BORN: January 12, 1876 • San Francisco, California
DIED: November 22, 1916 • Glen Ellen, California
Jack London was a writer whose style was in direct opposition of the popular writing of the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was the period in history following the Civil War and Reconstruction (roughly the final twenty-three years of the nineteenth century), characterized by a ruthless pursuit of profit, an exterior of showiness and grandeur, and immeasurable political corruption. While most authors were writing long-winded, detailed paragraphs, London filled page after page with crisp, clean sentences. His many articles and novels gave readers adventure and insight without bogging them down in endless description. He wrote on themes of struggle and survival, and the messages of his stories brought him international renown. London was one of the most publicized figures of his time, equal in status to celebrities and the wealthy elite (upper class).
"I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me."
Born to the working class
John Griffith London was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. His unmarried mother, Flora Wellman, came from a wealthy family, and many historians believe London's biological father was William Henry Chaney (1821–1903). Chaney was a journalist and lawyer, but he made a name for himself in the developing world of American astrology (the study of planets and how they may affect human behavior and characteristics). No one knows without doubt about who fathered London. His birth certificate was destroyed in the fires of the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906 (see box). That tragic earthquake would be covered in a magazine article by London, and would be considered one of the most moving accounts of the earthquake.
London's mother was sick often, so he was raised mostly by a former slave named Virginia Prentiss. Later in 1876, his mother married John London, a veteran of the Civil War (1861–65). The family moved to West Oakland, where London completed grade school. He would later write of being poor as a child, but his family was actually of the working class.
London's teenaged years were spent working at various jobs, many of them involved with the sea. For a time, he served on a patrol in the San Francisco Bay that scouted out and captured poachers (men who fished illegally). He also sailed the Pacific Ocean on a sealing ship. Once he became accustomed to the traveling life, London traversed the country. He enjoyed moving around. At nineteen, he returned home to attend high school.
Through his travels and experiences with various individuals and cultures, London came to consider himself a socialist, someone who believes in the public ownership of the means of production and distribution of wealth. In comparison, a capitalist believes in an economic system based on private ownership of business and the ability for businesses to compete; America's economic system is capitalistic. Socialists view capitalism as the root of poverty and believe that equal distribution of wealth would put an end to the divisions of social class. London unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Oakland, California, on the Socialist Party ticket several times.
Becomes a writer
Many writers cannot recall a time when they did not write. For them, writing is something they felt they were born to do. This was not the case with London. He saw writing as a means to make money. He studied other writers and practiced mimicking their style as he began to submit jokes, poems, and short stories for publications. Most of these early attempts failed.
The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
At 5:15 on the morning of Wednesday, April 18, 1906, the quiet slumber of San Francisco's hundreds of thousands of residents was interrupted by a rumble such as they had never heard before. Although the powerful earthquake was over in one minute, the fires it caused raged for three days, destroying much of the West Coast's most densely populated and economically developed city.
That earthquake was not the most powerful ever experienced in the state or country, but it was the closest to a highly populated metropolitan area. City streets rolled up and down as if they were waves on the ocean. Tall buildings collapsed, killing and trapping not only pedestrians but occupants as well. In all, the great quake destroyed 28,000 buildings over 490 city blocks. More than 250,000 residents were left homeless. Estimates of those killed reach 3,000. Estimates of total damage to the city peaked at $350 million.
According to eyewitness Adolphus Busch, whose words are recorded on Eyewitnessto-History.com, "The most terrible thing I saw was the futile [pointless] struggle of a policeman and others to rescue a man who was pinned down in the burning wreckage. The helpless man watched it in silence till the fire began burning his feet. Then he screamed and begged to be killed. The policeman took his name and address and shot him through the head."
In London's report of the tragedy, the first night after the earthquake found San Francisco not riotous, but absolutely calm and still. Wrote London, "There was no hysteria [panic], no disorder. … In all those terrible hours I saw not one woman who wept, not one man who was excited, not one person who was in the slightest degree panic stricken."
The same could not be reported about what happened as the fires continued to ravage the city. Evacuation efforts via ferries were made, and complete chaos took over. Men and women fought for seats on the escaping ferry boats; children had their clothing torn from their backs as people tried to pull them to the ground in order to get on the boat in front of them.
Finally, the flames died out on Friday. Fire-fighters had given all they had—mostly in vain—to put out the fire. In the end, the flames had to run their course and burn themselves out.
London spent the winter of 1897 in the Yukon, at the time part of the Northwest Territories in the northwest region of Canada (a year later, it became its own territory). There, he joined thousands of others in the search for gold. The Yukon Gold Rush began in July 1897 when two ships docked in San Francisco Bay and Seattle, Washington. Onboard both ships were miners, carrying the gold they had found in the Yukon territory. Suddenly, America was immersed in the gold rush craze, and London was among the hopeful gold prospectors seeking the gold deposits found naturally in the earth and in rivers and streams.
Although not successful as a gold prospector, London did manage to write about his adventures. Those exploits were first published in the magazine Overland Monthly in 1899. From that point on, America could not get enough of London's stories. He met the demand: Rarely a day passed that he did not write something. Between 1900 and 1916, he wrote more than fifty novels and hundreds of short stories and articles. His routine was to write no fewer than one thousand words a day, early in the morning.
Rises to celebrity status
The first decade of the twentieth century was busy for London. In 1900, he married his friend, Bess Maddern. Based on deep friendship rather than love, the union was one of many of its kind during that era, when men of importance chose women of good breeding for their wives. London and Maddern had two daughters, but the marriage did not last. In 1903, London and his wife divorced, and he married his secretary, Charmian Kittredge, in 1905. Throughout their lives, the two would call each other "mate," and their marriage lasted until London's death at the age of forty. The couple's only child, Joy, died just thirty-eight hours after birth.
London had written his first novel, The Son of the Wolf, in 1900. In 1903, London wrote what would become one of his most famous novels, an adventure tale titled The Call of the Wild. It was quickly followed by the books The Sea-Wolf (1904) and White Fang (1906). In between writing and researching his novels, London continued to write magazine features, both fiction and nonfiction. He maintained a heavy correspondence with readers, who wrote about ten thousand letters to him each year.
London's writing appealed to readers across the globe; he was the highest paid writer of his time. His critics, however, called him a hack, someone who churns out writing that is popular with the public but has little literary merit. They accused him of sensationalism (writing to gain attention) because he often used his power as a popular author to discuss topics he believed were important, such as socialism and women's suffrage (the right to vote). The accusation of being a sensationalist, modern critics recognize, may stem more from London's choice of words—he preferred strong words over precise words—than his choice of topics.
Open space was important to London. As an adventurer, he had developed a strong connection to both land and sea. In June 1905, he and Charmian were living in Glen Ellen, California. For $7,000, London bought the Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley: 130 acres (0.53 square kilometers) of trees, fields, streams and springs, canyons, hills, and a variety of wildlife. By 1913, he had made six more land purchases and was the proud owner of Beauty Ranch, an estate comprising 1,400 acres (5.67 square kilometers).
The ranch was actually an experimental farm, where London promoted the concept of scientific breeding (for the best and strongest features) of animals and even imported European purebreds to improve the quality of his stock. He was a pioneer in soil conservation, and used tilling (overturning many layers of soil) and terracing (shaping a slope into steps to prevent soil erosion) to improve the quality of soil on the hillsides. In addition to growing grapes, London planted vegetables, fruit trees, grass for hay, and even cacti.
In 1911, London and his wife began building their dream home. The sprawling Wolf House was built of redwood trees, the roof made of imported Spanish tiles. By 1913, London had invested approximately $80,000 in the house, and it was nearly complete. On August 22, final cleanup began, and the couple made plans for moving their custom-built furniture into the house. At 2:00 am, London got word that his house was on fire. Nothing could be done to save the building, and the writer was crushed as he watched his dreams go up in smoke. Worse yet, he felt that someone had deliberately set fire to the Wolf House. Investigations into the tragedy showed that the fire probably started because someone had left oil-soaked rags at the scene. The mystery was never solved, and the house was never rebuilt.
Cruises on the Snark
The Londons were determined to sail around the world in a yacht designed by Jack. The plan was to take seven years for the voyage, but the reality of the trip was far different. After spending $30,000 to build the yacht, which he named Snark, the Londons traveled to Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands. A severe case of sun poisoning forced the couple and their small crew to sail for land in Australia, where doctors told London he could not spend any more time in the sun. The voyage, which began in 1907, lasted just a little over two years, and the Londons returned home, heartbroken.
Immerses self in work
After two great disappointments (the fire and interrupted voyage), London was a depressed man. He traveled to New York as well as to San Francisco and Los Angeles on business, and he spent much of his writing time on his boat, the Roamer. His wife coaxed him into returning to Hawaii in 1915 and again in 1916. Each time, he spent months there, writing and relaxing. London could never relax for long, however, when he thought about life at Beauty Ranch and all that he wanted to get done there. Because he was forever trying to expand his property and ranch, London was constantly in debt and under pressure to write.
London's doctors were concerned about his health and urged him to cut back on the use of alcohol and improve his diet. London refused and remained focused on writing so that he could fund his interests. He pushed himself to the limit, and on November 22, 1916, London died of uremia (toxins in the bloodstream). He was just forty years old. For years, he had suffered from a painful kidney disorder, which could have only been made worse by his drinking alcohol. There has been speculation that London killed himself by overdosing on the painkiller morphine, but no evidence has ever been found to support that claim.
The world was in shock. As reported on the Jack London Online Collection Web site, London's good friend, George Sterling (1869–1926), remarked upon hearing of his friend's passing, "His greatness will surge triumphantly above race and time."
London's novels and books have been translated into several dozen languages, and his works remain popular overseas. For those readers, London's books give them insight into the American character and all its contradictions. They provide understandable commentaries on key historic movements and events as well.
In 1959, London's nephew gave the state of California 39 acres (0.16 square kilometers) of London's beloved Beauty Ranch. On October 1, 1960, the state held a dedication ceremony marking the opening of the Jack London State Historic Park. Between 1977 and 1979, the state purchased another 756 acres (3.06 square kilometers) from the family and enlarged the park to nearly 800 acres (3.24 square kilometers).
For More Information
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. The Best Short Stories of Jack London. Garden City, NY: Sun Dial Press, 1945. Reprint, Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1992.
London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1914. Multiple reprints.
London, Jack. The Cruise of the Snark. New York: Macmillan, 1911. Reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 2004.
London, Jack. The Iron Heel. New York: Macmillan, 1907. Reprint, New York: Mondial, 2006.
Wilson, Margie, ed. The Wit and Wisdom of Jack London: A Collection of Quotations from His Writing and Letters. Santa Rosa, CA: Wordsworth Pub. Co., 1995.
London, Jack. "The Story of an Eyewitness." Collier's (May 5, 1906). Also available at http://www.jacklondons.net/Journalism/san_francisco_earthquake.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).
Nolte, Carl. "Jack London's Lens on 1906 Quake." San Francisco Chronicle (January 6, 2006): B-1. Also available at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/01/06/BAGN3GI4NU1.DTL (accessed on September 3, 2006).
"Jack London—His Life and Books." Jack London State Historic Park.http://www.parks.sonoma.net/JLStory.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).
The Jack London Online Collection.http://london.sonoma.edu/ (accessed on September 3, 2006).
"Jack London's Ranch Album." The World of Jack London.http://www.jacklondons.net/intro.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).
"The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire." The Bancroft Library.http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/earthquakeandfire/index2.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).
"The San Francisco Earthquake, 1906." Eyewitness to History.http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/sfeq.htm (accessed on September 3, 2006).
Stasz, Clarice. "Jack [John Griffith] London." The Jack London Online Collection.http://london.sonoma.edu/jackbio.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).
"Who Was Jack London?" Get Your Words' Worth.http://www.getyourwordsworth.com/WORDSWORTH-JackLondon.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).
Nationality: American. Born: John Griffith London in San Francisco, California, 12 January 1876. Education: A grammar school in Oakland, California; Oakland High School, 1895-96; University of California, Berkeley, 1896-97. Family: Married 1) Bessie Maddern in 1900 (separated 1903; divorced 1905), two daughters; 2) Charmian Kittredge in 1905, one daughter. Career: Worked in a cannery in Oakland, 1889-90; oyster "pirate," then member of the California Fisheries Patrol, 1891-92; sailor on the Sophia Sutherland, sailing to Japan and Siberia, 1893; returned to Oakland, wrote for the local paper, and held various odd jobs, 1893-94; tramped the U.S. and Canada, 1894-96; arrested for vagrancy in Niagara Falls, New York; joined the gold rush to the Klondike, 1897-98, then returned to Oakland and became a full-time writer; visited London, 1902; war correspondent in the Russo-Japanese War for the San Francisco Examiner, 1904; moved to a ranch in Sonoma County, California, 1906; attempted to sail round the world on a 45-foot yacht, 1907-09; war correspondent in Mexico, 1914. Died: 22 November 1916.
Short Stories, edited by Maxwell Geismar. 1960. (
Works), edited by I. O. Evans. 18 vols., 1962-68.
The Bodley Head London, edited by Arthur Calder-Marshall. 4 vols., 1963-66; as The Pan London, 2 vols., 1966-68.
Novels and Stories (Library of America), edited by DonaldPizer. 1982.
Novels and Social Writings (Library of America), edited by DonaldPizer. 1984.
The Complete Short Stories of Jack London. 1993.
Jack London: Stories. 1994.
The Portable Jack London. 1994.
The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North. 1900; as An Odyssey of the North, 1915.
The God of His Fathers and Other Stories. 1901; as The God of His Fathers: Tales of the Klondike, 1902.
Children of the Frost. 1902.
The Faith of Men and Other Stories. 1904.
Tales of the Fish Patrol. 1905.
Moon-Face and Other Stories. 1906.
The Apostate (story). 1906.
Love of Life and Other Stories. 1907.
The Road. 1907.
Lost Face. 1910.
When God Laughs and Other Stories. 1911.
South Sea Tales. 1911.
The Strength of the Strong (story). 1911.
The House of Pride and Other Tales of Hawaii. 1912.
A Son of the Sun. 1912; as The Adventures of Captain Grief, 1954.
Smoke Bellew. 1912; as Smoke and Shorty, 1920.
The Dream of Debs (story). 1912(?).
The Night-Born… 1913.
The Strength of the Strong (collection). 1914.
The Turtles of Tasman. 1916.
The Human Drift. 1917.
The Red One. 1918.
On the Makaloa Mat. 1919; as Island Tales, 1920.
Dutch Courage and Other Stories. 1922.
Tales of Adventure, edited by Irving Shepard. 1956.
Stories of Hawaii, edited by A. Grove Day. 1965.
Great Short Works, edited by Earle Labor. 1965.
Goliah: A Utopian Essay. 1973.
Curious Fragments: London's Tales of Fantasy Fiction, edited by Dale L. Walker. 1975.
The Science Fiction of London, edited by Richard Gid Powers. 1975.
The Unabridged London, edited by Lawrence Teacher and RichardE. Nicholls. 1981.
London's Yukon Women. 1982.
Young Wolf: The Early Adventure Stories, edited by HowardLachtman. 1984.
In a Far Country: London's Western Tales, edited by Dale L. Walker. 1986.
To Build a Fire and Other Stories. 1995.
The Scarlet Plague and Other Stories. 1995.
Northland Stories. 1997.
The Cruise of the Dazzler. 1902.
A Daughter of the Snows. 1902.
The Kempton-Wace Letters, with Anna Strunsky. 1903.
The Call of the Wild. 1903.
The Sea-Wolf. 1904.
The Game. 1905.
White Fang. 1906.
Before Adam. 1907.
The Iron Heel. 1908.
Martin Eden. 1909.
Burning Daylight. 1910.
The Abysmal Brute. 1913.
John Barleycorn. 1913; as John Barleycorn; or, Alcoholic Memoirs, 1914.
The Valley of the Moon. 1913.
The Mutiny of the Elsinore. 1914.
The Scarlet Plague. 1915.
The Jacket (The Star Rover). 1915, as The Star Rover, 1915.
The Little Lady of the Big House. 1916.
Jerry of the Islands. 1917.
Michael, Brother of Jerry. 1917.
Hearts of Three. 1918.
The Assassination Bureau Ltd., completed by Robert L. Fish. 1963.
The Great Interrogation, with Lee Bascom (produced 1905).
Scorn of Women. 1906.
The Acorn-Planters: A California Forest Play…. 1916.
Daughters of the Rich, edited by James E. Sisson. 1971.
Gold, with Herbert Heron, edited by James E. Sisson. 1972.
The People of the Abyss. 1903.
The Tramp. 1904.
The Scab. 1904.
London: A Sketch of His Life and Work. 1905.
War of the Classes. 1905.
What Life Means to Me. 1906.
The Road. 1907.
London: Who He Is and What He Has Done. 1908(?).
Revolution and Other Essays. 1910.
The Cruise of the Snark. 1911.
London by Himself. 1913.
London's Essays of Revolt, edited by Leonard D. Abbott. 1926.
London, American Rebel: A Collection of His Social Writings…., edited by Philip S. Foner. 1947.
Letters from London, Containing an Unpublished Correspondence Between London and Sinclair Lewis, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard. 1965.
London Reports: War Correspondence, Sports Articles, and Miscellaneous Writings, edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard. 1970.
London's Articles and Short Stories in the (Oakland) High School Aegis, edited by James E. Sisson. 1971.
No Mentor But Myself: A Collection of Articles, Essays, Reviews, and Letters on Writing and Writers, edited by Dale L. Walker. 1979.
Revolution: Stories and Essays, edited by Robert Barltrop. 1979.
London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings, edited by Richard W. Etulain. 1979.
Sporting Blood: Selections from London's Greatest Sports Writing, edited by Howard Lachtman. 1981.
London's California: The Golden Poppy and Other Writings, edited by Sal Noto. 1986.
The Yukon Writings of Jack London. 1996.*
London: A Bibliography by Hensley C. Woodbridge, John London, and George H. Tweney, 1966, supplement by Woodbridge, 1973; in Bibliography of American Literature by Jacob Blanck, 1969; The Fiction of London: A Chronological Bibliography by Dale L. Walker and James E. Sisson, 1972; London: A Reference Guide by Joan R. Sherman, 1977.
London: A Biography by Richard O'Connor, 1964; London and the Klondike: The Genesis of an American Writer by Franklin Walker, 1966; The Alien Worlds of London by Dale L. Walker, 1973; London by Earle Labor, 1974; White Logic: London's Short Stories by James I. McClintock, 1975; London: The Man, The Writer, The Rebel by Robert Barltrop, 1976; Jack: A Biography of London by Andrew Sinclair, 1977; London: Essays in Criticism edited by Ray Wilson Ownbey, 1978; London: An American Myth by John Perry, 1981; Solitary Comrade: London and His Work by Joan D. Hedrick, 1982; The Novels of London: A Reappraisal by Charles N. Watson, Jr., 1983; Critical Essays on London edited by Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, 1983; London by Gorman Beauchamp, 1984; London: An American Radical? by Carolyn Johnston, 1984; London, Adventures, Ideas, and Fiction by James Lundquist, 1987; American Dreamers: Charmian and London by Clarice Stasz, 1988; Standing Room Only: Jack London's Controversial Career As a Public Speaker by Mark E. Zamen, 1993; Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw, 1997; Complicity and Resistence in Jack London's Novels: From Naturalism to Nature by Christopher Gair, 1997.* * *
In 1898 Jack London sold "To the Man on the Trail," his first story, to the Overland Monthly for five dollars. It appeared in January 1899, and in August of that year he sold "An Odyssey of the North" to Atlantic Monthly for $120.00. Largely because of the influence of the Atlantic, his writing career was launched. His first book, The Son of the Wolf, a collection of London's Klondike tales, appeared in 1900. Another collection of Klondike stories, The God of His Fathers, followed in 1901. London's first novel, A Daughter of the Snows, was published in 1902.
Based on this sequence of works, it is possible to argue that London—whether viewed as novelist, essayist, journalist, or apologist/propagandist—is also due considerable attention as a writer of short stories. His entire professional writing career spanned less than two decades (17 years from the date of his first published story); he died of uremia in 1916. He was one of those writers, almost eponymic and certainly mythic in reputation, whose life crossed over into fiction and in the crossing became larger and more legendary.
Assuredly London's position in the American literary canon is due to the fact that he honed and perfected his talents as a novelist with the aid of the short story form. He worked throughout his career masterfully in both short and long forms of fiction, and his themes and techniques in both forms are reciprocal. Not all novelists are as comfortable in shorter forms as London was, and some might even hold that his short stories will, certainly for students of introductory literature classes, outlive his name as a novelist. In any event his short stories achieve some of the highest potential of the form, notwithstanding what to some is an excessive reliance on manliness and what might be regarded as a celebration of the primitive and the animalistic side of humanity.
Within the short story form London displays considerable variety, both in length and in setting. Recognized most often as a writer of the Far North and the Klondike or as a writer of the Far West of California, London also capitalized on the even more remote and exotic settings of his travels to the Far East, the South Seas, and Australia. The stories growing out of his farthest travels, however, remain generally less satisfying than do his Klondike and California stories.
The variety of settings found in London's stories is not evenly matched when it comes to plot, characterization, and themes. These aspects of his stories are predictable and almost formulaic due to London's belief in a naturalistic universe. In keeping with Zola's tenets about what literary naturalism achieves, London's characters (programmed by him) realize all too soon that they are doomed, subject to biological and cosmic forces much beyond their influence.
One of London's shortest stories, "War," typifies this universal, albeit one-sided struggle. The young soldier in the story, out on a scouting expedition, benevolently refrains from killing an enemy scout he happens to hold, quite close up, in his carbine's sights. London does not moralize about the act or comment on its rightness or wrong-ness. It seems a humane thing for the soldier to do. In a reversed situation a few days later the soldier who was spared takes aim, at an almost impossible distance, and kills his benevolent nemesis. Such is what the fates have in store: death at its least deserving and most ironic.
Other ironies consistently beset and shape London's characters. In "All Gold Canyon" an idyllic canyon—much at peace in its seclusion—is discovered by a gold prospector. As he revels in the abundant gold he discovers, another interloper shoots him. But the prospector, reviving at the most unlikely time, is able to kill the interloper. He then packs up his gold and leaves the canyon to its solitude. But a corpse and some utensils are left in exchange for sacks of gold. Any moral judgments about the incident are left entirely to the reader, for both the narrator and the universe appear indifferent among the ironies.
London's mastery of cosmic, ironic, and relative points of view that underscore the existence of a godhead either vengeful or asleep at the wheel can be witnessed in stories with urban settings as well. The Darwinian struggle occurs with considerable severity in cities. In "South of the Slot" the warfare orients itself around class differences: the poor in combat with the rich. Here the protagonist, Professor Freddie Drummond, literally is transformed (again, ironically) into becoming one of the lower class, living on the south side of town among one of the classes that is the basis of his sociological investigation. He becomes his alias, his fabricated double, Bill Totts, and heroically leads the workers as new "brothers" in arms.
In one of London's longer stories, "The Mexican," the reader is privileged to know secrets that some of the story's characters can only surmise. Here also combat, in the form of prize fighting and the Mexican Revolution, provides the basis of the story. Felipe Rivera is able to contribute money to the revolution—much to the puzzlement of the coordinating Junta—through his winnings as a boxer in Los Angeles. Rivera's dedication to the cause is matched by his hatred of gringos. These two motives enable him to defeat Danny Ward in a "winner take all" contest, which nets enough money to supply the revolution with a major shipment of guns.
Predictable and formulaic as London's stories may be, they are near flawless in their effect when judged on their own terms. Seldom does message, heavy as it is, truly outweigh technique, causing it to collapse. Rather, technique works as an integral part of the substance of the story, providing much of the pleasure in what is recognizably and uniquely "Londonesque." Never an indoor-boy, hardly a Henry James or a Howells, and ever eschewing drawing-room conflicts, London infuses his stories with the vitality of life in the raw. Admittedly he is vulnerable to criticism for what he does not do—especially in a time when more refined sensibilities rule. But for what he does he stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the authors in U.S. literary history.
—Robert Franklin Gish
See the essay on "A Piece of Steak."
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.
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 (1809–1892) 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 (1818–1883). 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 London—A 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.
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.
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).
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. □
Jack London ★½ The Adventures of Jack London; The Life of Jack London 1944
Dramatizes London's most creative years during his careers as oyster pirate, prospector, war correspondent and author. Based on “The Book of Jack London” by Charmian London. 94m/B VHS, DVD . Michael O'Shea, Susan Hayward, Harry Davenport, Virginia Mayo, Frank Craven; D: Alfred Santell.