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.