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London, Jack

Jack London

Born: January 12, 1876
San Francisco, California
Died: November 22, 1916
Glen Ellen, California

American author

American author and supporter of socialism (a system of social organization in which the government owns and manages the distribution and production of goods) Jack London wrote popular adventure stories and social tracts (pamphlets) based on unusual personal experiences. At their best, his works are powerful and moving stories.

Early life

Jack London was born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco, California, in 1916, the son of Flora Wellman and Henry Chaney. Jack's parents were not married at the time of his birth. Flora married a widower, John London, the same year that her son was born. John was a loving stepfather, but undertook several business and agricultural enterprises that turned out to be unsuccessful. The family, which included Eliza and Ida, daughters of John London's first marriage, moved often. Because the economic circumstances of Jack's family steadily declined, he held several jobs at the early age of ten. He delivered papers, worked on an ice wagon, and set up pins in a bowling alley, all while going to school. Almost all of the money he earned was turned over to his parents. At the age of thirteen he left school and continued to do odd jobs. He managed to buy a fourteen-foot skiff (small, flat-bottomed open boat) and frequently sailed out into the Oakland, California, bay, often bringing library books with him.

When Jack was fifteen, John was injured in an accident. Jack went to work in a cannery full time to support his family. The work involved bending over machines that had no safety guards. Jack worked the longest hours he could, often eighteen or twenty hours at a stretch. The pay was ten cents an hour.

Jack escaped from that job by becoming an oyster bed pirate in the San Francisco Bay oyster beds. At sixteen he joined the California Fish Patrol at Benecia. Just after he turned seventeen he signed aboard a ship, the Sophia Sutherland, as an able-bodied seaman and headed to the Pacific Northwest for a seal-hunting expedition. After returning from his sea voyage, Jack worked in a jute (fiber from certain tropical plants used to make rope) mill, and then a power plant.

Jack completed his high school education in a year and went to the University of California for a semester. He traveled to the Alaskan Klondike with the gold prospectors and, after returning to California, launched his writing career.

Survival of the fittest

London won national acclaim for his short stories about the brutal and vigorous life of the Alaskan Yukon, published as The Son of the Wolf (1900). Other writings in the same genre (type) followed. The best known is The Call of the Wild (1903), which describes how an Alaskan dog leaves civilization to join a wolf pack. The Sea-Wolf (1904) tells of the conversion of a civilized man to a simple way of living.

These books stress the primitive survival of the fittest. This stems from London's belief in the theories of evolution that Charles Darwin (18091892) wrote about. (Evolution is the theory that groups of organisms may change or develop over a long period of time.) Other tales that developed similar themes are White Fang (1906), The Strength of the Strong (1911), Smoke Bellew (1912), and The Abysmal Brute (1913).

Influence of socialism

London was also influenced by the socialistic theories of Karl Marx (18181883). An early book, The People of the Abyss (1903), described slum conditions in London, England. Other books of the same type included The War of the Classes (1905), The Iron Heel (1907), The Valley of the Moon (1913), and The Human Drift (1917).

Two of London's best books are semi-autobiographical (based on his own experiences)Martin Eden (1909) and John Barleycorn (1913). The former recounts his struggles as a writer; the latter tells about his long-lasting fight against alcoholism.

London's life and work hold many contradictions. He believed in socialism, and he believed in Darwin's idea of survival of the fittest. He felt his own success illustrated the concept of the superman who stands above the ordinary person and triumphs by force of will. Although his work is often regarded as adventure stories for young people, it also deals with the adult theme of environmental determinism, or the idea that the world shapes us in ways we are powerless to resist.

For More Information

Bains, Rae. Jack LondonA Life of Adventure. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Associates, 1992.

Dyer, Daniel. Jack London: A Biography. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.

Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

London, Jack. John Barleycorn. New York: Century, 1913. Reprint, New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.

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Jack London

Jack London

American author and advocate of socialism Jack London (1876-1916) wrote popular adventure stories and social tracts based on unusual personal experiences. At their best, his works are powerful and moving narratives.

Jack London, in full John Griffith London, was born in San Francisco, the illegitimate son of a wandering astrologer and a spiritualist. At the age of 14 he quit school to seek adventure. As a sailor, he pirated San Francisco Bay oyster beds; then, aboard a sealing ship, he cruised to Japan. Later, as a tramp, he saw much of the United States and the interior of a Niagara Falls jail. He completed his high school education in a year and went to the University of California for a semester. He traveled to the Klondike with the gold prospectors and, returning to California, launched his writing career.

London won national acclaim for his short stories about the brutal and vigorous life of the Yukon, published in magazines and then in a book, The Son of the Wolf (1900). Other writings in the same genre followed; the best known is The Call of the Wild (1903), which describes how an Alaska dog leaves civilization to join a wolf pack. The Sea-Wolf (1904), in addition to portraying the predatory sea captain Wolf Larson, tells of the conversion of a civilized man to an elemental way of living. The stress upon the primitive survival of the fittest in both books stemmed from the author's belief in many of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. White Fang (1906), The Strength of the Strong (1911), Smoke Bellew (1912), and The Abysmal Brute (1913), as well as several volumes of tales set in the South Seas, developed similar themes.

London was also influenced by the socialistic theories of Karl Marx. Often London's writings attacked social abuses and advocated Marxist beliefs. An early book, The People of the Abyss (1903), described slum conditions in London. Other books included The War of the Classes (1905), The Iron Heel (1907), and The Human Drift (1917). The second of these prophesied a fascistic revolution, which eventually would be followed by egalitarianism. The Valley of the Moon (1913) showed how a return to the land might solve social and economic problems.

Two of London's best books are semiautobiographical—Martin Eden (1909) and John Barleycorn (1913). The former recounts his struggles as a writer; the latter tells about his long-lasting fight against alcoholism. The over all pattern of London's life was tragic—youthful poverty, two unsuccessful marriages, disillusionment, in time, with the Socialist party, and finally despair and (almost certainly) suicide.

Further Reading

Popular biographies of London are Irving Stone, Jack London: Sailor on Horseback (1938); Richard O'Connor, Jack London (1964); and Franklin D. Walker, Jack London and the Klondike: The Genesis of an American Writer (1966). Philip S. Foner, Jack London: American Rebel (1947; rev. ed. 1964), is chiefly concerned with London's themes. Joan London, the author's daughter, wrote Jack London and His Times: An Unconventional Biography (1939), which contains letters and journals that the other biographies do not have. Hensely C. Woodbridge, John London, and George H. Tweney compiled Jack London: A Bibliography (1966).

Additional Sources

Sinclair, Andrew, Jack: a biography of Jack London, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.

Stasz, Clarice., American dreamers: Charmian and Jack London, New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Barltrop, Robert, Jack London: the man, the writer, the rebel, London: Pluto Press; New York: available from Urizen Books, 1976.

Hedrick, Joan D., Solitary comrade, Jack London and his work, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. □

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London, Jack

Jack London (John Griffith London), 1876–1916, American author, b. San Francisco. The illegitimate son of William Chaney, an astrologer, and Flora Wellman, a seamstress and medium, he had a poverty-stricken childhood, and was brought up by his mother and her subsequent husband, John London. At 17 he shipped out as an able seaman to Japan and the Bering Sea. He was at times an oyster poacher, a hobo, a laborer, a gold-seeker in the first Klondike rush, and a newspaper correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War and Mexican Revolution. His stories, romantic adventures with realistic characters and settings, often where life is harsh and hard to sustain, began to appear first in the Overland Monthly and soon after in The Atlantic. In 1900, The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North was published. London's Klondike tales are exciting, vigorous, and brutal. The Call of the Wild (1903), about a tame dog who becomes wild and eventually leads a wolf pack, is one of the best animal stories ever written. Among his other works are The Sea-Wolf (1904), White Fang (1905), and Smoke Bellew (1912). Martin Eden (1909) and Burning Daylight (1910) are partly autobiographical. Although he was a highly paid writer of extremely popular fiction, London, a socialist, considered his social tracts—The People of the Abyss (1903) and The Iron Heel (1907)—as his most important work. The Cruise of the Snark (1911) is a vivid account of his interrupted voyage around the world in a 50-ft (15.2-m) ketch-rigged yacht, and John Barleycorn; or, Alcoholic Memoirs (1913) is autobiographical. Beset in his later years by alcoholism and financial difficulties, London died at the age of 40. There is a museum in Shreveport, La., devoted to London and his works.

See C. London, his second wife, The Log of the Snark (1915), Our Hawaii (1917), and The Book of Jack London (2 vol., 1921); biographies by his daughter, Joan London (1969), and by J. Hedrick (1982), A. Sinclair (1983), C. Stasz (1988), A. Kershaw (1998), and E. Labor (2013); studies by E. Labor (1977) and C. Watson (1982).

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London, Jack

London, Jack (1876–1916) US novelist and short story writer. He is best known for his Alaskan novels, such as Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). The Iron Heel (1907) is a dystopian novel inspired by his socialist beliefs.

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