Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2144
Article abstract: London was one of the main exponents of American literary naturalism, a popular writer of adventure stories, and a crusading journalist, socialist, and political novelist who pioneered the role of the twentieth century activist writer.
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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 confronting readers with rugged and life-threatening environments in which individuals must rely on their own inner resources in a way that sedate society never requires. Van Weyden, with his Dutch name, suggests that London is pointing to the intrepid spirit that had settled America but that had, in the course of several generations, become weak. In the course of his conflict with the Viking-like Larsen, van Weyden builds himself up physically and mentally, returning to society as a strong and self-aware man.
White Fang reverses the plot of The Call of the Wild, taking a wolf-dog, brutally tamed by its first owner and trained as a ferocious attack dog, and turning it again into the wild, where it is tamed once more—but this time by a sensitive master who disciplines it to be a fearless but faithful companion. More sentimental than The Call of the Wild, White Fang presages London’s gradual deterioration as a writer. At twenty-nine, he was the most famous, most widely read, and wealthiest author in the United States. He would write increasingly for money to maintain his lavish existence of luxury homes and yachts, although he did not forsake his withering view of a harsh world in which men and women had to battle both nature and society.
London’s success as a writer strained his marriage, and he eventually separated from his wife. He fell in love with Charmian Kittredge and married her in 1905. The couple settled on a 130-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, California, where he remained until 1907, when he set sail on his boat, The Snark, for a voyage around the world. He was forced to curtail the journey in 1909 because of ill health. Much of his remaining work was written at his California ranch, although in 1914 he reported on the Mexican revolution.
Like his contemporary, the great science fiction writer H. G. Wells, London was not content to use the popular genre of the adventure story to convey his analysis of society and history. Just as Wells turned to journalism and novels of social criticism, so too did London, publishing novels such as Martin Eden, in which the hero as writer explicitly confronts the complacency of bourgeois society when he finds himself at a middle-class dinner table arguing for his interpretation of existence with the pillars of society—the judges and politicians who hold power and look upon the powerless as unworthy.
Other books such as The Iron Heel (1907), the story of a fascist dictatorship destroyed by socialist revolution, and The War of the Classes (1905), a collection of lectures and essays, demonstrated that London retained his commitment to social criticism. As a journalist, he wrote about the Russo-Japanese War (1904) for the Hearst papers and about Mexico for Collier’s. In 1902, he posed as a sailor and investigated the lives of East End slum dwellers in London, England, producing an exposé the next year titled The People of the Abyss. His book Smoke Bellew Tales (1912) covers the career of a journalist in the Yukon territory in Canada.
Novels such as The Valley of the Moon (1913) drew on London’s nostalgia for an agrarian life and his dislike of dehumanizing cities. It proposed an unrealistic return to the land. His work increasingly became the prisoner of the very commercial and cutthroat civilization he deplored. His personal deterioration—abetted by drug-taking and dipsomania—is evident in his autobiographical protemperance book John Barleycorn (1913). The Cruise of the Snark (1911), London’s account of his effort to cruise the world in his schooner, is an apt example of his over-reaching. His enterprise was overly ambitious, and it ruined him financially. Nevertheless, his evocations of the writer as hero remain a signal achievement, and his broad and intense engagement with society still attracts generations of readers.
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.
London offered journalists and novelists a vision of the individual writer at war with the world and yet fabulously successful. He did not blink at the realities of society even as he pursued his own ambitious course. Even writers who might seem worlds apart from the aggressive, high-living London—such as the essayist and novelist Susan Sontag—have paid tribute to London’s example, ignoring his excesses and honoring his quest to engage the world on his terms.
London has been equally popular, however, with readers of adventure stories who are not devotees of Nietzsche, Marx, or Darwin. For them, it is surely London’s ability to describe the world, to place readers in his characters’ situations, that is so compelling. London always gave his readers a vivid sense of having been to the same places as his characters.
As a popular writer, London fashioned plots that overwhelm the seeming contradictions in his thinking. Nietzsche and Marx, for example, did not have the same vision of society or of the individual. Nietzsche would have rejected Marx’s materialism and his emphasis on the structures of society that militate against individual success. There was no room in Marx’s Communism for the superman, or superhero, as in Nietzsche. Neither Marx nor Nietzsche adopted Darwin’s biological view of humans as organisms in the evolving natural world. Yet in London, society, nature, and the individual are synthesized in dramatic plots that defy logical analysis. London speaks simultaneously for both the social critic and the social aspirant: individuals who know that the world will crush them but who nevertheless persist in the belief that they can master their misfortunes.
Auerbach, Jonathan. Male Call: Becoming Jack London. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. As its title suggests, this biography focuses on how London became a writer and public celebrity as well as an exponent of the masculinized viewpoint that later became the forte of Ernest Hemingway.
Barltrop, Robert. Jack London: The Man, the Writer, the Rebel. London: Pluto Press, 1976. A short, well-illustrated biographical and critical study with separate chapters on The Iron Heel and the Snark voyage, and the consequences of his fame. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
Doctorow, E. L. Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1993. A long, thoughtful reflection on London’s politics and fiction from the point of view of a major novelist who is sympathetic but also critical of London’s example.
Kershaw, Jack. Jack London: A Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. A comprehensive and lively biography that reveals few new facts but retells the story of London’s life and career in intimate, revealing details.
Lober, Earle. Jack London. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. A useful introduction to London that includes a chronology, notes, and annotated bibliography.
Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981. A detailed biography that is especially good on London’s early life and his later adventures as sailor and journalist. Lacks illustrations but includes notes, bibliography, and index.
Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Harper and Row, 1977. A comprehensive biography that includes chapters on London’s period in Mexico and his later reputation. Includes excellent illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline, ed. Critical Essay on Jack London. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. Contains a helpful introduction, essays on many aspects of London’s life and work, and a bibliography.