Updated: Feb 21
Jack London, writing pseudonym for John Griffith Chaney, was born January 12, 1876 in San Francisco, California and died November 22, 1916, Glen Ellen, California. He was to become one of America's most well known international celebrity writers who wrote stories built on survival in the wild and adventure but would also innovate in the genre of science fiction.
Abandoned by his father, a roving astrologer, he was raised in Oakland, California by his mother, Flora Wellman, a spiritualist and music teacher, and his step father, whose surname, London, he took. John London was a partially disabled civil war veteran but Jack would often refer to his wet nurse, Virginia Prentiss as his major source of love and affection as a child.
London was befriended by a librarian at Oakland Public Library who encouraged his self-education and fascination with fiction. In 1889 he began working 12 to 18 hour working days at a cannery but in an effort to escape his poverty he borrowed money from Virginia Prentiss to buy a sloop, named Razzle-Dazzle and became an oyster pirate. After spending some time as a member of the California Fish Patrol he then signed onto a sealing schooner in 1893. He travelled to Japan and back and then returned to gruelling labour before becoming a hobo riding the freight trains across America and becoming heavily involved with militant socialism.
He returned to Oakland to enrol in High School with the ambition to attend the University of California. Despite rapidly achieving his diploma and entrance exams he was forced to leave in 1897, without graduating due to his financial circumstances. In July of that year he sailed for the Klondike gold rush, which was to be the setting for some of his early successful writing. Life was hard in Klondike, he developed scurvy , his gums became swollen and he lost his four front teeth and would be left with constant pain in his hips and legs and permanent scarring on his face. He began to consider a potential solution to his relentless crushing poverty would be writing.
Writing as a career
On return to California in 1898 he began to work to get published. While waiting for a five dollar fee for the publication of a short story he almost gave up hope but he would later state "...literally and literarily I was saved" when he was paid $40 for A Thousand Deaths.
His pursuit of a career in writing coincided with progress in printing technology and low cost magazines could reach a far wider audience. In 1900 he earned a comfortable salary from short stories. One story, which was published under two titles, told the tale of a dog being maltreated by his master which retaliates, killing the man. His interest in the behaviour of dogs in response to human actions led to one of his most famous works Call of the Wild, published in 1903. It was during this period that London entered into his first marriage with Elizabeth Maddern. The pair had known each other for some time and publicly acknowledged they did not marry for love but out of a strong friendship and a belief they would produce strong children. They had two children but the marriage was strained and lasted a little over four years, ending in late 1904.
Earlier that year London had accepted an assignment to cover the Russo-Japanese war. He was arrested three times in four months by the Japanese authorities. London married a second time, this time to Charmain Kittredge in 1905. London had not been happy in his first marriage and had sought satisfaction elsewhere, something he found in the sexually uninhibited Charmain, who was widely considered his soul mate by those who knew him. His nickname for Maddern had been "Mother-Girl", while that for Kittredge was "Mate-Woman". The couple had one child that died at birth and a further pregnancy that ended in miscarriage.
Dreams of buying some land
The couple bought a 1,000 acre estate in Glen Ellen, California. He stated that "Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me." Writing had always been a means to an end for London and he said, quite matter-of-factly "I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate."
The estate was a financial failure. Those close to him talk of methods ahead of his time and bad luck, while critics claim his alcoholism impaired his judgement. London invested over two million dollars in modern prices to build a huge mansion on the property, Wolf House. It was destroyed by fire before completion. By the time London returned from an 8 month trip to Hawaii in July 1916, he was suffering from kidney failure.
He died in November 1916, asleep on his porch at his ranch cottage. He had been in ill health for some time and was taking morphine and opium for the pain.
London would be accused of being a womanizer and a raging alcoholic by some, many even attribute his death to suicide. His views on east Asian immigration were set out in an essay in 1904 called The Yellow Peril. He also published a futuristic story called The Unparalled Invasion in 1910. Set some time between 1976 and 1987 it depicts a China looking to colonize the entire planet. He states at the end of the work "it must be taken into consideration that the above postulate is itself a product of Western race-egotism, urged by our belief in our own righteousness and fostered by a faith in ourselves which may be as erroneous as are most fond race fancies." This is in contrast to the fact that his writing is popular in Japan as he was an admirer of their culture and capabilities and his stories have empathetic portrayals of Mexican, Chinese and Hawaiians. His legacy is still fought over today, with many citing his rejection of racism while others point to his attitudes suggesting otherwise. His case is not helped by his support for eugenics. His desire for good breeding led to his first marriage although his time in Hawaii perhaps undermined his confidence in the notion.
His best works were probably his short stories. To Build a Fire recounts the harsh conditions of the Klondike Gold Rush. A newcomer ignores the warnings of an experienced prospector to not travel alone and is forced into a desperate survival battle after falling into a freezing creek. There were two versions, with differing outcomes, published in 1902 and 1908 and the contrast enables a rare opportunity to chart the improvement in his style and skill. He wrote several stories set in the harsh climate of the Klondike, exploring morality and adventure and the need to survive. London was an avid boxing fan and A Piece of Steak is about a younger and older fighter in a match, exploring themes of treatment of aging workers , while The Mexican delves into the theme of unfair treatment and prejudice and revolutionary fervour.
London was often accused of plagiarism, but this is perhaps an unfortunate by product of one of his methods of writing. Moon-Face highlights this perfectly. A short story about a man who confesses to an irrational hatred of another. In July 1901 London's Moon-Face featured in the San Francisco Argonaut and Frank Norris's tale The Passing of Cock-eye Blacklock in Century Magazine. The stories were very similar indeed. London would frequently explain how this could occur. He said they were "quite different in manner of treatment, [but] patently the same in foundation and motive." The reason being is that both writers were inspired by the same real life account found in newspapers at the time.
Many of his stories would now be considered science fiction with germ warfare being the theme in The Unparalleled Invasion, Goliath about an energy weapon and The Shadow and The Flash about two brothers seeking alternative ways to achieve invisibility.
His novels include The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, Iron Heel and Martin Eden. Jack London's The Call of The Wild was once again centre stage recently in the 2020 film version of the story starring Harrison Ford. Box office returns were lacklustre due to the COVID-19 restrictions but it was still praised as a family friendly adaptation of London's timeless tale. Animal xenofiction (stories that have an animal protagonist portrayed as accurately as possible) tends to be seen as a children's genre which possibly explains why so many adults are psychologically traumatised by tales such as The Fox and the Hound, Tarka the Otter, Watership Down and The Animals of Farthing Wood as it really is a dog eat dog world out there. While London is considered by most to be a writer who worked predominantly in this field, it is unquestionable that his work is far more diverse and fascinating than that. Iron Heel is an overlooked classic. A dystopian vision that precedes Orwell's 1984 by some considerable margin, depicting a socialist populism on the rise in the US that leads to a right wing despotism to prevent it from gaining power. The Star Rover is an extraordinary work revolving around a prisoner being sentenced to death and falling into a trance state and experiencing journeys across the stars and remnants of his past lives. The novel has an episodic series of vignettes telling these stories of exploits in past lives and is said to have inspired Lovecraft. His work The Scarlet Plague has returned to focus in 2020. Written in 1912, his vision of a post apocalyptic pandemic world revolves around the few survivors in 2073.
Joseph Conrad was quoted as saying "It is a pity Jack London died young. His work is real; his books have been lived". For a man who died at the young age of forty he was a prolific and immensely successful writer. Between 1900 and 1916 he completed over 50 books, hundreds of short stories and a wide range of articles and essays. Some of his books have been translated into more than seventy languages. He had many unfinished works after his untimely death. The last published in 1963, The Assassination Bureau, was completed by Robert L. Fish. A thriller about a secret organisation that assassinates people of power who have performed acts of evil.
A Thousand Deaths (1899)
Grit of Women (1900)
To Build A Fire (1902)
Call of the Wild (1903)
The Sea Wolf (1904)
White Fang (1906)
Iron Heel (1908)
Martin Eden (1909)
The Mexican (1911)
An Odyssey of the North (1914)
The Scarlet Plague (1912)