Interview: Earle Labor, Biographer of Jack London: An American Life

Shelf Unbound: How did you become interested in London’s works, and what about his writing most appeals to you?

Earle Labor: I first became interested in London’s works when I was a grade-schooler in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma. Ours was a consolidated school for kids who lived on farms in the surrounding area along with the few who lived in the village. There were only six teachers for twelve grades, so each classroom accommodated two classes. I was in the eighth grade, and while our teacher, Mr. Theo Smith, was working with the seventh graders, my class was studying our various lessons in arithmetic, grammar, geography, history, and literature. One afternoon, after finishing my lessons, I decided to check the books in our little closet-sized classroom library. A thick maroon book with a bright gilt imprint on the spine caught my attention: Jack London’s Stories for Boys. I pulled it down from the shelf, opened it to the frontispiece, and saw a small native holding a very slender spear in front of a very big Polar bear. The caption read “Then did the bear grow angry, and rise up on his hind legs, and growl!” Naturally I was immediately captivated. I spent the next several days enjoying such wonderful tales as “The Story of Keesh” (that was the one with the Polar bear), “The Shadow and the Flash,” “Love of Life,” and, most memorably, “To Build a Fire.”

However, except for a couple of movies—The Call of the Wild (starring Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and Jack Oakie) and The Sea-Wolf (with Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, and John Garfield), I didn’t hear Jack London’s name mentioned until I was a junior at Southern Methodist University in 1948. My best friend, a WWII veteran named P.B. Lindsey, was taking a course in the modern American novel under Professor George Bond, who had included London’s little-known Martin Eden along with famous works by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Lindsey said that was the most powerful novel he’d ever read and urged me to read it, too. Because I was preoccupied with other affairs at the time, mainly extracurricular, I didn’t immediately follow his prompt. Four years later, however, on weekend leave from the U.S. Navy Recruit Training Camp in Bainbridge, Maryland, I spotted a twenty-five-cent paperback of London’s novel. I started reading it on the bus back to the base and was captivated by the hero’s dramatic rise from poverty to success. I stayed up all night finishing the book under a flashlight in my bunk. That’s when I decided I would select Jack London’s literary artistry as the subject for my dissertation when I went to graduate school to work on my doctorate.

I think that what most appeals to me about London’s writing is what has appealed to millions of readers throughout the world for more than a century: “universality.” In other words, his works deal with issues that have confronted humanity throughout the world from time immemorial to the present and into the future. I believe that he’s “America’s greatest world author.” (I underscore world because my personal opinion is that Herman Melville is America’s greatest author.) London’s works have been translated into at least one hundred languages (I recently acquired one of his books in Mongolian, which I hadn’t seen before). Moreover, many foreign critics also rate Jack London most highly. For example, Danish scholar Georg Brandes singled out London as the best of the new twentieth-century American writers with the comment, “He is absolutely original, and his style is singularly forcible and free from all affection.” Beijing University professor Li Shuyan says that “Martin Eden and the many heroes of London’s stories will always be an encouraging force to those who are fighting against adversities, and who believe the worth of man lies in doing, creating, and achieving.” Vil Bykov, the major London scholar in Russia, compares London with Tolstoy and Chekhov in their common pursuit of “the man of noble spirit, adding that “Jack London brought to the Russian reader a world full of romanticism and vigor, and the reader came to love him.” 

Shelf Unbound: I remember reading “To Build a Fire” for the first time in high school, and the image of the main character’s spittle crackling has always stuck with me. What about this story, do you think, makes it one of the best short stories ever written?

Labor:What appealed to me most as a boy has also appealed to readers around the globe: Jack London is a superb teller of tales. Out of two hundred short stories and a score of novels, I can name a dozen or so that are clearly hack work, but I have difficulty citing one that is really boring. He was the consummate craftsman in pacing his narratives, “fleshing them out” with vivid descriptive details, and—most impressively—creating mood or what he called “atmosphere.” He explained the major keys for effective story-telling in an early letter to his friend Cloudesley Johns, another aspiring young writer who had sent him a story to critique: “Don’t you tell the reader…But have your characters tell it by their deeds, actions, talk, etc. … And get the atmosphere. Get the breadth and thickness to your stories, and not only the length (which is the mere narration).” Anticipating T.S. Eliot’s famous concept of the “Objective Correlative,” he adds, “Atmosphere stands always for the elimination of the artist [as lecturer].”

These major keys are brilliantly on display in his classic story “To Build a Fire.” You mentioned that you still remember “the image of the main character’s spittle crackling” in weather so cold that it froze before hitting the ground. That same image has stayed in my mind’s eye for more than seventy years. I also remember the vivid description of the man running “on feet so frozen that he could not feel them when they struck the earth,” skimming along the surface like “a winged Mercury.” And who can forget the image of the man’s dog, catching the “scent of death” at the end of the story: “That made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.” 

Little wonder why this story has become a world classic in the mode of literary naturalism! Those heavenly stars could hardly care less about that frozen body in the snow. And the dog thinks of humans as mere “food-providers and fire-providers.” We’re reminded of the similar metaphor in Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”: “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word” Nature tells the correspondent as he faces death on the open sea, making it clear that “she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.”

Shelf Unbound: Where did London get his knowledge of this freezing cold weather, minus 75 degrees? Had he experienced anything like that?

Labor: He experienced such severe cold during the winter months he spend in the Klondike during the famous Gold Rush of 1897-98. Fortunately he did not freeze, but he did know of a case similar to that in his story: The man was found afterwards frozen stiff as a marble statue on his knees bent over an unlit fire. Those who saw him remarked that it looked almost as if he were praying. It’s a haunting image that surely stayed in Jack’s mind for the following years.

Shelf Unbound: London wrote an earlier version of “To Build a Fire” prior to the 1908 version that we are familiar with. How did the 1902 version differ, and why did he choose to write the story again?

Labor: In a 1908 letter to R.W. Gilder, editor of Century Magazine, which had recently published the later, now-classic version, London explained that he had written the first version, which had been published in The
Youth’s Companion
, “for boys merely” and that he resolved “to take the same motif and handle it for men.”

Even a quick glance at the two stories validates his explanation. The 1902 version is an “exemplum:” a short dramatic narrative intended to emphasize the moral lesson in a sermon. The Youth’s Companion (a forerunner of the official Boy Scout magazine, Boy’s Life) preached a regular weekly sermon to America’s strenuous young manhood during the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century. It was actually a prestigious journal, featuring articles not only by writers like Jack London but also by national leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Remember when London advised his friend Cloudesley Johns not to tell the reader. But that’s exactly what he does in the first version because that’s the purpose of his exemplum: “‘Never travel alone’ is a precept of the north.” He reiterates this warning throughout the story, concluding that his hero, Tom Vincent, who has been properly initiated into the fraternity of Northland veterans, now preaches the sermon: “Never travel alone!”

By contrast, London’s theme is dramatized by the actions of the two characters in the later version, which is three times the length of the 1902 story. Note his addition of the dog, whose actions reveal significant insights into the character of the man as well as Nature. And note especially the skillful creation of atmosphere in the opening sentence and throughout the narrative: “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland…It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun.” Furthermore, the main character, unlike Tom Vincent, has no name. In an early draft of this story, London named him “John Collins,” but it was another master stroke to portray him as Everyman. Also note the etymology of “Vincent,” derived from the Latin “to conquer”—another nice hint for London’s young readers, most of whom would have studied Latin in school.

These are just a few points I could make in explaining the difference between a story for youths and a classic for all ages. Perhaps I should mention that virtually no one, including myself, realized that these were two very different stories. In the summer of 1966, I accepted an invitation from King Hendricks, Chair of the English Department at Utah State University, to teach a graduate seminar in literary criticism and to initiate a Jack London course. The University had recently been gifted with a massive collection of London archival materials from Irving Shepard, London’s nephew and executor of the London estate. Professor Hendricks also invited me to delve into those materials. That’s when we discovered the issue of Youth’s Companion containing the 1902 story. He and I subsequently published an article in Studies in Short Fiction along with the story itself. Since then it has been reprinted several times. For example, I include both versions my Portable Jack London.

If I may, I’d like to speak briefly about something else that has impressed me during my study of London’s works: his extraordinary scope—thematic, cultural, ethnic, geographic, psychological, and stylistic. Many readers, including the critics, don’t realize that out of more than fifty books London produced during his twenty-year professional career, fewer than one-third are set in the Northland. The rest cover much of the globe: England, Ireland, South America, China, Japan, Manchuria, and the South Pacific. Here is a representative handful of the extraordinary range of his topics: “War” is a little gem more relevant now than ever. “Theft” dramatizes the collusion between big business and Washington politics. “A Piece of Steak,” set in Australia, has been called “one of the greatest boxing stories ever written.” “The Red One” (originally titled “The Message”) is a haunting story based upon the motif Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke would employ in “2001.” “The Water Baby” is a fascinating amalgamation of Jungian psychology and Polynesian myth. London might well have boasted, like Walt Whitman, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” 

Information on the Jack London Museum in Shreveport, Louisana, can be found at 

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