In histories of American literature and studies of American fiction Jack London is usually considered a minor figure in the development of literary realism and naturalism in the early years of the twentieth century. Arthur Hobson Quinn in 1936 dismissed him quickly with the comment that he was a journalist who wrote “too hastily and too often” and whose vogue was passing, “for there is something impermanent in the very nature of the literature of violence.” A decade later, Robert E. Spiller remarked that London was a “vigorous, naïve, and prolific” writer who personified the romantic impulses of the new century and who left “a small body of writing which, for sincerity and vitality, deserves to be rescued from the oblivion to which his artistic faults threaten to condemn it.” George F. Whicher was less favorably impressed and wrote in 1951 that London had “little sense of the artistic sincerity of his work and was never unwilling to combine his poetic memories of the great open spaces with popular and highly profitable sentimentality.” Edward Wagenknecht, in Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952), called London “a hack writer of genius” whose writing “was never more than a means to an end, and the end was material advancement.” The general public in America perhaps remembers London now only as the author of The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf and of several Alaskan stories such as “To Build a Fire” and “Love of Life,” which have been reprinted in many high school and college textbooks and collections of short stories. By contrast, he is reportedly the most popular of all American writers in Russia, and in France a publisher has recently been reissuing his complete works.
Andrew Sinclair’s major new biography of Jack London tells the life story of an amazing young man who fought his way upward from illegitimacy as an infant, through rough and dangerous experiences in a great variety of occupations, to an immensely popular success as a novelist and considerable notoriety as a political radical, and who died, an apparent suicide, at the age of forty. Sinclair also attempts to correct some false impressions about London that can be traced back either to Jack’s myths about himself or to earlier biographers who lacked access to many materials that were made available to Sinclair.
London was born in San Francisco in 1876, the son of Flora Wellman, a spiritualist, and John Chaney, a vagabond and astrologer, who had deserted Miss Wellman after she refused to have an abortion. When the baby was only a few months old his mother married a widower, John London, who gave his name to the child. The boy was always called Jack to distinguish him from his adoptive father. Jack did not learn the identity of his real father until he was almost a man. He wrote to Chaney then and felt intensely the sting of rejection when Chaney denied the paternity and refused to see him. Jack achieved a minor sublimated revenge in an early story entitled “A Thousand Deaths,” in which a son kills his probable father who has cruelly tortured him. The stigma of Jack’s origin was not exorcised, however, and it contributed to his later mythmaking about his family background. Jack’s sense of rejection had earlier been instilled by his mother’s having neglected him for other interests, one of which was lavishing on the young son of her stepdaughter Ida the affection she had denied her own son.
The poverty of his family led Jack to drop out of school at thirteen and take a series of jobs requiring long hours of often hard physical labor and scant pay. He became an oyster pirate in San Francisco Bay, joined a gang of delinquents in the city, sailed as a seaman on a sealer bound for Japan, nearly died of shingles on the way back, hoboed across the United States, was arrested as a vagrant in Niagara Falls and jailed for a month, and then decided at nineteen that he would return to school and get the education which would enable him to escape the hard and perhaps derelict life that must otherwise almost certainly be his fate.
Jack became interested in books in his early schooling but later had had little time for them until his return made him determine that through both intensive and extensive reading and study—up to nineteen hours a day—he could make up six years of school in two. After a year in high school and five weeks in a cram school, he studied independently with furious application and was admitted to Berkeley as a special student; but he left after his second semester and thus ended his formal education. His continued voracious reading for the rest of his life, however, influenced his thinking and his writing.
Among authors Sinclair cites as exerting a literary influence on London are Kipling, Stevenson, Twain, Milton, Dante, Poe, and Wells. As early as 1900 Jack admitted to a friend, “I would never possibly have written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been.” Three years later he published an essay, “The Terrible and Tragic in Fiction,” in which he praised Poe’s use of terror in his writing,...
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