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Jack London

Jack LondonJack London was born in San Francisco to Flora Wellman on January 12, 1876. Though as yet unformed and unnamed, London had become a kind of celebrity months prior to his arrival. The June 4, 1875, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle detailed the sordid, sensational story of his mother’s despair and degradation at the hands of her unofficial husband and the boy’s unverified father. William Chaney, an astrologer originally from Maine, had taken up with Wellman, a spiritualist and free-love advocate from a well-to-do Ohio family, in 1874. When she announced her pregnancy—the paternity of which in the days prior to DNA testing was impossible to ascertain—he demanded she have it aborted. She refused, and two unsuccessful suicide attempts followed—grist for the mill of San Francisco’s then fledgling Chronicle.

The story, which was reprinted widely, precipitated Chaney’s skipping town (the lynch mob may have precipitated the idea), and London’s potential but reluctant father fled to Oregon, followed by St. Louis and Chicago, where he picked up and then dropped two more wives in succession.

Destitute and alone, Wellman was taken in by her friends, fellow bohemians William and Amanda Slocum. She gave birth to London in their home at 615 Third Street and named him John Griffith Chaney. Unready to be a mother to the little emblem of her shame either emotionally or physically (she weighed just ninety pounds after giving birth), young Jack was taken in by his African-American wet nurse, Virginia (“Jennie”) Prentiss, a former slave who had delivered a stillborn baby on the same day Jack was born. Showing him the love and affection her mother could not, Prentiss would forever after be his “Mammy Jennie,” a nickname she didn’t love but, having dubbed Jack her “white pickaninny” as an infant, could hardly cry foul over.

Shortly after Jennie began looking after little “Johnny,” she and her husband, Alonzo, introduced Flora to John London, a widower from Iowa with two young daughters (Eliza, eight, and Ida, five). Flora and London were married in September, and Jack was gradually integrated into his mother’s new family, with Eliza taking on many of the tasks of raising him. Within a few years, the elder London would move the family first to Oakland, then to farms in Alameda and San Mateo County, beginning Jack on an itinerant lifestyle that would extend throughout his lifetime.

Though she had struggled to embrace Jack as an infant, Flora did take on a more active role in his upbringing and taught him to read at an early age. By the time he started school at the age of six, he was already an advanced and willing student. His early love of reading would buoy him throughout an isolated and often difficult childhood.

As John London’s business ventures failed and the family’s fortunes spiraled downward, they returned to Oakland. For Flora, who had enjoyed a privileged upbringing and whose many questionable investments and get-rich-quick schemes had only depleted their already limited resources, living on the poor west side of Oakland was hard to swallow. For Jack, reunited with his Mammy Jennie, enrolled in a new school, and in thrall to the city’s new free public library, it was a mixed blessing. While in school, he still had to work odd jobs, including rising at three in the morning to deliver newspapers. But he also made one of his first, and most lasting, friendships with a schoolmate, Frank Atherton, who shared many of the same interests. And, encouraged and guided by the Oakland Free Library’s librarian, Ina Coolbirth, a poet and editor who had befriended Bret Harte and Mark Twain and who would become California’s first poet laureate, young Jack discovered a uniquely qualified literary mentor. It was around this time he also discovered the English writer Ouida and her novel Signa, which would be a tremendous influence upon his own simple, pared-down, yet evocative writing style.

At the age of fourteen, however, Jack’s formal schooling ended, and the family’s disastrous finances required that he find a full-time job. The job that he found was at the R. Hickmott Canning Company, where he stuffed pickles and other produce into jars for 10 cents an hour, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. It was hot, dirty, endless toil for anyone, let alone a child of fourteen, and it no doubt informed the socialism he embraced as an adult. Though he tried to put aside some money, when his mother Flora discovered five dollars that he’d squirreled away, she confiscated it with a stern rebuke. Within a few months, however, he would manage to surreptitiously put away enough money to buy a small boat. During this time, being out on the water fishing or duck-hunting with his stepfather was one of his only joys. So he bought a fourteen-foot skiff and taught himself to sail in the San Francisco Bay’s perilous waters. He also began frequenting one of the Oakland waterfront’s more popular bars, the J.M. Heinold Saloon (soon after renamed Heinold’s First and Last Chance, for its position on the wharf). It was by coming in contact with the men who made their living plying the Bay—and in perfecting his own skills as a sailor—that Jack hit on the idea of becoming an oyster pirate.

At that time, the Bay Area oyster beds, having been imported from New England, were controlled by a monopoly. The only legal oyster-harvesting an independent fisherman could do was from abandoned beds. But, in practice, this was almost impossible to enforce once the oysters had been collected—and the local law enforcement, sympathizing with the raiders over the monopolists, tended to turn a blind eye to the trade. Thus, young Jack London saw an opportunity and reasoned that, as convicts worked shorter hours and enjoyed better conditions in prison than he did at Hickmott’s, anyway, what was there to lose? Borrowing $300 from his Mammy Jennie, London purchased the sloop Razzle Dazzle and, with the help of her crew, soon became known as the Prince of the Oyster Pirates, earning more in a typical week than he could in a year at the cannery. But the life of an outlaw couldn’t last forever, and fortunately, London knew it. At one point, a rival set the Razzle Dazzle on fire, and this, combined with the realization that, at some point, he would probably get caught, led him to seek an alternate, legal, source of income.

Ironically, London’s experience as an oyster pirate was the perfect background for his next job—an enforcer for the California Fish Patrol. Just sixteen years old, he worked as a patrolman, going after his former comrades, Chinese shrimpers, and Greek salmon-fishers until he grew tired of this unfulfilling (and much less lucrative) calling. In January 1893, after a few months spent tramping inland across the Sierra Nevada, drinking too much, and generally getting up to no good back in Oakland, he set out to sea. With some help from Johnny Heinold, the saloon owner who’d become his mentor and good friend, London hired on the Sophia Sutherland as an able seaman—despite his being two years shy of the position’s usual age requirement of nineteen. London proved himself to the older men, both as a first-rate sailor and a young man willing to fight for the respect he deserved. The Sutherland, a three-masted schooner, was a seal-hunting ship bound for Japan. Visiting the subtropical island of Chichi Jima, steering the boat through a typhoon, killing and skinning enough seals to stuff the ship’s hold, and escapades in Yokohama that included a mile-long swim from the harbor back to the Sutherland, London had logged enough adventures by the time they returned home in August 1893 to fill several books.

The homecoming was a cold slap back to reality, however, as his destitute family commandeered the remainder of his wages to stave off disaster. As if that weren’t come-down enough, jobs were scarce thanks to the Panic of 1893, and as London found that many of his former oyster pirate fellows were now either behind bars or dead, he was forced to accept a job in a jute mill making, once again, 10 cents an hour—this time for ten hours a day.

Ironically, it was his mother—who was ashamed by the circumstances of his birth, who relegated his upbringing to a nanny, who traded his childhood innocence for hard labor and a few pennies a day—who, in the autumn of that year, urged London to enter a story contest announced in the San Francisco Morning Call for local writers under the age of twenty-two. The contest had cash prizes for first, second, and third place ($25, $15, and $10) and promised publication. She’d listened to Jack regale them with tales of his sea journey so many times, she knew he could tell a story. Although he resisted at first, he managed to craft his account of battling the typhoon in the Sea of Japan and edit it down to the two-thousand-word limit. From his entry, he wrote:

The wild antics of the schooner were sickening as she forged along. She would almost stop, as though climbing a mountain, then rapidly rolling to right and left as she gained the summit of a huge sea, she steadied herself and paused for a moment....Like an avalanche, she shot forward and down as the sea astern struck her...burying her bow to the catheads in the milky foam at the bottom.

“The Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan” won first prize and was published in the November 12 issue of the Call. London and his eighth-grade education had bested students from Berkeley and Stanford—and yet it’s doubtful any of his competitors could claim the kinds of experiences he had collected at such a young age. At the same time, whether he was toiling in a pickle factory, pirating oysters in the San Francisco Bay, or hunting seals off the coast of Japan, he always maintained his voracious appetite for reading. His success in the story contest put the thought of making a living as a writer into his head for the first time, and he began to write more stories.

But first he attempted once more to pursue a more traditional career, leaving the jute mill and trying to become an electrician by working his way up at the Oakland, San Leandro, and Haywards Electric Railway. Once again, he endured back-breaking work for little pay. But when he learned that, for the $30 a month they were paying him, he was doing the work formerly performed by two men paid $40 a month each, he finally decided he’d had enough.

Feeling the ruinous effects of laissez-faire capitalism, greed, and the financial panic that resulted, London was ripe for joining with the local group that was part of a national movement of dissatisfied workers who marched on Washington in 1894. Begun by an Ohio businessman and dubbed the “Industrial Army of the Unemployed,” the Bay Area group known as “Kelly’s Army” set off to join Coxey’s marchers in April. London, who tramped across country often on top of or underneath trains, caught up with Kelly and his army in Nebraska. Soon disillusioned by Kelly’s posturing, London continued east on his own, visiting the World’s Fair—the famed “White City” of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition—and viewing Niagara Falls in Upstate New York, where he was picked up for vagrancy and sentenced to thirty days in the Erie County Penitentiary. Upon his release he continued on to Baltimore, New York, and Boston, where he first encountered socialism, in the eloquent expression of a hobo named Frank Strawn-Hamilton. Fired with all he knew he wanted to learn, London made his way back home, via Canada, working his way down to San Francisco as a stoker on a steamship out of Vancouver.

Once back home, he enrolled at the age of eighteen in the Oakland High School, working as a janitor for the school while taking classes. He wrote for the high school magazine, the Aegis, learned to box, joined the debate club, and managed to complete his studies in only eighteen months. He began to make new friends from more privileged backgrounds while at the same time holding forth in Oakland’s City Hall Park on the evils of capitalism, where he soon became well-known as the “boy socialist.” He became more intent on becoming a writer and in 1896 passed the grueling entrance exam to the University of California at Berkeley, where he did well, but dropped out after only one semester, later describing his studies there as a “passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence.” In truth, he also needed to go back to work to help support his family and had had to borrow the $40 tuition from his old friend, Johnny Heinold.

Having found little success as a writer (his only published work after “Typhoon” consisted of letters to the editor) or as a Socialist candidate for a seat on the Oakland Board of Education, the news that gold had been discovered in the Klondike in July 1897 struck London like a lightning bolt. Fired with the vision of striking it rich in Canada’s Yukon Territory, London nervously approached his stepsister Eliza’s husband, James Shepard, to whom he was already indebted, only to discover that Shepard wanted to go north just as badly as he did. Eliza reluctantly took out a $1,000 mortgage on their home to bankroll the trip. From a financial perspective, the trip was a disaster—the locals had already staked out the best claims by this point, and the timing of the trip put London and Shepard (and thousands of other fortune-seekers) in the Yukon in the middle of its brutal Arctic winter. Health-wise, the journey contributed greatly to London’s physical deterioration, as he suffered from scurvy that would permanently damage his body. And, when he returned home in the spring of 1898 at the advice of his doctor, with $4.50 worth of gold dust in his pocket, he discovered that the only father he’d ever known, John London, had died shortly after he left.

On the other hand, his trek into the wilds of the frozen north did provide the material that formed the basis of his most popular and enduring fiction—the novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, and many short stories, including perhaps his best, “To Build a Fire.” It was also where London determined that he would no longer suffer being the “Work Beast” he’d had to be since the age of eight. He committed himself in the Yukon to becoming Jack London, the writer.

It was far from easy at first, as London discovered that interest in Klondike Gold Rush stories were already becoming passé, at least according to some of the editors who quickly rejected his submissions. After months of writing a thousand words a day, submitting manuscripts of short stories, essays, and poems to all manner of publications and getting nothing in return but rejection, London spotted a dim light at the end of his tunnel. Overland Monthly offered to publish his story “To the Man on the Trail” for $5. It was less than he’d hoped for, but better than shoveling coal. On the afternoon of the same day he received this offer, he opened a letter from the monthly literary magazine The Black Cat, who wanted to publish his story “A Thousand Deaths”—this one for $40. And so began his career as a published author in earnest.

In January 1899, Overland Monthly published “To the Man on the Trail,” and London had another twenty-four pieces accepted that year—stories, essays, poems, and jokes. In 1900 he published his first book, a collection of stories set in the Yukon called The Son of the Wolf, and married his friend and former tutor, Bessie Maddern. The two entered into the marriage with little romance, believing compatibility and good breeding were more essential than love. It lasted five years and produced two daughters, Joan and Becky. During this time, London continued to enjoy modest success as a writer and still dabbled in socialist politics, making his first unsuccessful run for mayor of Oakland. In 1902 he traveled to England to investigate slum conditions in the East End of London and came away with material for what would become The People of the Abyss, a nonfiction book published the next year.

But in 1903 London published the book that would make him world famous, The Call of the Wild. The novella, told from the point of view of Buck, a St. Bernard mix kidnapped from his comfortable home in California and sold as a sled dog in the Yukon, became an international literary sensation. It would help make London the highest-paid and most popular writer in America for a time. Being a diligent worker, his output was prodigious, and his opportunities exploded with his newfound fame.

Outgoing, fun-loving, and with a healthy libido, London made a poor match for introverted, retiring Bessie, who viewed sex as an evil to be endured for procreation. Their marriage ended in 1905, by which time London had already taken up with Charmian Kittredge, whom he would marry the day after his divorce was final. Over the next two years, he also published The Sea-Wolf, based in part on his own seafaring adventures, and White Fang, a companion of sorts to Call of the Wild, which would become one of his most beloved novels. Over the next decade, he would continue to publish short stories, essays, novels, and nonfiction books. He would cover the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspaper syndicate, the bouts of the black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson for the New York Herald, and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Mexican Revolution for Collier’s. He would lecture on socialism throughout the East Coast and Midwest, and run unsuccessfully once more for mayor of Oakland. He would build and sail his own ship, the Snark, to Hawaii and throughout the South Pacific with Charmian. And they would purchase land in Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County, California, for their “Beauty Ranch.”

Between traveling the world and writing, he worked on building their dream home, Wolf House, on Beauty Ranch, until it was destroyed by fire in 1913. He and Charmian remained together and in love, despite his infidelities and their inability to have children together (a baby, Joy, died in 1910 just thirty-six hours after birth, followed two years later by a miscarriage). London’s health, which had been severely compromised by scurvy while prospecting in the Yukon, continued to decline with his heavy smoking, drinking, and headlong, heedless lifestyle. He suffered variously from failing kidneys, dysentery, pleurisy, rheumatism, and uremia during the last years of his life. He finally died of uremic poisoning on the evening of November 22, 1916, in the cottage at Beauty Ranch. He was just forty years old. It’s possible, though not known, that he may have had a hand in his own death, but in either case, his failing health was rapidly catching up with him.

Over the ensuing decades, his writing would go in and out of fashion among literary circles, yet his finest works—The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, White Fang, and many of his short stories—would always remain popular, especially among younger readers. His political views and his atheism did not endear him to mid-century establishment figures, but the gripping nature of his storytelling was impossible to suppress. By the 1960s, his work once again began to be appreciated by critics and academics, who had, after all, grown up reading him. And the influence of his spare, unadorned, and vivid writing style on authors such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer is undeniable.

  • Novels

    • The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902)
    • A Daughter of the Snows (1902)
    • The Call of the Wild (1903)
    • The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903, with Anna Strunsky)
    • The Sea-Wolf (1904)
    • The Game (1905)
    • White Fang (1906)
    • Before Adam (1907)
    • The Iron Heel (1908)
    • Martin Eden (1909)
    • Burning Daylight (1910)
    • Adventure (1911)
    • The Abysmal Brute (1913)
    • The Valley of the Moon (1913)
    • The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914)
    • The Scarlet Plague (1915)
    • The Star Rover (1915, published as The Jacket in the UK)
    • The Little Lady of the Big House (1916)
    • Jerry of the Islands (1917, posthumous)
    • Michael, Brother of Jerry (1917, posthumous)
    • Hearts of Three (1920, posthumous, novelization of a script by Charles Goddard)
    • The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. (1963, posthumous, completed by Robert L. Fish)
  • Short Story Collections

    • The Son of the Wolf (1900)
    • The God of His Fathers and Other Stories (1901)
    • Children of the Frost (1902)
    • The Faith of Men and Other Stories (1904)
    • Tales of the Fish Patrol (1906)
    • Moon-Face and Other Stories (1906)
    • Love of Life and Other Stories (1907)
    • Lost Face (1910)
    • South Sea Tales (1911)
    • When God Laughs and Other Stories (1911)
    • The House of Pride & Other Tales of Hawaii (1912)
    • A Son of the Sun (1912)
    • Smoke Bellew Tales (1912)
    • The Night Born (1913)
    • The Strength of the Strong (1914)
    • The Turtles of Tasman (1916)
    • The Human Drift (1917, posthumous)
    • The Red One (1918, posthumous)
    • On the Makaloa Mat (1919, posthumous)
  • Nonfiction

    • The People of the Abyss (1903)
    • The War of the Classes (1905)
    • The Road (1907)
    • Revolution, and Other Essays (1910)
    • The Cruise of the “Snark” (1911)
    • John Barleycorn (1913)