Many editions of Sailor on Horseback describe the book as a biographical novel, but the work is filled with specific factual accounting of the publications, work habits, and projects of London, facts that support the book as a definitive history of London’s life. Stone evidently admires London as an individual and as a writer, but he does not gloss over unfavorable information about his subject. The complete portrait of a keen intellect with an adventurer’s soul is worthwhile and entertaining reading for young adults.
The author has portrayed London as a likable and very adventurous young man. The men who swapped stories with London in Alaska, as well as those who rode freight trains with him, remarked on his good humor and constant readiness to share what he had. As a young man, he lost his two front teeth in a fight that Stone calls good-natured. London’s good nature was apparently taken advantage of as he earned more money for his writing. When he bought what he called Beauty Ranch, near Glen Ellen, California, he invited almost everyone to come visit, and many accepted. Stone refers to these years at Beauty Ranch as the happiest ones of London’s life. His warm manner as host and his generosity to his guests as well as to farm laborers were legendary.
London the adventurer is also detailed in Stone’s account. The author judges London’s excursions to have been fuel for his creative and intellectual energy, a natural extension of his expansive self. The book charts London’s pattern of crushing work loads interspersed with flights of adventure, such as living as a hobo, sailing, traveling to Alaska, and reporting wars. His urge for excitement led him to design and build a ship,...
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Stone’s biography was reviewed in 1938, as a whole, favorably. Reviewers most often cited the abundance of fact and detail within the book as its principal strength. To attest to the book’s importance at the time, it was reviewed in eighteen publications of national merit, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Saturday Review of Literature, and The Times Literary Supplement of London. As a point of comparison, London’s daughter Joan published Jack London and His Times: An Unconventional Biography (1939), a book that was reviewed in five publications. The biography satisfies the curiosity of the readers of The Call of the Wild (1903) and The Sea-Wolf.
Sailor on Horseback was initially released during the Great Depression and just before World War II. Because of the historical swing toward totalitarianism that was occurring at the time of publication, one reads the history of socialism as recorded in this biography with a slightly different point of reference. Because every era is an era of transition, all young readers will be offered an opportunity to consider the ebb and flow of economic and political systems as they read of London’s struggles to find work and his being urged to run for president on the Socialist ticket. Stone’s biography offers an effective blend of personal and societal concerns in his portrait of London the socialist, concerns that will be meaningful to a young reader.