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London, Jack (1876-916)

London, Jack (1876-916)

In his writing as in his highly publicized personal life, Jack London provided an overture for the complexities of American society in the early years of the twentieth century. Despite a professional career of less than 20 years, London wrote over 50 novels, 200 short stories, and an additional 400 pieces of non-fictional prose. His various adventures as a South Seas sailor, Socialist politician, Alaskan argonaut, Asian war correspondent, California farmer, and general hobo at large, exemplified the wanderlust which characterized both America's roots and its future. Although London's persona invites a comparison with Theodore Roosevelt's philosophy of the strenuous life or Frederick Jackson Turner's vision of frontier regeneration, he reveled in ambiguities beyond the scope of his contemporaries.

London was born in San Francisco, the illegitimate child of Flora Wellman. Before his first birthday, his mother had married John London, a widower with two daughters. The resulting family was plagued by hardship; the specter of poverty would prove to be the strongest feature of London's childhood. The family frequently moved throughout the Bay area, and Jack entered the working world at age nine. Such a life fostered self-reliance and independence, virtues that later became prominent themes in London's writing. Denied a formal education, the boy compensated through voracious reading. He became a fixture at the public libraries, absorbing the advice of Horatio Alger and the adventures of great explorers.

By age 15, London had entered the world of the outlaw, staking out an existence by thieving oysters from the commercial beds around San Francisco Bay. His nautical career assumed legitimacy in 1893 when he joined the crew of a sealing vessel working in the north Pacific. Following a seven-month sea voyage, he returned to Oakland, but quickly embarked on a cross-country odyssey, initially as a member of Joseph Coxney's "Army" of unemployed men who were traveling to Washington in a quest for government assistance in the wake of the Panic of 1893. By the time this group reached Missouri, London was ready to travel alone and panhandled his way to Niagara, New York. These wanderings climaxed with his arrest for vagrancy in June 1894. After serving a 30-day sentence, he returned to California.

Such youthful experiences became the inspiration for literature. Several of London's short stories dealt with the world of the oyster pirates, and his tenure on the high seas later provided the foundation for The Sea Wolf (1904). The autobiographical work The Road (1907) recounts his trek across America. Literary scholars generally perceive these adventures as critical in London's emergence as a writer. Close contact with an assortment of sailors and vagabonds instructed the youth in the art of storytelling. Furthermore, these escapades—particularly the humiliation of incarceration—ignited London's sense of social justice and ultimately shaped his political beliefs.

By 1895, London was attending Oakland High School and augmenting his class work with impassioned readings of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. He had previously dabbled in writing, and an account of his sealing experiences, "Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan," was published in the San Francisco Morning Call in November of 1893. During his year in high school, London spent more time on this craft, contributing an assortment of writings to the student literary magazine. Despite the haphazard nature of his formal education, he successfully completed the entrance examination for the University of California at Berkeley, but his college experience proved short lived; at the close of the first semester, he had to leave the university for financial reasons.

London responded to this setback by giving priority to his writing. Aflame with the ideals of Socialism (he became an active member of the Socialist Labor Party in 1896), he embarked on a frenzy of composition, experimenting in everything from political tracts to poetry, and bombarding San Francisco publishers with the results. Despite his enthusiasm, his efforts were rewarded with little beyond rejection forms, and the aspiring writer eventually became a laundry worker at a private academy for boys. The semi-autobio-graphical novel Martin Eden (1909) discusses his difficulties during this time but, although this was a particularly discouraging point in his development, his fortunes soon changed.

In the summer of 1897, London became one of the thousands of hopeful migrants to the gold fields of the Klondike. As a prospector, however, he enjoyed a distinct absence of luck. For much of his mining career, he was constrained by brutal weather or debilitating illness, but these setbacks did not prevent him from realizing the epic and allegorical potential of the world around him. By the summer of 1898, he had returned to San Francisco, financially none the richer for his experience, but reeling with ideas. By April 1900, his first novel The Son of the Wolf had appeared to a welcoming public. For the next decade, London transformed his Yukon adventures into an assortment of successful short stories and novels that have proved to be his most enduring work, particularly the novels The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). Despite the enormous popularity of such tales, London's sagas of the Yukon are only one component of a multifaceted career. Shortly after establishing himself as a major American novelist, he embarked on a journalistic mission for the American Press Association. Although originally retained to report on the Boer War in South Africa, the assignment was canceled, and London opted to examine the urban slums of England. During the fall of 1902, he donned a suitable disguise and lived in the squalor of London's East End. The eventual product was his non-fiction study The People of the Abyss (1903), a pioneering work in undercover journalism. Such writing provided an outlet for his narrative skills and a vehicle to espouse his political views, and the author later ranked this work as his greatest accomplishment. Journalistic pursuits continued in 1904 when he traveled to Japan to report on the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst papers. Although he lived in proximity to the fighting for nearly six months, the Japanese government closely monitored his activities and dispatches. Frustrated by this interference, London returned to California.

In the period between these adventures, London completed one of his most successful novels, The Sea Wolf, in many ways the quintessential Jack London story: a sheltered, inexperienced individual is thrown into a hostile alien world and, through his struggle for survival, emerges a hero. However, at the same time, this contact with the unfamiliar forces the protagonist to confront the possibility of an inherent evil within the human soul. In this case, the hero is Humphrey Van Weyden, a sheltered San Francisco literary critic who, following an accident at sea, is rescued by a sealing vessel bound for Japan. The ship is commanded by the tyrannical Wolf Larsen, who takes delight in forcing Van Weyden to adapt to the rough life of a seaman. Although Van Weyden is repelled by the savage barbarity of the captain, he is also intrigued by Larsen's primitive but pronounced intellect. As the story progresses, Van Weyden must balance the redemptive qualities of a physical life with the moral debaucheries represented by Larsen.

The Sea Wolf is very much a reflection of the literary and cultural atmosphere of the time. The novel's emphasis on random happenings and the weakness of the individual invites a comparison with naturalist writers such as Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. One should also consider that Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, and the President's views on the virtues inherent in physical struggle and the regenerative possibilities of anti-modernism were well known to the American public. Furthermore, London was shrewd enough to include a romantic subplot (Larsen rescues another ill-fated traveler who happens to be female) in order to engage a wider audience. The resulting novel rivaled The Call of the Wild in popularity, has been translated into numerous languages, and been filmed several times, most successfully in 1941 with John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson.

As London's literary career progressed, he continued his involvement in an assortment of unusual pursuits. During 1905, he stood unsuccessfully as the Socialist candidate in the campaign for mayor of Oakland. Later in the year, he purchased a large tract of land in California's Sonoma Valley to enjoy the life of a country squire. Eventually this project became the primary focus of London's energies, but his attention was diverted by one of his most publicized adventures: an attempt to sail around the world in a ship of his own design. Given the nature of his writing, it is understandable that the public was intrigued by this escapade. The original plan was to depart from San Francisco in the fall of 1906 and spend the next seven years circling the globe. Unfortunately, the voyage was doomed from the start. London's dream ship, The Snark, ended up costing five times the initial estimate, and its slow construction delayed the voyage for six months. The resulting vessel proved to be less than seaworthy and major repairs were required when the party reached Hawaii in May 1907. By the time the ship crawled into the South Seas, London and his crew were demoralized and suffering from an assortment of health problems, some of which would trouble London for the remainder of his life. Forced to confront failure, the voyage was abruptly terminated at the end of 1908. Despite these setbacks, the sailor continued to write. As had been the case with his Yukon experience, he mined the tropic setting of his ill-fated voyage for an assortment of short stories. Many of these are collected in the volumes South Sea Tales (1911) and The House of Pride and Other Tales of Hawaii (1912).

The Sonoma Ranch occupied increasing attention during London's final years. While he was of a distinctly urban origin, he confronted the mysteries of agronomy with the same zeal he had displayed towards education and politics. Accounts of his actual success are contradictory, but he was clearly a pioneer of a scientific approach to farming. Once again, his life was reflected in his writing. In one of his last major novels, The Valley of the Moon (1913), London provides an epic account of two members of Oakland's working poor who flee the horrors of the city to find prosperity and happiness in the California countryside.

By contrast, the thematic sequel to this work, Little Lady of the Big House (1916), provides a darker vision of agrarian life and can be seen as a reflection of the chaos and unhappiness that confronted London toward the end of his life. The later book concerns a California rancher who is professionally successful but plagued by personal anguish. The last three years of London's life involved an assortment of medical and economic difficulties. Despite his reputation for ruggedness, he had always been careless about his physical health, and before he reached the age of 40, his body was failing from a combination of abuse and neglect. At the same time, reckless spending and questionable investments drained his finances and forced him to accelerate his work schedule to meet the demands of his creditors. During 1916, he traveled to Hawaii with an eye towards recuperation, but it was too little too late. On November 22, London succumbed to uremic poisoning.

Although Jack London's death was the cause for national mourning, his presence in the American literary canon quickly faded. Much of his work went out of print, and he continues to be mistakenly perceived as a writer of adolescent adventure fiction. He seldom enjoyed the critical acclaim given to contemporaries such as Norris or Dreiser, but in terms of popular success, his work far outshone that of his peers. He tackled an astounding array of topics in his writing and delighted the imaginations of millions of readers worldwide. While his overall influence is difficult to access, it can by no means be dismissed.

—J. Allen Barksdale

Further Reading:

Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. London, Harper Collins, 1997.

Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London (revised edition). New York Twayne, 1994.

London, Charmian. The Book of Jack London. New York, Century, 1921.

Stasz, Clarice. American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Walker, Franklin. Jack London and the Klondike: The Genesis of an American Writer. San Marino, California, Huntington Library, 1994.

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