Jack London Additional Biography

Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Four factors dominated Jack London’s attitudes and writings: the hard circumstances of his childhood in California, his early discovery of the great nineteenth century scientists and philosophers, his adventures at sea, and his experiences in Alaska and the Yukon.

London was the illegitimate son of a spiritualist who subsequently made a marriage of convenience to a widower. While the union provided a home for two families, it seems to have involved little affection. London’s stepfather was an unsuccessful provider, and London began work as a child to help support the family. Central California was still a rough region at the end of the nineteenth century, and the jobs the boy found included sweeping saloons and setting bowling pins. To escape the drudgery of such work, he borrowed enough money to buy a small boat and set himself up as an oyster pirate; later he switched sides to guard the same waters.

In 1893, London shipped aboard a sealing schooner bound for the Bering Sea. Out of this experience grew The Sea-Wolf, now recognized as one of the most important works of American sea fiction. Four years later London took part in another intensely masculine adventure, the Klondike gold rush, absorbing raw material for such sagas of the North as The Call of the Wild.

London’s works were much more than transcriptions of actual experience. In a prodigious period of self-education as a young man, he absorbed an enormous body of literature, science, and philosophy. Thus The Sea-Wolf dramatizes the concept of the superman, developed by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The Call of the Wild explores the concept of the survival of the fittest, pioneered by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, interpreter of scientist Charles Darwin. London led a robust and extraordinarily active life, and fancied himself a Nietzschian superman transposed to the American West, but his fiction makes clear his ambivalence at such a role.

London married in 1900 and divorced in 1904. He remarried a year later. By 1914, London’s health was failing, due largely to chronic alcoholism, which he portrays in the memoir John Barleycorn. He died in 1916 at the age of forty, having written twenty novels and hundreds of short stories and articles.

Early Life

(20th-Century Biographies)

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

(20th-Century Biographies)

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...

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Biography

(20th-Century Biographies)

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.

Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Jack London was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, the son of Flora Wellman and William Henry Chaney. Chaney, an astrologer and confidence man, had deserted his common-law wife when he learned she was pregnant, which led Wellman to attempt suicide. In September of 1876, she married a widower with two daughters, John London, who gave her son his name. The family was poor, made poorer by Flora’s imprudent investments in get-rich-quick schemes, and was constantly moving between apartments and small ranches. Unable to put down roots, Jack was lonely as a child. He worked hard and spent every spare moment reading dime novels and romances.

After completing grammar school in Oakland, California, in 1891, he...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

London developed what might be called the “thinking man’s adventure story.” Drawing on his own experiences as a sailor and gold prospector, he wrote rip-roaring sagas that went beyond being simple entertainments to broach speculative issues concerning evolution, free will, and the survival of primitive instincts in the civilized. His training as an action writer led him to rely on a pungent, direct prose that was a major asset in his non-genre novel, Martin Eden. In this triumphant work, he added the new strengths of breadth and keen observation to the skills he had already displayed in adventure stories.

Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Jack London loved adventure and lived an exciting life. He was born January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California, apparently the...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Jack London was born in 1876 in San Francisco, California, to Flora Wellman, whose common-law husband left her upon learning that she was...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Biography

(Novels for Students)

One of America's most prolific and beloved authors, London was born in 1876 in San Francisco, California. His family was so poor that he went...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Biography

(Novels for Students)

Jack London was born January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. His mother, Flora Wellman, was not married. It is generally believed...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

From the publication of his first story just before the turn of the century to his death less than two decades later, London rose to become one of America’s most popular novelists. At various times in his career he was a believer in socialism, Social Darwinism, and racism. Most of his many writings were controversial, and many were censored. Moreover, London’s constant need for money and public exposure led him to practice self-censorship and tone down his writings to placate publishers. This behavior contrasted sharply to his public utterances about the inviolability of his work, and his open contempt for censorship—which he called the tool of capitalists.

London’s diverse writings were censored for a variety...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Jack London was born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876. Raised in poverty, he started working part-time to support his family at the age...

(The entire section is 292 words.)