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Jack London was born John Griffith Chaney on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco. He was disowned by his biological father, William Henry Chaney. His mother, Flora Wellman, married John London later in September that year, with her husband giving her son his last name. Young John became "Jack" to distinguish his name from his adoptive father's name. London lived most of his life in the San Francisco Bay area, and as a youngster roamed the streets of the cities. In 1883, at age seven, London began drinking beer, which soon led to alcoholism and spending much of his free time as an adolescent in rough, rowdy bars.

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Some of the most exciting of London's adventures took place in San Francisco Bay, where in 1891, London became an oyster pirate. The dangerous and illegal occupation threw him in with very rough people. Drinking himself into a stupor became a way of life for him. Even so, gripped by novels of sea-faring adventure, in 1893, seventeen-year-old London signed on as a crewman on the freighter Sophia Sutherland to sail to Japan and hunt seals. Life on the ship was difficult, but London won the respect of his crewmates with hard work and physical courage. One of his adventures aboard the Sophia Sutherland would become the basis of his first publication, the story "Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan."

When London returned home, he found an America in the throes of a depression and employment scarce. Therefore, in 1894, he joined the Industrial Army, a protest movement for workers hurt by the economic depression of the 1890s, and he marched to Washington, D.C., to join a national protest. He left the protest, wandered to New York, and there was arrested for vagrancy and imprisoned. The rapes, beatings, and other horrors he witnessed and possibly endured colored his political views and writing for the rest of his life.

The discovery of gold in the Yukon inspired him to undertake the arduous journey to Alaska, across the Alaskan wilderness and into the Yukon, where he did not find gold but instead found a host of memorable men and women who became the inspirations for a multitude of short stories and novels. By 1902, he was a well-known author, and he was hired by newspaper publisher William Randolf Hearst to cover the Boer War, but London persuaded Hearst to instead have him write about the living conditions of the working class in London, England. The resulting book The People of the Abyss (1903) was and remains controversial. London had disguised himself as a roustabout and wandered for weeks through slums, finding the living conditions of England's workers to be appalling.

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In 1904, London agreed to cover the Russo-Japanese War for Hearst and sailed to Tokyo. Even though the American press corps in Japan was avidly pro-Japanese, the Japanese tried to keep the reporters away from any uncensored news about the war. London, ever impatient, sneaked out of Tokyo to a southwest Japanese seaport and contrived to gain passage on a boat to Korea. London was the only American reporter to get anywhere near the war front, and one of only two reporters to even make it as far as Korea. Envious fellow reporters denigrated London, but others admired him for his daring and determination to find his story. His giving Hearst several exclusive accounts of the war before the Japanese authorities found him and send him south to Seoul, away from the front, won him much favor with Hearst.

Using his fame to draw large audiences, London traveled across the United States in 1905, giving speeches in favor of socialism. He embarrassed his fellow socialists somewhat by insisting that peaceful means for transforming society were not enough, that instead the working poor should use violence to overthrow the unjust economic system. His tour fizzled out midway when he both received his divorce decree from his first wife and the mother of his two daughters, Bess Maddern, and married his lover Charmian Kittredge on the same day, November 19, 1905. He and his new wife settled in Glen Ellen, California, and in spite of finding his reputation tarnished because of his abandonment of Bess, his home became the focus of the artistic society of the San Francisco Bay Area, with writers and artists constantly coming and going.

In 1907, London and Charmian, with a handpicked crew of inexperienced and incompetent sailors, set off to spend several years sailing around the world on his custom- built ship, the Snark. The ship became lost because its navigator did not know how to navigate, but London taught himself how to read charts and use navigational instruments, and he directed his ship to Hawaii, where he and the crew rested. While there, he discovered surfing and spent weeks out in the sun learning how to use surf boards. His writings about surfing helped to popularize the sport on the mainland, but he sunburned so badly that he could barely crawl for days.

As the Snark made its way through the islands of the South Seas, London and his crew were beset by injuries and illnesses, with crew members gradually leaving the voyage. Although well treated wherever he went, London was disheartened by what white colonialists had done to the islands and he quietly dropped his advocation of white supremacy. He, Charmian, and the one remaining original crew member, Martin Johnson, reached the end of the Snark's journey in Australia, where London was hospitalized for several days.

In 1910, he and Charmian established Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon, near Sonoma, California. London was determined to make Beauty Ranch a model of modern agriculture, and it was a forerunner of environmentally friendly farming techniques. The ranch was never profitable because London obsessively bought more land to add to it whenever he could, putting him in debt even while writing best sellers. Even so, had he lived a few more years, he would likely have begun turning a profit because his many schemes were paying off in abundant productivity as well as high quality produce and farm animals, somewhat to the dismay and envy of other local farmers.

London had been building a huge lodge that he hoped would become a center for artists and writers. He called it "Wolf House." Almost completed, it burned down on August 22, 1913. At the time, nearly everyone was certain that Wolf House was the victim of arson, set on fire by neighbors jealous of his farming successes, but it was more likely the victim of spontaneous combustion from a pile of kerosene-soaked rags left overnight in the lodge by the construction workers. Wolf House was London's last great passion, except for Charmian.

Literary Qualities

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Jack London is a character study, an effort to capture the essence of London's personality. For Dyer, this involves first identifying facts and separating them from myths, exaggerations, and falsehoods: "In this biography," he says,

I have attempted to stick to verified facts about Jack London's life. This is not always easy. So many legends about him have grown since his death that it is difficult, at times, to separate what really happened from what might have happened. While he was alive, Jack himself was occasionally guilty of adding to the legend by exaggerating his accomplishments.

Thus, Dyer approaches his subject with a skeptical mind, trusting little without testing it for accuracy first. This may account for the marvelous descriptions of London and his times, as well as the clear explanations of London's views and of his importance as an historical figure.

This skeptical approach also generates a tone of authenticity. Dyer does not buy into tall tales or character assassinations, regardless of their sources, and his audience benefits by the resulting well-rounded picture of a realistic, yet remarkable, man. London's attitudes and achievements can be accounted for: a blend of hard work, talent, avid reading, determination, and good fortune that resulted in an extraordinary literary career and in one of the most captivating lives in the world of letters.

Social Sensitivity

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London "recalled that the first time he got drunk he was five years old," notes Dyer. "In truth, I had been poisoned," declares London. From early childhood, London was a heavy drinker, often prone to binges. He recalled nearly drowning while drunk when he was an adolescent—floating off in the currents of San Francisco Bay only to be fortuitously saved. His abandoning his life as oyster pirate and wharf rat was motivated in part by the realization that the heavy drinking associated with that life would kill him at an early age. Eventually, his lifelong battle with alcohol resulted in his writing John Barleycorn (1913), a story of alcohol addiction that remains a landmark for its realism.

Alcoholism was not the only legacy of London's childhood of hard labor and little education. Dyer emphasizes how London's work in factories and railroad yards left him with an oft-stated determination not to be a human animal, laboring as if he had no mind. His determination to be the opposite, to be someone who earned his living with his mind is one of the principal motivations Dyer cites for London's determined struggle to become a writer, even when circumstances seemed to deny him any hope of being anything other than a physical laborer.

His becoming a socialist stemmed in part from his anger at himself having been cruelly exploited when a boy, and he wrote extensively about the reforms that should be made for the lives of the working class: "He wrote about how working conditions ought to be more humane—workers should have shorter hours, longer vacations, better salaries, better benefits," says Dyer. "He did not believe children should be laboring in factories. He thought that people should be able to retire, to receive a pension, and not have to work until they died." Such modest reforms were regarded as radical in his day; they have yet to be found in much of the modern world. London did not envision the working class gaining such rights easily. He angrily declared that the working class must gain its rights through the violent overthrow of their exploiters, the owners of industries. One of his greatest frustrations was that his own example of a man rising out of poverty and exploitation was not followed by others.

He also became angry at his fellow socialists, who seemed to favor a gradual empowering of the working class, rather than London's view that exploitation should be brought to an end as quickly as possible. Eventually, he came to believe that socialists were part of the problem. They were well-to-do people who favored sacrifices for others but not for themselves. "In March 1916, both Jack and Charmian abruptly resigned from the Socialist Party," notes Dyer. "He said in his letter that his resignation was due to the party's 'lack of fire and fight, and its loss of emphasis on the class struggle.'"

It is odd that a man who devoted much of his time to urging social and political reform to aid the poor, child laborers, and overworked and underpaid laborers would have notions of racial superiority, but as much London disliked his mother, he adopted for himself her attitude that white people were superior to other races and that Anglo- Saxons were superior to all other whites. This view was mixed with his haphazard reading of history and philosophy. London's "own studies of history had convinced him that white Anglo-Saxons were destined to control the world," Dyer mentions. Dyer does not give a full account of London's racial views; they do not seem to have affected his fiction or his socialist ideas. Still, someone seriously interested in London's racism should consult Alex Kershaw's Jack London: A Life (1997), especially the account of the Snark's adventures in the South Pacific, during which London abandoned his views of racial superiority. He expected whites, Anglo-Saxons in particular, to rule to the benefit of other races, but found that white colonialists brought destruction and misery, instead.

In a biography that masterfully explains the important aspects of London's life, London's racism stands out as a nettlesome exception. Early on, Dyer notes London's ethnic prejudices. Yet, the evolution of London's thought about race and racial groups is not explained, and his relationships with people of races other than his own are little mentioned. Even his relationship to his childhood nurse Jennie Prentiss, an African American, is touched on only a couple of times. Dyer's noting that Prentiss and her husband were the people Jack first called "Mamma" and "Papa" only highlights the problem of how London could at any time regard his ethnic fraction of white people— Anglo-Saxons—as superior to any of the loving strong people of other races about which he wrote feelingly and honestly. London's racism, left underdeveloped in Dyer's biography, can be a troubling factor for a youngster to consider while reading about him or while reading his writings. That London shed some of his nonsensical prejudices late in his life is important to know.

His adventures in the South Pacific resulted in writings that affected American society significantly in at least three ways. One is that he made Hawaii and South Sea islands into popular tourist destinations for mainland Americans, and they remain immensely popular. In addition, "Jack London is one of the reasons that surfing is now a popular sport," claims Dyer. He may have badly sunburned himself while learning the sport (doing anything in excess seems to have been a fundamental part of London's nature), but London loved surfing and wrote of it in essays about Hawaii, and in so doing captured the imaginations of young men and women who tried the sport out for themselves.

Perhaps more important were London's accounts of visiting lepers. Leprosy was then a poorly understood disease that horrified people; responses toward lepers were traditionally ones of revulsion. London and Charmian visited lepers, and although horrified by what the disease did to its victims, they viewed the lepers as otherwise ordinary people. London's essays about their lives and his travelogues about visiting them set a new tone for how society regarded leprosy and helped begin the long process of research that resulted in treatments for the disease.

But London still had a restless spirit and a desire to be at work. Even though he drove himself to write every day without fail, he decided to take on the challenges of ranching. Dyer does a marvelous job of explaining how London developed Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon. For Californians, London's work became a powerful influence on farming; he introduced techniques for farming without pesticides—environmentally friendly farming—that are now widely practiced. The "organic" vegetables in America's supermarkets are likely to have been grown similar to the way London grew his.

London pursued his dream of an ideal ranch with the same obsessiveness with which he pursued his writing:

He reconstructed and repaired buildings. He bought a blacksmith shop in Glen Ellen and had all the equipment hauled to the ranch. He planted and harvested hay. He studied farming techniques of the ancient Chinese—especially concerning plowing and drainage—and borrowed freely from every source that seemed to work. He applied no artificial fertilizers but used the manure of his own animals. He grew spineless cactus to feed his cattle. He rotated crops so as not to exhaust the soil. He wired buildings for electricity. He built the first concrete-block silos in California—forty feet tall—and filled them with feed. From England he imported the famous shire horses and began to breed them. One of his animals—named Neuadd Hillside—took first prize at the California State Fair.

London pioneered ways to make farming less labor intensive; his experiments such as centralized feeding and housing pigs in an innovative complex of pens were sometimes mocked, but they foresaw the future of family farms in the twentieth century. According to Dyer, "Jack's dream was that the ranch would become a totally selfsufficient community." With most other modern biographers, Dyer suggests that London was only a few years away from realizing this dream when he died.

For Further Reference

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Simonetti, Karen. Booklist (September 15, 1997): 218. In this review of Jack London, Simonetti writes that Jack London is "a winning read to spark further study or to simply enjoy on its own."

Sullivan, Edward. School Library Journal (September 1997): 229. A very positive review of Dyer's biography, Jack London.

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