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Jack London


Jack London, probably born John Griffith Chaney (January 12, 1876 - November 22, 1916), was an American author of over 50 books.


Personal background

Jack London was born in San Francisco, California.

Jack London's biological father is believed by Clarice Stasz and other biographers to have been the astrologer William Chaney . Chaney was in fact a distinguished and respectable figure; according to Stasz, "From the viewpoint of serious astrologers today, Chaney is a major figure who shifted the practice from quackery to a more rigorous method."

Jack London did not learn of Chaney's putative paternity until adulthood. In 1897 he wrote to Chaney and received a letter in which Chaney stated flatly "I was never married to Flora Wellman ," and that he was "impotent" during the period in which they lived together and "cannot be your father."

Whether the marriage was, in fact, legalized is unknown. Most San Francisco civil records were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. (For the same reason, it is not known with certainty what name appeared on his birth certificate). Stasz notes that in his memoirs Chaney refers to Jack London's mother Flora Wellman, as having been his "wife." Stasz also notes an advertisement in which Flora calls herself "Florence Wellman Chaney."

Early life

Jack London was essentially self-taught. In 1883 he found and read Ouida's long Victorian novel Signa, which describes an unschooled Italian peasant child who achieves fame as an opera composer. He credited this as the seed of his literary aspiration.

After graduating from grammar school in 1889, Jack London began working from twelve to eighteen hours a day at Hickmott's Cannery. Seeking a way out of this gruelling labor, he borrowed money from his black foster mother Jennie Prentiss, bought the sloop Razzle-Dazzle from an oyster pirate named French Frank, and became an oyster pirate himself. In John Barleycorn he claims to have stolen French Frank's mistress Mamie. After a few months his sloop became damaged beyond repair. He switched to the side of the law and became a member of the California Fish Patrol .

In 1893, he signed on to the sealing schooner Sophia Sutherland, bound for the coast of Japan. When he returned, the country was in the grip of the panic of '93 and Oakland was swept by labor unrest. After gruelling jobs in a jute mill and a street-railway power plant, he joined Kelly's industrial army and began his career as a tramp.

In 1894, he spent thirty days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary at Buffalo. In The Road, he wrote:

man-handling was merely one of the very minor unprintable horrors of the Erie County Pen. I say 'unprintable'; and in justice I must also say 'unthinkable' They were unthinkable to me until I saw them, and I was no spring chicken in the ways of the world and the awful abysses of human degradation. It would take a deep plummet to reach bottom in the Erie County Pen, and I do but skim lightly and facetiously the surface of things as I there saw them.

A pivotal event was his discovery in 1895 of the Oakland Public Library and a sympathetic librarian, Ina Coolbrith (who later became California's first poet laureate and an important figure in the San Francisco literary community).

After many experiences as a hobo, sailor, and member of Kelly's Army he returned to Oakland and attended Oakland High School , where he contributed a number of articles to the high school's magazine, The Aegis.

Jack London desperately wanted to attend the University of California and, in 1896 after a summer of intense cramming, did so; but financial circumstances forced him to leave in 1897 and he never graduated. Biographer Russ Kingman says that "there is no record that Jack ever wrote for student publications" there.

In later life Jack London was a polymath with wide-ranging interests and a personal library of 15,000 volumes.

Early literary career (1898-1900)

On July 25, 1897, London sailed to join the Klondike Gold Rush where he would later write his first successful stories. Jack left Oakland a believer in the work ethic, and returned a socialist. He also concluded that his only hope of escaping the work trap was to get an education and "sell his brains." Throughout his life he saw writing as a business, his ticket out of poverty, and, he hoped, a means of beating the wealthy at their own game.

On returning to Oakland in 1898, he began struggling seriously to break into print, a struggle memorably described in his novel, Martin Eden. His first published story was the fine and frequently anthologized "To the Man On Trail." When The Overland Monthly offered him only $5 for it—and was slow paying—Jack London came close to abandoning his writing career. In his words, "literally and literarily I was saved" when The Black Cat accepted his story, "A Thousand Deaths," and paid him $40—the "first money I ever received for a story."

Jack London was fortunate in the timing of his writing career. He started just as new printing technologies enabled lower-cost production of magazines. This resulted in a boom in popular magazines aimed at a wide public, and a strong market for short fiction. The first issue of The Atlantic Monthly contained Jack London's story, "An Odyssey of the North ." In 1900, he made $2,500 in writing, the equivalent of about $50,000 today. His career was well under way.

Accusations of plagiarism

Jack London was accused of plagiarism numerous times during his career. He was vulnerable, not only because he was such a conspicuous and successful writer, but also because of his methods of working. In a letter to Elwyn Hoffman he wrote "expression, you see—with me—is far easier than invention." He purchased plots for stories and novels from the young Sinclair Lewis. And he used incidents from newspaper clippings as material on which to base stories.

Egerton R. Young claimed that The Call of the Wild was taken from his book My Dogs in the Northland . Jack London's response was to acknowledge having used it a source; he claimed to have written a letter to Young thanking him.

In July, 1902, two pieces of fiction appeared within the same month: Jack London's "Moon-Face ," in the San Francisco Argonaut, and Frank Norris's "The Passing of Cock-eye Blacklock," in Century. Newspapers paralleled the stories, which London characterizes as "quite different in manner of treatment, [but] patently the same in foundation and motive." Jack London explained that both writers had based their stories on the same newspaper account. Subsequently it was discovered that a year earlier, one Charles Forrest McLean had published another fictional story based on the same incident!

In 1906 the New York World published "deadly parallel" columns showing eighteen passages from Jack London's short story "Love of Life" side by side with similar passages from a nonfiction article by Augustus Biddle and J. K Macdonald entitled "Lost in the Land of the Midnight Sun." According to Joan London, the parallels "[proved] beyond question that Jack had merely rewritten the Biddle account." (Jack London would surely have objected to that word "merely.") Jack London noted that the World did not accuse him of "plagiarism," but only of "identity of time and situation," to which he defiantly "pled guilty." London's acknowledged his use of Biddle, cited several other sources he had used, and stated that "I, in the course of making my living by turning journalism into literature, used material from various sources which had been collected and narrated by men who made their living by turning the facts of life into journalism."

The most serious incident involved Chapter 7 of The Iron Heel, entitled "The Bishop's Vision." This chapter was almost identical with an ironic essay Frank Harris had published in 1901, entitled "The Bishop of London and Public Morality." Harris was incensed and suggested that he should receive 1/60th of the royalties from The Iron Heel, the disputed material constituting about that fraction of the whole novel. Jack London insisted that he had clipped a reprint of the article which had appeared in an American newspaper, and believed it to be a genuine speech delivered by the genuine Bishop of London. Joan London characterized this defense as "lame indeed."

Beauty Ranch (1910-1917)

In 1910 Jack London purchased a 1,000 acre (4 km²) ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California for $26,000. He wrote that "Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me." He desperately wanted the ranch to become a successful business enterprise. Writing, always a commercial enterprise with London, now became even more a means to an end: "I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres [1 or 2 km²] to my magnificent estate." After 1910, his literary works were mostly potboilers, written out of the need to provide operating income for the ranch. Joan London writes "Few reviewers bothered any more to criticize his work seriously, for it was obvious that Jack was no longer exerting himself."

Political views

Jack London was a lifelong socialist. In 1896 the San Francisco Chronicle published a story about the 20-year-old London who was out nightly in Oakland's City Hall Park, giving speeches on socialism to the crowds—an activity for which he was arrested in 1897. He ran unsuccessfully as the Socialist nominee for mayor of Oakland in 1905, toured the country lecturing on socialism in 1906, and published collections of essays on socialism (The War of the Classes, 1905; Revolution, and other Essays, 1910).

He customarily closed his letters "Yours for the Revolution."

A socialist viewpoint is evident throughout his writing, most notably in his novel The Iron Heel. No theorist or intellectual socialist, Jack London's socialism came from the heart and from his life experience.

In his later years he possibly felt some ambivalence toward socialism. He was an extraordinary financial success as a writer, and wanted desperately to make a financial success of his Glen Ellen ranch. He complained about the "inefficient Italian workers" in his employ. In 1916 he resigned from the Glen Ellen chapter of the Socialist Labor Party, but stated emphatically that he did so "because of its lack of fire and fight, and its loss of emphasis on the class struggle."

Alleged racialist views

Jack London's views regarding race are an extremely contentious subject which cannot be summed up neatly. Academicians sometimes draw a distinction between the words "racialist," to mean a belief in intrinsic difference in the capabilities of different races, as opposed to "racist," implying prejudice or hatred. By this definition, Jack London can be said to have shared the racialism common in America in his times.

Nobody has ever accused London of possessing or condoning race prejudice or hatred. Quite the contrary, his short stories are notable for their empathetic portrayal of Hispanic (The Mexican), Asian (The Chinago,) and Hawai'ian (Koolau the Leper) characters.

However, unlike, say, Mark Twain, Jack London did not depart from the racialist views that were the norm in American society in his time, and he shared the typical California concerns about Asian immigration and the "yellow peril."

Thus, at a time (1901) when H. G. Wells could write, in Anticipations, "And for the rest, those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go," we have a Jack London character (Frona Welse, in Daughter of the Snows, 1902) voicing this statement:

We are a race of doers and fighters, of globe-encirclers and zone-conquerors.... While we are persistent and resistant, we are made so that we fit ourselves to the most diverse conditions. Will the Indian, the Negro, or the Mongol ever conquer the Teuton? Surely not! The Indian has persistence without variability; if he does not modify he dies, if he does try to modify he dies anyway. The Negro has adaptability, but he is servile and must be led. As for the Chinese, they are permanent. All that the other races are not, the Anglo-Saxon, or Teuton if you please, is. All that the other races have not, the Teuton has.

(Scholar Andrew Furer says there is no doubt that Frona Welse is here acting as a mouthpiece for London).

It is possible to cherry-pick statements by some of Jack London's fictional characters that would today be characterized as "racist" (the word did not even exist in London's time). Such statements occur increasingly in the potboilers he wrote to finance his ranch in his declining years. It is debatable whether or not London places any ironic or critical distance between himself and these statements. The word nigger is used casually throughout the novels Adventure, Jerry of the Islands, and Michael, Brother of Jerry. The latter also features a comic Jewish character who is a avaricious, stingy, and has a "greasy-seaming grossness of flesh."


Grave of Jack and Charmian London

Jack London's death is controversial. Many older sources describe it as a suicide, and some still do (e.g., the Columbia Encyclopedia [1]). However, this appears to be at best a rumor, or speculation. His death certificate gives the cause as uremia. It is known that he was in extreme pain and taking morphine, and it is possible that a morphine overdose, accidental or deliberate, may have contributed. The noted London scholar Dr. Clarice Stasz writes that "Following London's death, for a number of reasons a biographical myth developed in which he has been portrayed as an alcoholic womanizer who committed suicide. Recent scholarship based upon firsthand documents challenges this caricature."[2] In his autobiographical novel Martin Eden, the protagonist commits suicide by drowning, a detail that undoubtedly contributed to the myth. (Another fictional parallel occurs in the denouement of The Little Lady of the Big House, in which the heroine, confronted by the pain of a mortal and untreatable gunshot wound, undergoes a physician-assisted suicide by means of morphine).

Jack London's ashes are buried, together with those of his wife Charmian, in Jack London State Park , in Glen Ellen, California. The simple grave is marked only by a mossy boulder.


Short Stories

Many readers find Jack London to be at his best in his short stories, of which he wrote about two hundred. London's "strength of utterance" is at its height in his stories, and they are painstakingly well-constructed. (In contrast, many of his novels, including The Call of the Wild, are weakly constructed, episodic, and resemble linked sequences of short stories).

"To Build a Fire" is the best known of all his stories, probably deservedly so. Other fine stories from his Klondike period include: "All Gold Canyon," about a battle between a gold prospector and a claim jumper ; "The Law of Life," about an aging man abandoned by his tribe and left to die; and "Love of Life," about a desperate trek by a prospector across the Canadian taiga.

"Moon Face" invites comparison with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Jack London was a boxing fan and an avid amateur boxer himself. "A Piece of Steak" is an evocative tale about a match between a older boxer and a younger one. "The Mexican" combines boxing with a social theme, as a young Mexican endures an unfair fight and ethnic prejudice in order to earn money with which to aid the Mexican revolution.

A surprising number of Jack London's stories would today be classified as science fiction. "The Unparalleled Invasion" describes bacteriological warfare against China. "Goliah" revolves around an irresistible energy weapon. "The Shadow and the Flash" is a highly original tale about two competitive brothers who take two different routes to achieving invisibility. "A Relic of the Pliocene" is a tall tale about an encounter of a modern-day man with a mammoth. "The Red One" tells of an island tribe held in thrall by a extraterrestrial object. (And his dystopian novel, The Iron Heel, meets the contemporary definition of "Soft" science fiction).

Nonfiction and Autobiographical Memoirs

"The Road" (1907) is a series of tales and reminiscences of Jack London's hobo days. It relates the tricks that hoboes used to evade train crews, and reminisces about his travels with Kelly's Army. He credits his story-telling skill to the hobo's necessity of concocting tales to coax meals from sympathetic strangers.

Jack London's autobiographical book of "alcoholic memoirs," John Barleycorn, was published in 1913. Recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous, it depicts the outward and inward life of an alcoholic. The passages depicting his interior mental state, which he called the "White Logic," are among his strongest and most evocative writing. The question must, however, be raised: is it truly against alcohol, or a love hymn to alcohol? He makes alcohol sound exciting, dangerous, comradely, glamorous, manly. Alcohol is his adventure, like his other adventures—an integral part of his other adventures. In the end, when he sums it up, this is the total he comes up with:

And so I pondered my problem. I should not care to revisit all these fair places of the world except in the fashion I visited them before. Glass in hand! There is a magic in the phrase. It means more than all the words in the dictionary can be made to mean. It is a habit of mind to which I have been trained all my life. It is now part of the stuff that composes me. I like the bubbling play of wit, the chesty laughs, the resonant voices of men, when, glass in hand, they shut the grey world outside and prod their brains with the fun and folly of an accelerated pulse.
No, I decided; I shall take my drink on occasion.

The Cruise of the Snark (1913) is a memoir of Jack and Charmian London 's 1907-1909 voyage across the Pacific. His descriptions of "surf-riding," which he dubbed a "royal sport," helped introduce it to and popularize it with the mainland. London writes:

Through the white crest of a breaker suddenly appears a dark figure, erect, a man-fish or a sea-god, on the very forward face of the crest where the top falls over and down, driving in toward shore, buried to his loins in smoking spray, caught up by the sea and flung landward, bodily, a quarter of a mile. It is a Kanaka on a surf-board. And I know that when I have finished these lines I shall be out in that riot of colour and pounding surf, trying to bit those breakers even as he, and failing as he never failed, but living life as the best of us may live it.

Selected bibliography

Biographies and books about Jack London

  • Jack London and His Times, Joan London, 1939 (Doubleday, Doran). By Jack London's daughter. Notable for its background on social and economic conditions in California during various periods in Jack London's life.
  • A Pictorial Biography of Jack London, Russ Kingman, 1979; "Published for Jack London Research Center by David Rejl, California." Includes a wealth of thought-provoking photographs documenting seemingly every person and place in Jack London's life.
  • Jack London's Women, Clarice Stasz, 2001 (University of Massachusetts Press)


Autobiographical memoirs


  • "To the Man on Trail"
  • "The Law of Life"
  • "Moon-Face"
  • "The Leopard Man's Story" (1903)
  • "Love of Life
  • "All Gold Canyon"
  • "The Apostate"
  • "To Build a Fire"
  • "The Chinago"
  • "A Piece of Steak"
  • "Good-by, Jack"
  • "Samuel"
  • "Told in the Drooling Ward"
  • "The Mexican"
  • "The Red One"
  • "The Madness of John Harned"


  • (1916)

External links

Works (available online)

Sites about Jack London

Last updated: 11-08-2004 00:16:32