Sailor on Horseback

by Irving Stone

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

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, the Snark, that he planned to sail around the world. The ship building was interrupted by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and further marked by bad production and fraud on the part of those whom London hired. Despite the expenses and difficulties of building the ship (and the fact that he did not complete his seven-year cruise around the world), his voyage to Hawaii and to the South Pacific in the Snark was time that London lived intensely, once again a sea pirate.

Stone’s biography offers a complete portrait of London the writer. London’s method of writing consisted of writing at least one thousand words every morning, and for some intervals, fifteen hundred or two thousand words each day. Regardless of how badly London needed money, however, he refused to write more than two thousand words a day because he believed that it was impossible to write more and produce literature. London’s methodology was effort, but his object was great writing.

Stone’s biography includes two extremely far-reaching influences exerted by London that most readers would not otherwise consider. London’s autobiographical novel John Barleycorn (1913) focused on his drinking and generated a considerable amount of public reaction; it was used by ministers, Prohibition organizations, and anti-saloon leagues to inveigh against alcohol. Stone calls the novel “one of the leading factors in bringing Prohibition to the United States in 1919.” Another generally uncredited influence of London was his work with the Authors’ League to revise the law that awarded copyrights for stories to the magazines in which they were published instead of to the authors of the stories. Film companies were buying the copyrights from the magazines and authors were not being compensated for their stories that became motion pictures. London joined wholeheartedly in the effort to change the law, and, in Stone’s words, “he helped make it possible for future generations of American writers to derive the full benefit of their work.”

Stone’s portrait of London as the hero of this biography often reminds a reader of the superman/animal heroes of London’s own adventure books. Stone shows the personal truths that existed for London in his own adventure stories by recounting the story of London’s life. Stone, a respected author himself, wrote about a man who he said was “the first to bring the story home to the common people, to make it entirely understandable and enjoyable”; the same can be said of Stone.

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