Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

Dyer claims that William Chaney and Flora were actually married; other accounts have them as common-law spouses, or even as transitory lovers. He agrees with Jack London himself and other biographers that despite his denials, Chaney was London's biological father; according to Dyer, when contacted by London, Chaney denied all and cut off his son from communication. In any case, Jack London always regarded his mother's next husband, John London, as his true father. John London was a man of ambition, and as Jack would many years later, he tried to make a go of farming; bad luck and ill health forced him to quit. This meant that Jack had to go to work to help support his family. His mother earned money by conducting seances, but it was not enough to pay rent on a house and feed and clothe Jack and two stepsisters. At a young age, the author had experiences in factories, a rail yard, and other jobs, including pirating oysters in San Francisco Bay. He even changed sides and became one of the officers charged with capturing oyster pirates. Much of his work he remembered as appallingly miserable or as self-destructive.

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Perhaps those ugly memories underlay his work habits. '"I am a believer in regular work,' he wrote, 'and never wait for inspiration.'" Dyer sees these early experiences as motivation for London to become a writer, to live a life of the mind rather than live like a beast of burden. As a young adult, he discovered books and libraries; many an author has been inspired by books when young. For London, books were escapes from the realities of an almost unbearable childhood. They were with him wherever he went.

When he became a successful writer, earning small fortunes with his novels, he bought thousands of books, building a large personal library. London "frequently referred to his books as his 'tools,' and he used them for the remainder of his life as a substitute for teachers," says Dyer. From his reading, London developed his views on society, politics, and culture. He also found the basics for his style of writing. In a letter, he says:

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Don't you tell the reader. Don't. Don't. Don't. 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 . . . PUT ALL THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE YOURS INTO THE STORIES, INTO THE TALES, ELIMINATING YOURSELF... AND THIS WILL BE THE ATMOSPHERE. AND THIS ATMOSPHERE WILL BE YOU. DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND, YOU! YOU! YOU! ... Don't narrate—paint! draw! build!—CREATE!

His relentlessly direct style with its emphasis on action captured the imaginations of a huge worldwide audience. The author "had become an international celebrity, a success beyond his wildest dreams," declares Dyer. "He had made it." Such celebrity would seem a great reward, but London seemed to tire of it.

It was part of his character to be generous, and he gave money to those in need and made loans to others that would not be repaid. Dyer notes, "He spent money before he got it, then had to write in order to earn it." Writing became a chore; something he did whether inspired or not. Every day, seven days a week, he wrote until he died, in bed amid notes and snippets of work. Perhaps this is why, late in Jack London, that Dyer records London as writing, "The thing I like most of all, is personal achievement—not achievement for the world's applause, but achievement for my own delight." Perhaps he motivated himself by finding something fresh and interesting to engage his mind, to "delight" himself.

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In addition to John and Flora London, Jack's parents, his wives Bess and Charmian are key figures in Dyer's Jack London. There is no denying" that Jack's loveless marriage to Bess seemed cruel and foolish. His leaving her and their two daughters seems at once inevitable and heartless. Even so, Dyer points out that Jack sometimes could not visit his children because Bess denied him access. Nonetheless, in Dyer's view the girls loved their father and were delighted by his rare visits, but disheartened at their ending.

Part of what ended London's first marriage was his relationship with Charmian Kittredge. She was athletic, with an agile mind and an adventurous spirit that paralleled London's own. "You [Charmian] are more kin to me than any woman I have ever known," London declares. Theirs was a passionate romance that survived tragedies and hardships, as well as London's mercurial moods. Charmian became an aide, typing London's manuscripts; she became a sparring partner, giving as good as she got in the ring; she became an adventurer, traveling far with her husband.

Dyer notes that she became valuable for biographers, too. "Charmian also kept a diary for most of her life," he says. "She did not usually write a lot each day, but she did write almost every day. Because of this, we know much of what Jack was doing most of the time for the last dozen years of his life." Dyer has done an admirable job of sorting through Charmian's records, sorting out telling details that help flesh out Charmian's life with Jack.

In the end, Charmian and Jack suffered disappointment. A child died soon after birth. London's great Wolf House burned to the ground just before it was ready to be occupied. Dyer explains how "forensic investigators," long after Jack and Charmian's deaths, decided that "some rags soaked in linseed oil" had spontaneously combusted, using the house's ventilation to becoming a great fire. Dismayed, London nonetheless continued to work hard, even though, says Dyer, "He was aware that he was dying." Cigarettes, alcohol, injury, and illness had taken their toll. Dyer depicts London in his last days as being overwhelmed by ailments, all conspiring to weaken him, yet London was as determined as ever, insisting on working until his body gave up.

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