I mean there were times when we certainly didn’t have a car, there were times when we were buying day-old bread for a nickel-a-loaf but that was ––there was nothing wrong with that.
My folks sent me to Dallas Technical High School to learn a trade. Back in those days usually it’s only rich kids could afford to go to college. So, I went to Dallas Tech, I did pretty well in machine shop, wood shop, electric shop, auto shop, I did very well in drafting. Probably would have become a draftsman as my career except for a wonderful English teacher who spotted me virtually the first week in class as college mat4erial. She groomed me for four years. We wrote a theme a week. She groomed for college and help me get scholarships at SMU so that I was able to go to college and I was able to write too after all that practice. I don’t know if I had $ 10,000 like Jack but I did a lot of writing and under her tutelage and that make a big difference in my success in college. But even then I had to work particularly in the summers. One summer I spent stringing a barbed wire fence in east Texas and other summer, second summer ––excuse me, bailing hay up in Oklahoma. Next summer I worked on the maintenance crew at Lone Star Steel in Texas down there and I had other jobs I worked for a while when I was in school, worked in a bakery for a while, worked in a fish market for a while. I remember my mom would come in back door when I got home in the evening and she had me changed my clothe at the garage because I have been working with the fish all day. I am just saying that all that I think may have been in one way good for me. It certainly made me appreciate skill and I was always ready to go back to school when the time came. But the big adventure I had closest to Jack London came when I was after I graduated from SMU in 1949. My best friend, I mentioned earlier PB Lindsay from Gilmer, Texas, the veteran, he and I decided we were going to get away from all the restrictions of society and civilization and all that kind of like Jack hitting the road. We were going to work to wheat harvest all away from the Texas Panhandle up to Canada and that would give us enough money to grub stake whatever to buy the supplies to go out into the Canadian wilderness and spent a year. We even spotted a lake out there totally away from all kind of civilization. We want to go out there and build a cabin and just spent a year in the wilderness or whatever. Now, Brett I got to admit that the good Lord was with us we didn’t make it to Canada but we had some remarkable adventures along the way. In fact, my next book which I am working on right now is going to be a celebration of that particular odyssey which tool place in one of the most significant period in the American culture of history which never been celebrated. I am talking about that unique five-year period in American history between the end of the Second World War and beginning of the Korean War. Unlike the 20s, nobody has done much with that and I think while there are still somebody around with memories it ought to be celebrated because it was very different, very special. I mean all the veterans coming back. There was an aura of optimism then that I think we never had before maybe not since. I believe the American folks had ––we had lived successfully through triumphantly through depression and the biggest war in the history where they were triumphant where America was the clearly the most powerful nation in the world. Look what we had accomplished so we felt that the sky was the limit and as a result as I say there was a kind of aura about that period that I think needs to be celebrated and I want to do that in this book of mine because my friend PB and I were part of that. I mean the idea that we can go up there and do all that was ––it sounds very foolish now but at the time we felt we can do it after all we are both won goal medals in weight lifting, you know I did some weight lifting there competed Olympic lifting and we didn’t know what our limits were at that time, that would come later but that particular odyssey took us through the Midwest up to the–– even its forest the Yellow Stone and what have you. I worked on grain elevators, I worked let’s say somebody had a job on wheat field. We were harvesting wheat. We worked for a while up in Kanas City I even had a little ––like London I had a little bit of boxing experience but unlike London and I had enough of that then decide I would stick with weight because I preferred that’s kind of passive resistance and I even had a job trimming hams in a meat packing plant. So, all of that, I think, in one sense might relate to Jack and what he went through. As I say the world in many ways is more open and I had no worries about hitch-hiking. All those adventures we had not once did we encounter drugs, alcoholism or what have you. I will give you one example here if you got time.
Earle: One of our toughest jobs was with the South paper mill out in Western Kansas. Now, some of the other work had been I guess as strange. I had certainly worked in steel mill was more dangerous in some ways but the South paper mill out west of Kansas involved our sacking, dried alfa-alfa for livestock and the way it would happen that we bring in, the trucks bring this fresh alfa-alfa and then it would be dried and cut up put in this furnace and come down in these funnels to workplace below where we supposed to sack the 100 pound feed sacks and each, there were three price coding on it … when that sack is full we … make sure it’s a 100 pounds exactly, it’s too much take a little out and put in a barrel next to it, if it was too little we took little out of the barrel and put in there. And we load these up, when they’re full we sow them up, load them up to a dolly and move them out to box. Now, that was strangest part was heavy work but that didn’t bother us, we were young and strong. The problem was this fine thin dust was in the air all the time and it got into our lungs, into our eyes, into our ears and what have you. And finally my friend got a case of this pneumonia from it heading out and that was probably the worst job we had but all of that I think help motivate us at least had motivate me to come back and get a master’s degree at SMU. I am taking more time than I should here but I wanted to give you an idea what I am doing with that book we called the Farm Music.
Brett: Yeah, I can’t wait to read that one when it comes out. Well, Earle Labor, this has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Earle: I appreciate your interest and your patience and I look forward to correspondent again concerning the Art of Manliness.
Brett: Well, thank you very much. It’s really an honor, I really enjoyed your book and I just yeah, love listening to what you had about Jack London.
Earle: My pleasure, take care now.
Brett: Take care, you too. Our guess today was Earle Labor, professor Labor is the curate of the Jack London Museum in Shreveport and he teaches American Literature at Centenary college, Louisiana and he is the author of the biography Jack London “An American Life”. You can find that in Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere and I recommended that all of you pick up a copy and read it, it’s a great read, I think you will get a lot out of it.
Last updated: November 28, 2017