Jack London

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)