Jack London Biography
Largely self-educated, Jack London was the product of California ranches and the working-class neighborhoods of Oakland. London’s rise to fame came as a result of the Klondike Gold Rush. Unsuccessful in his attempt to break into the magazine market, he joined the flood of men rushing to make instant riches in the Yukon. Although he found little gold, he returned after the winter of 1897 with a wealth of memories and notes of the Northland, the gold rush, and the hardships of the trail. London married Elizabeth May Maddern in 1900, and the couple settled in Oakland, soon adding two daughters to the family. The marriage, however, was not successful, and London divorced his wife in 1905 and married Charmian Kittredge the same year. With Charmian, he sailed across the Pacific aboard a small yacht, intending to continue around the world on a seven-year voyage. The trip ended in Australia, however, when ill health forced London to abandon the voyage after only two years. London’s last years were spent in the construction of a scientifically run ranch complex in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California. It was there that he died at age forty, on November 22, 1916. His death still has not been satisfactorily explained.
A sometime tramp, oyster pirate, seaman, Socialist, laundryman, and miner, Jack London is as famous for the life he lived and the myths he wove around it as he is for the short stories and novels he wrote. Largely self-educated, London was the product of California ranches and the working-class neighborhoods of Oakland. Born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876, his rise to literary fame came as a result of the Klondike gold rush. Unsuccessful in his attempt to break into the magazine market, London joined the flood of people rushing toward instant riches in the Yukon. He found little gold but returned after the winter of 1897 with a wealth of memories and notes of the North, the gold rush, and the hardships of the trail. By 1900, London had firmly established himself as a major American writer.
Also in 1897, London married Elizabeth May Maddern. The couple settled in Oakland, soon adding two daughters to their family. In 1904, seeking new material for his stories and escape from his marriage, which by this time had gone sour, London signed with publisher William Randolph Hearst to cover the impending Russo-Japanese War for Hearst’s newspaper the San Francisco Examiner. London’s photographs and accounts of that war were among the first to be published, and he returned to California in triumph, only to face a divorce action.
London’s next years were marked by further adventures and travels. In 1905, he journeyed across the United States, lecturing on the need for a socialist revolution. He married Clara Charmian Kittredge that same year, and together they planned a seven-year voyage around the world on a yacht they named Snark after Lewis Carroll’s mock epic. Ill health forced abandonment of the adventure after only two years, however, and London returned once more to California, this time to create a large ranch complex in Sonoma County.
To support his travels and building program, as well as an extravagant lifestyle, London wrote at a furious pace, publishing fifty books by the time he was forty years old. His body could not withstand the brutal treatment it received, however, and he died on November 22, 1916. His death, officially labeled uremic poisoning and renal colic, was widely rumored to have been suicide. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death have never been explained satisfactorily.
Born John Griffith Chaney, Jack London spent his early life around the Oakland, California, docks and the San Francisco waterfront. His family was poor, and life was a grim struggle—facts he later used in autobiographical novels such as Martin Eden (1909), the story of how a young, poorly educated man teaches himself to become a writer through dogged persistence and ruthless ambition. Born illegitimate, London identified with the downtrodden and the outcasts of society. His father, William Henry Chaney, was a traveling astrologer. When his mother, Flora Wellman, a spiritualist, married his stepfather, John London, a farmer, he took his stepfather’s name.
John’s farm failed, and the family faced a continual financial struggle. His stepson was bright and energetic—later photographs reveal a vigorous, ruggedly handsome man—and had an intermittent education, which ceased with grammar school at the age of fourteen (except for a few months at the University of California at Berkeley in 1897). At ten, London was already working, selling newspapers and laboring as a pin boy in a bowling alley. At fourteen, he found a job in a cannery. At sixteen, like his fictional heroes, he showed independence and pluck by pitching in with his friends to buy an oyster boat. He became known as an “oyster pirate.” At seventeen, he became a sailor employed on a sealing boat that took him to Japan. At eighteen, he turned hobo and toured the United States and Canada.
By 1895, London had embarked on a fierce program of self-education, reading Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. These three intellectual mentors imbued London with a vision of society as a struggle in which the fittest survived. However, even the very strong could be crushed, given the political structure of society, and the true nature of a human being might not be revealed except in the struggle against nature that makes London’s tales of adventure so stirring and challenging.
At twenty-one, London followed the gold rush to the Klondike River in Canada, and two years later he sold his first story, “To the Man on the Trail.” Soon he was producing a flood of stories and novels about the individual quest not only for survival but also for triumph over both the elements of nature and the structures of society.
In 1898, London returned to Oakland to continue his career as a professional writer, drawing first on his Klondike experiences. In 1900, he married Bessie Mae Maddern, with whom he had two daughters, Joan (in 1901) and Becky (in 1902). His name will forever be associated with the classic story The Call of the Wild (1903). It has never been out of print, and it has been translated into sixty-eight languages. The book not only made London’s career as a best-selling author possible, but it also secured his place in American literary naturalism. The story is about a dog, Buck, half-St. Bernard and half-Scottish sheepdog, who is stolen from a comfortable California home and brutalized as a sled dog. Nevertheless, his spirit overcomes adversity—including the challenge of a vicious dog named Spitz—and Buck earns the love of a kind master, Thornton, to whom Buck remains loyal even after his master’s death.
The Call of the Wild reflects the suffering, adventuring, and success of London’s early life but also includes the ideas of Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche by demonstrating how overwhelming the odds are against the individual and yet how indomitable the wild spirit—in humans and dogs—can remain. This is the hard world of American literary naturalism, which posits a universe of biological forces and societal constraints. Only individuals who are insulated by wealth and middle-class comforts can escape the struggle for survival—and even then, comfortable bourgeois may find themselves suddenly thrust into the grim world that luxury can cushion but cannot obliterate.
The key to London’s success was to make his adventure stories embody his philosophical and political ideas rather than have those ideas explicitly drive the stories. Readers could easily imbibe London’s message while apparently only reading a gripping story. For London, plot itself, the structure of the story, made his political point.
London followed up his initial success with two more short adventure novels, The Sea-Wolf (1904) and White Fang (1906). In the former, it is not a dog but a wealthy literary critic, Humphrey van Weyden, who is shipwrecked and has to contend with the ruthless Wolf Larsen, captain of the Ghost, a sealing schooner. Just as The Call of the Wild drew on London’s own Klondike experience to present an authentic portrayal of a cold frontier world, The Sea-Wolf capitalized on London’s memories of rough sea voyages. In each case, he was...
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Jack London has had an extraordinary impact on world culture. He was avidly read in the Soviet Union, for example, and taken as the model of a progressive writer. He inspired writers such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway to fuse journalism and fiction, pursuing a commitment to the writing life and to literature as a way of interpreting the world. His sheer passion and output have been inspiring, even if, like his hero Martin Eden, he committed suicide—a burnt-out case at age forty—as some biographers suspect. The circumstances of his death remain ambiguous, with some biographers suggesting that he died of natural causes such as a stroke or heart failure. His death certificate records uremic poisoning and renal colic....
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Jack London was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, the son of Flora Wellman and William Henry Chaney. Chaney, an astrologer and confidence man, had deserted his common-law wife when he learned she was pregnant, which led Wellman to attempt suicide. In September of 1876, she married a widower with two daughters, John London, who gave her son his name. The family was poor, made poorer by Flora’s imprudent investments in get-rich-quick schemes, and was constantly moving between apartments and small ranches. Unable to put down roots, Jack was lonely as a child. He worked hard and spent every spare moment reading dime novels and romances.
After completing grammar school in Oakland, California, in 1891, he...
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London developed what might be called the “thinking man’s adventure story.” Drawing on his own experiences as a sailor and gold prospector, he wrote rip-roaring sagas that went beyond being simple entertainments to broach speculative issues concerning evolution, free will, and the survival of primitive instincts in the civilized. His training as an action writer led him to rely on a pungent, direct prose that was a major asset in his non-genre novel, Martin Eden. In this triumphant work, he added the new strengths of breadth and keen observation to the skills he had already displayed in adventure stories.
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John Griffith London—the ardent socialist whose individualistic tales of adventure have long made him the idol of American boys—was born in the squalor of a San Francisco slum on January 12, 1876. His mother was a woman named Flora Wellman, his father was probably an Irish adventurer and roving astrologer, W. H. Chaney. A few months after the child’s birth Flora married John London, whose name was to be adopted and made famous by a child not his own.
Increasing poverty forced London to leave school after the eighth grade; his subsequent literary education was dependent upon the books he borrowed from the Oakland Public Library. The fictional productions of his maturity reflect the influence of his early...
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