Jack London is one of the first literary names to be mentioned when considering the picaresque all-American male writer. Along with Kerouac and Hemingway, London epitomizes this description, perhaps even more so since he preceded them. Londonís autobiography reinforces this perception of the renowned author by letting London speak for himself.
The book includes black-and-white photographs and is divided into three segments. The first part recounts Londonís many travels as a tramp, mostly in the Northeastern part of the United States, where he details his travels in New York and Pennsylvania. These narratives focus heavily on describing the life of a vagrant during the early twentieth century. London writes vividly of the conditions of areas he visits and the scores of other homeless people that he encounters. Londonís sympathy for these people is evident, and he seems conflicted as to how he views them: London portrays a sort of admiration for the lifestyle and reserves his judgment solely for the purpose of producing an accurate portrayal of this existence. There is a sense of irony in that London is fascinated and proud of such living, which he chose willingly, but others have forced upon them.
Londonís travels are expanded worldwide in the second part of the book, which recounts his sailing to different ports. This voyage, as London mentions several times, sprung seemingly from a whim for enjoyment and adventure. If these qualities are what London truly was seeking, then he seems to have received them by his account. London writes of encounters with aborigines and lepers, and in each of his writings native people are represented as seen by him. This writing will certainly intrigue readers who have an interest in adventure, though it seems that London would not respect such vicarious living.
Interesting encounters aside, parts of An Autobiography of Jack London are downright dull, which is to be expected when reading the journals of any one person. Chronicling onesí life must include duller moments, and such a chronicle is bound to capture the ordinary along with the exciting. This is certainly the case with Londonís description of his life events, one of four such autobiographical compilations from Skyhorse Publishing. While a biography can skim over the quotidian to focus on an understanding of the person, an autobiography (should) relate events as they occur. It would be prudent for readers to remember this distinction, especially if they are interested in London solely as a literary figure.
The third and final section of the book focuses almost exclusively on alcohol and its presence in Londonís life. Here, London recounts with vivid detail his first intoxication at the age of five, to his encounters with drunkenness while seeking adventure as an adolescent. There are tales of hard-drinking games played at saloons to drinking with others while sailing at sea. As with his examination of vagrant life, London again contradicts himself by praising an activity that he holds admiration for, even as he recognizes the several faults and damages inflicted by intoxication. London expounds upon topics of death and suicide by writing of alcoholís commingling with these concepts, and the reading becomes surreal at this point, since Londonís stunning portrayal of alcoholism and addiction is itself a product of someone suffering these effects. It is as if the reader is viewing an obituary written by the deceased, and the eeriness of this writing credits Londonís technique and Stephen Brennanís editing and is the most interesting part of the book.
The true gem of this collection is that readers glimpse the literary great that London
would eventually become. While so much of the writing is unimportant, the occasional descriptive paragraphs reveal the genius that lies dormant inside the youth and inexperience of the young London. These passages are remarkably vivid and reveal Londonís ability to use words as a tool to reshape the world around him into literary art.
That same reshaping is partly why there is an uncertainty to this work. The reliability of a narrator must be questioned in any sort of autobiographical writing, and London is no different. The fallibility of memory and the bias of opinion create a narrative that is ultimately erratic, but no more so than the piecing together that is done by researchers writing a biography. The opportunity to read Londonís chronicling of his life makes this particular work insightful, if nothing else, and should readers wish to know more about Jack London, they are advised to consult this work but not rely on it entirely.