Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105
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.
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.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220
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.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45
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.