Jack London Biography

Jack London wrote rugged adventure stories, and that comes as no surprise. He was mainly raised by a former slave named Virginia Prentiss due to his mother’s illness. His father left the family when Jack was just a baby, and London began working in a cannery when he was just thirteen. After that, he spent several years as a sailor. He went back to California a few years later and began writing about his experiences. London joined in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and developed several health problems, including scurvy. A year later, he began his writing career in earnest and went on to author many short stories and novels including his best-known work, The Call of the Wild, which is still popular to this day.

Facts and Trivia

  • Many people speculate that London’s father was William Chaney, a famous astrologer. It’s difficult to know for certain because most San Francisco civil records were destroyed in the earthquake of 1906.
  • London almost quit writing when he was offered a mere $5 for his first published story.
  • London was often accused of plagiarism, partly because he based many of his stories on newspaper and magazine articles.
  • Some praise London for his views on minorities, and others criticize him for being concerned, like many other Californians at the time, about Asian immigration.
  • Jack London’s death continues to be a mystery. There is a great deal of controversy over whether it was uremia or suicide by morphine overdose.

Biography

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Last Updated on August 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

John Griffith London—the ardent socialist whose individualistic tales of adventure have long made him the idol of American boys—was born in the squalor of a San Francisco slum on January 12, 1876. His mother was a woman named Flora Wellman, his father was probably an Irish adventurer and roving astrologer, W. H. Chaney. A few months after the child’s birth Flora married John London, whose name was to be adopted and made famous by a child not his own.

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Increasing poverty forced London to leave school after the eighth grade; his subsequent literary education was dependent upon the books he borrowed from the Oakland Public Library. The fictional productions of his maturity reflect the influence of his early favorites, Rudyard Kipling, Karl Marx, and, later, Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Young London, however, did not have much leisure time for reading. During the five years after he left school, he was an oyster pirate, a seaman, an unsuccessful Yukon prospector, and a tramp traveling across the United States. In 1893, shortly after he had won a newspaper prize for his account of a typhoon off Japan, he spent a month in a Niagara Falls jail as a vagrant. Upon his release he returned to Oakland and, intending to mend his ways, entered high school there. After only a year, he passed the entrance examinations of the University of California with high honors. After one semester he left college for financial reasons and began to write, which was to be his principal occupation for the rest of his life.

In 1898 the Overland Monthly published London’s tale of the Yukon, “To the Man on the Trail,” the first of a steady stream of stories which were to pour from his prolific pen. In 1900 London married Bessie Mae Maddern; the marriage was not happy, however, and they were divorced in 1904. By 1903 London had published more than one hundred pieces in periodicals as well as eight full-length volumes. During that year, The Call of the Wild appeared; it is the story of the magnificent lone dog Buck, king of the Alaskan wilderness, and it has become an American classic. London’s socialistic class-consciousness was warring with his love of adventurous individualism, however; during the same year the American public was shocked to read his firsthand account, in The People of the Abyss, of life among derelicts who grubbed in garbage for food.

London met a woman named Charmian Kittredge in 1903, and the two were immediately attracted to each other. London soon separated from Bessie. In 1905, after London’s divorce, Jack and Charmian were married, and this union proved a happy one.

During the next ten years London’s novels followed upon one another with amazing rapidity. Whether dealing with high adventure and the thrills of the individual torn loose from the encumbrances of civilization, battling nature as in The Sea-Wolf, or describing the growing consciousness of the downtrodden masses under a powerful leader, as in The Iron Heel, his books are alike in their frank description (some would say exaltation) of violence and their celebration of essential solitude. His novel Martin Eden is frankly autobiographical (some consider the memoir John Barleycorn an autobiographical novel as well), but most of London’s novels reflect aspects of the author’s own character and ideals. London spent the fortune his writing quickly brought him with reckless abandon; he bought and developed an enormous ranch in Sonoma County, California, and custom built a fantastic yacht, the Snark, on which he and Charmian sailed the South Seas from 1907 to 1909. London also enjoyed entertaining. He continually spent more than he earned.

By his late thirties London’s health had begun to fail, partly because of his heavy drinking; he also suffered from rheumatism and digestive ailments and smoked heavily. A few modern scholars believe that London may have suffered from lupus. On November 22, 1916, at the age of forty, London died in Santa Rosa, California. The exact cause is unknown; it may have simply been heart failure. It was rumored that, despairing, he took his own life, but there is no solid evidence that this was the case.

At its best, Jack London’s work is characterized by color, vigor, and brutal directness rather than by literary refinement; at its worst it is that of any pot-boiling hack. It is for tales of adventure conceived by his fertile imagination, not for beauty of prose style, that London is remembered. Socialist though he may have been by intellectual choice, he was at heart an unadulterated individualist and romantic, and his personal dream was not the socialist paradise of mass security but the primordial wilderness, untouched by civilization, where every human and beast is king in his own domain. Egotism and vitality were the keys to London’s personality, just as they are central qualities of his books.

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