`Cold Towel' Tales

SHORT STORIES OF JACK LONDON. Edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz, III, and I. Milo Shepard, New York: Macmillan, 738 pp., $35. `THE greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived,'' observed literary critic Alfred Kazin. For many of us, that has become the conventional wisdom. Jack London is widely understood as a traveler-adventurer who also wrote - the forebear of an American type culminating in Ernest Hemingway.

Before he was 20, Jack London had spent seven months on a sealing schooner and 30 days in the Erie County (N.Y.) Penitentiary for vagrancy. In between, he worked in a cannery, a jute mill, a power plant, and a laundry. In 1897, he joined the rush of gold seekers who trekked to the Yukon.

Even after 1900, when his literary reputation rivaled that of Mark Twain, and the accompanying financial reward freed him from hack work, he journeyed and wrote ceaselessly - about 1,000 words a day. During his 43-year lifetime he visited Polynesia, Melanesia, Australia, Korea, Manchuria, Jamaica, Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico, and produced 59 works, including plays, essays, and sociological studies as well as novels and short stories.

As this new, thoughtful edition of London's stories amply shows, his short stories outpaced his sometimes pokey novels. Simultaneously concise and complex, these intricate stories frequently deliver passages with the rude wallop of a cold towel.

Describing a trek through the Klondike, London writes: ``The sleds groaned by on their steel-shod runners, and the dogs strained low in the harnesses in which they were born to die.'' Responding to the twin spurs of literary naturalism and Darwinian evolutionism, London conjured a harsh and hostile environment.

London's novels often sagged into sentimentality, but his short stories seldom did. Good men, like Otoo in ``The Heathen,'' and whiney, morally lax grumblers like the effete urbanites of ``In a Far Country,'' all die miserable deaths. But especially as he grew older, visions of pitiless nature - ``romanticism on all fours'' as Irving Babbitt called it - interested London less and less. The socialism he espoused in his novel, ``The Iron Heel'' also paled, and was replaced by an enthusiasm for the psychological theories of Carl Gustav Jung.

Writing to his wife about Jung's ``Psychology of the Unconscious,'' London explained: ``I tell you I am standing on the edge of a world so new, so terrible, so wonderful, that I am almost afraid to look over into it.'' A Jungian sense of humankind's collective unconscious inculcates ``The Water Baby,'' the last story London wrote. In it, John Lakana (the Hawaiian name for Jack London) persists in baiting an old fisherman, Kohokumu, who tells far-fetched tales and relates dreams as if they were real events. Kohokumu retorts: ``Dreams go deep, all the way down, maybe to before the beginning.''

One could even argue that Jungian dynamics propel many of the stories London wrote before the ``Psychology of the Unconscious'' was published. For example, ``The Night-Born,'' an intricate story-within-a-story about a white woman who lives among the Indians, dramatizes the human quest for spiritual fulfillment in a way that the psychologist would later codify.

If you haven't looked at Jack London's writing since the threat of a pop quiz dulled your appreciation of ``The Call of the Wild,'' this new edition offers an opportunity to visit London as a grown-up. It comes equipped with a genuinely informative introduction written by individuals whose appreciation of London's gifts is palpable.

Like many writers who wrote short stories in the golden age of magazines, London knew his market. Psychological nuances and motives had to be, in his words, ``underlying.'' ``The superficial reader will get the love story and the adventure; while the deeper reader will get all this, plus the bigger thing lying underneath,'' he wrote in 1903. In this engrossing sampler of London's short stories, one gets enough of the ``bigger things lying underneath'' to instigate a sea change in the appreciation of this major American writer.

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