Jack London, probably born John Griffith Chaney was an American
author who wrote The Call of the Wild and over fifty other books.
A pioneer in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction,
he was one of the first Americans to make a huge financial success
Clarice Stasz and other biographers believe it to be likely that
Jack London's biological father was astrologer William Chaney.
Chaney was a person of distinction in astrology; 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."
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."
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".
Jack London was born in San Francisco. He was essentially self-educated.
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
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:
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."
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. His first published work was "Typhoon off the
coast of Japan", an account of his sailing experiences.
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.
Kingman says that "there is no record that Jack ever wrote
for student publications" there.
1889, 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
living at his rented villa on Lake Merritt in Oakland, London
met poet George Sterling and in time they became best of friends.
In 1902 Sterling helped London find a home closer to his own in
nearby Piedmont. In his letters London addressed Sterling as "Greek"
owing to his aquiline nose and classical profile, and signed them
as "Wolf". London was later to depict Sterling as Russ
Brissenden in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909) and
as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913).
later life Jack London was a polymath with wide-ranging interests
and a personal library of 15,000 volumes.
July 25,1897,London and his brother in law James Shepard sailed
to join the Klondike Gold Rush where he would later set his first
successful stories. London's time in the Klondike, however, was
quite detrimental to his health. Like so many others malnourished
while involved in the Klondike Gold Rush, he developed scurvy.
His gums became swollen, eventually leading to the loss of his
four front teeth. A constant gnawing pain affected his abdomen
and leg muscles, and his face was stricken with sores.
for him and others who were suffering with a variety of medical
ills, a Father William Judge, "The Saint of Dawson",
had a facility in Dawson which provided shelter, food and any
available medicine. London's health recovered, but it was a unique
twist of fate that London's life was perhaps saved by a Jesuit
priest, since London was an agnostic.
survived the hardships of the Klondike, Yukon Klondik, and these
struggles inspired what is often called his best short story,
"To Build a Fire". The famous version of this story
was published in 1908; an early and radically different version
was originally published in 1902. Labor, in an anthology, says
that "To compare the two versions is itself an instructive
lesson in what distinguished a great work of literary art from
a good children's story. Labor (1994) 1902 version, famous 1908
version, The story concerned a Klondike prospector's stubborn
futility in ignoring the dangers of nature, and in the end freezing
to death when he is unable to build a simple fire that could save
his life. London personally could probably closely identify himself
with the man in the story, and must have seen this type of human
folly many times in real life while in the Klondike.
landlords in Dawson were two Yale and Stanford educated mining
engineers Marshall and Louis Bond. Their father Judge Hiram Bond
was a wealthy mining investor. The Bonds, especially Hiram, were
active Republicans. Marshall Bond's diary mentions friendly sparring
on political issues as a camp pastime.
left Oakland a believer in the work ethic with a social conscience
and socialist leanings and returned to become an active proponent
of socialism. 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
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".
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. In 1900,
he made $2,500 in writing, the equivalent of about $75,000 today.
His career was well under way.
the works he sold to magazines was a short story known as either
"Batarde" or "Diable" in two editions of the
same basic story. A cruel French Canadian brutalizes his dog.
The dog out of revenge causes his death. London was criticized
for depicting a dog as an embodiment of evil. He told some of
his critics that man's actions are the main cause of the behavior
of their animals and he would show this in another short story.
short story for the Saturday Evening Post "The Call of the
Wild" ran away in length. The story begins on an estate in
Santa Clara and features a St. Bernard/Shepard mix named Buck.
In fact the opening scene is a description of the Bond family
farm and Buck is based on a dog he was lent in Dawson by his landlords.
London visited Marshall Bond in California having run into him
again at a political lecture in San Francisco in 1901.
Jack London married Bess Maddern on April 7, 1900, the same day
The Son of the Wolf was published. Bess had been part of his circle
of friends for a number of years. Stasz says "Both acknowledged
publicly that they were not marrying out of love, but from friendship
and a belief that they would produce sturdy children." Kingman
says "they were comfortable together …. Jack had made
it clear to Bessie that he did not love her, but that he liked
her enough to make a successful marriage."
the marriage, Jack London continued his friendship with Anna Strunsky,
co-authoring The Kempton-Wace Letters, an epistolary novel contrasting
romantic [heart] with scientific love. Anna, writing "Dane
Kempton's" letters, arguing for a romantic view of marriage,
while Jack, writing "Herbert Wace's" letters, argued
for a scientific view, based on Darwinism and eugenics. In the
novel, his fictional character contrasts two women he has known:
first was] a mad, wanton creature, wonderful and unmoral and filled
with life to the brim. My blood pounds hot even now as I conjure
her up … [The second was] a proud-breasted woman, the perfect
mother, made preeminently to know the lip clasp of a child. You
know the kind, the type. "The mothers of men", I call
them. And so long as there are such women on this earth, that
long may we keep faith in the breed of men. The wanton was the
Mate Woman, but this was the Mother Woman, the last and highest
and holiest in the hierarchy of life.
purpose to order my affairs in a rational manner …. Wherefore
I marry Hester Stebbins. I am not impelled by the archaic sex
madness of the beast, nor by the obsolescent romance madness of
later-day man. I contract a tie which reason tells me is based
upon health and sanity and compatibility. My intellect shall delight
in that tie.
why he "was impelled toward the woman" he intends to
marry, Wace says
was old Mother Nature crying through us, every man and woman of
us, for progeny. Her one unceasing and eternal cry: PROGENY! PROGENY!
real life, Jack's pet name for Bess "Mother-Girl" and
Bess's for Jack was "Daddy-Boy". Their first child,
Joan, was born on January 15th, 1901, and their second, Bessie
(later called Becky), on October 20, 1902.
to pictures in photo album, reproduced in part in Joan London's
memoir, "Jack London and Her Daughters", published posthumously,
show Jack London's unmistakable happiness and pride in his children.
But the marriage itself was under continuous strain. Kingman (1979)
says that by 1903 "the breakup … was imminent ….
Bessie was a fine woman, but they were extremely incompatible.
There was no love left. Even companionship and respect had gone
out of the marriage." Nevertheless, "Jack was still
so kind and gentle with Bessie that when Cloudsley Johns was a
house guest in February of 1903 he didn't suspect a breakup of
to Joseph Noel (1940), "Bessie was the eternal mother. She
lived at first for Jack, corrected his manuscripts, drilled him
in grammar, but when the children came she lived for them. Herein
was her greatest honor and her first blunder." Jack complained
to Noel and George Sterling that "she's devoted to purity.
When I tell her morality is only evidence of low blood pressure,
she hates me. She'd sell me and the children out for her damned
purity. It's terrible. Every time I come back after being away
from home for a night she won't let me be in the same room with
her if she can help it.". Stasz believes that these were
"code words for [Bess's] fear that [Jack] was consorting
with prostitutes and might bring home venereal disease."
July 24th, 1903, Jack London told Bessie he was leaving and moved
out; during 1904 Jack and Bess negotiated the terms of a divorce,
and the decree was granted on November 11, 1904.
Jack London was accused of plagiarism at 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.
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 as a source; he claimed to have written a letter
to Young thanking him.
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.
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
London's daughter Joan, the parallels "[proved] beyond question
that Jack had merely rewritten the Biddle account." (Jack
London would surely have objected to that word "merely".)
London noted the World did not accuse him of "plagiarism",
but only of "identity of time and situation", to which
he defiantly "pled guilty". London acknowledged his
use of Biddle, cited several other sources he had used, and stated,
"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."
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".
In 1910 Jack London purchased a 1,000 acre 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 for no other
purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write
a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres
to my magnificent estate."
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
Stasz writes that London "had taken fully to heart the vision,
expressed in his agrarian fiction, of the land as the closest
earthly version of Eden … he educated himself through study
of agricultural manuals and scientific tomes. He conceived of
a system of ranching that today would be praised for its ecological
wisdom." He was proud of the first concrete silo in California,
of a circular piggery he designed himself. He hoped to adapt the
wisdom of Asian sustainable agriculture to the United States.
ranch was, by most measures, a colossal failure. Sympathetic observers
such as Stasz treat his projects as potentially feasible, and
ascribe their failure to bad luck or to being ahead of their time.
Unsympathetic observers such as Kevin Starr suggest that he was
a bad manager, distracted by other concerns and impaired by his
alcoholism. Starr notes that London was absent from his ranch
about six months a year between 1910 and 1916, and says "He
liked the show of managerial power, but not grinding attention
to detail …. London's workers laughed at his efforts to
play big-time rancher [and considered] the operation a rich man's
ranch is now a National Historic Landmark.
Jack London became a socialist at the age of 20. Previously, he
had possessed an optimism stemming from his health and strength,
a rugged individualist who worked hard and saw the world as good.
But as he details in his essay, "How I Became a Socialist",
his socialist views began as his eyes were opened to the members
of the bottom of the social pit. His optimism and individualism
faded, and he vowed never to do more hard work than he had to.
He writes that his individualism was hammered out of him, and
he was reborn a socialist.
first joined the Socialist Labor Party in April 1896. In 1901
he left the Socialist Labor Party and joined the new Socialist
Party of America. 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 high-profile Socialist nominee for mayor of Oakland in
1901 (receiving 245 votes) and 1905 (improving to 981 votes),
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).
often closed his letters "Yours for the Revolution."
notes that "London regarded the Wobblies as a welcome addition
to the Socialist cause, although he never jointed them in going
so far as to recommend sabotage." She mentions a personal
meeting between London and Big Bill Haywood in 1912
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 his life experience.
his Glen Ellen ranch years, London 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 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".
an unflattering portrait of Jack London's ranch days, Kevin Starr
(1973) refers to this period as "post-socialist" and
says that "… by 1911 … London was more bored
by the class struggle than he cared to admit." Starr maintains
that London's socialism
had a streak of elitism in it, and a good deal of pose. He liked
to play working class intellectual when it suited his purpose.
Invited to a prominent Piedmont house, he featured a flannel shirt,
but, as someone there remarked, London's badge of solidarity with
the working class "looked as if it had been specially laundered
for the occasion." [Mark
Twain said] "It would serve
this man London right to have the working class get control of
things. He would have to call out the militia to collect his royalties."
Jack London's views regarding race are an extremely contentious
subject which cannot be summed up neatly. Academics 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.
of Jack London's short stories are notable for their empathetic
portrayal of Mexicans (The Mexican), Asian (The Chinago,) and
Hawai'ian (Koolau the Leper) characters. But, 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" (which he actually used as the title of an
essay he wrote in 1904); on the other hand, his war correspondence
from the Russo-Japanese War, as well as his unfinished novel "Cherry",
show that he greatly admired much about Japanese' customs and
capabilities. It is important to understand that he frequently
departed from the *racist* views of the time, as in the stories
mentioned above, as well as in "Chun Ah Chun", and others.
compare London with the contemporary norms, consider this statement
by H. G. Wells, writing in 1901, in Anticipations,"
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.
consider the lines spoken by the character Frona Welse in London's
1902 novel, Daughter of the Snows. (Scholar Andrew Furer says
there is no doubt that Frona Welse is here acting as a mouthpiece
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.
comment, however, comes in an essay whose primary purpose is to
illustrate the complex ways in which London was as frequently
anti-racist as he was racist, citing "The Mexican",
"Koolau the Leper", etc.
London's 1904 essay, The Yellow Peril, is replete with the casual
stereotyping that was common at the time: "The Korean is
the perfect type of inefficiency — of utter worthlessness.
The Chinese is the perfect type of industry;" "The Chinese
is no coward;" [The Japanese] "would not of himself
constitute a Brown Peril …. The menace to the Western world
lies, not in the little brown man; but in the four hundred millions
of yellow men should the little brown man undertake their management."
He insists that:
of our own great race adventure, back of our robberies by sea
and land, our lusts and violences and all the evil things we have
done, there is a certain integrity, a sternness of conscience,
a melancholy responsibility of life, a sympathy and comradeship
and warm human feel, which is ours, indubitably ours …
even within this essay Jack London's inconsistency on the issue
makes itself clear. After insisting that "our own great race
adventure" has an ethical dimension, he closes by saying
must be taken into consideration that the above postulate is itself
a product of Western race-egotism, urged by our belief in our
own righteousness and fostered by a faith in ourselves which may
be as erroneous as are most fond race fancies.
"Koolau the Leper", London has one of his characters
we are sick [the whites] take away our liberty. We have obeyed
the law. We have done no wrong. And yet they would put us in prison.
Molokai is a prison. . . . It is the will of the white men who
rule the land. . . . They came like lambs, speaking softly. .
. . To-day all the islands are theirs.”
London describes Koolau, who is a Hawaiian leper—and thus
a very different sort of "superman" than Martin Eden—and
who fights off an entire cavalry troop to elude capture, as "indomitable
spiritually—a . . . magnificent rebel".
avid boxer and amateur boxing fan, London was a sort of celebrity
reporter on the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight, in which a black
boxer vanquished James Jeffries, the "Great White Hope".
Earlier, he had written:
white champion] Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa
farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face …
Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued.
in his boxing journalism, however, in 1908, according to Furer,
London praised Johnson highly, contrasting the black boxer's coolness
and intellectual style, with the apelike appearance and fighting
style of his *white* opponent, Tommy Burns: "what . . . [won]
on Saturday was bigness, coolness, quickness, cleverness, and
vast physical superiority... Because a white man wishes a white
man to win, this should not prevent him from giving absolute credit
to the best man, even when that best man was black. All hail to
Johnson." Johnson was "superb. He was impregnable .
. . as inaccessible as Mont Blanc."
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 exist in London's time). Such statements occur
increasingly in the potboilers he wrote to finance his ranch in
his declining years. The reader must decide whether or not London
places any ironic distance between himself and these characters.
The word nigger is used casually throughout the novels Adventure,
Jerry of the Islands, and Michael, Brother of Jerry.
A passage from Jerry of the Islands depicts a dog as perceiving
white man's superiority:
was that inferior man-creature, a nigger, and Jerry had been thoroughly
trained all his brief days to the law that the white men were
the superior two-legged gods. (pg 98).
Micahel, Brother of Jerry features a comic Jewish character who
is avaricious, stingy, and has a "greasy-seaming grossness
who defend Jack London against charges of racism like to cite
the letter he wrote to the Japanese-American Commercial Weekly
reply to yours of August 16,1913. First of all, I should say by
stopping the stupid newspaper from always fomenting race prejudice.
This of course, being impossible, I would say, next, by educating
the people of Japan so that they will be too intelligently tolerant
to respond to any call to race prejudice. And, finally, by realizing,
in industry and government, of socialism—which last word
is merely a word that stands for the actual application of in
the affairs of men of the theory of the Brotherhood of Man.
the meantime the nations and races are only unruly boys who have
not yet grown to the stature of men. So we must expect them to
do unruly and boisterous things at times. And, just as boys grow
up, so the races of mankind will grow up and laugh when they look
back upon their childish quarrels.”
Jack London's death is controversial. Many older sources describe
it as a suicide, and some still do. However, this appears to be
at best a rumor, or speculation based on incidents in his fiction
writings. His death certificate gives the cause as uremia, also
known as uremic poisoning. He died November 22, 1916. It is known
he was in extreme pain and taking morphine, and it is possible
that a morphine overdose, accidental or deliberate, may have contributed.
Clarice Stasz, in a capsule biography, writes "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
does figure in London's writing. In his autobiographical novel
Martin Eden, the protagonist commits suicide by drowning. In his
autobiographical memoir John Barleycorn, he claims, as a youth,
having drunkenly stumbled overboard into the San Francisco Bay,
"some maundering fancy of going out with the tide suddenly
obsessed me", and drifted for hours intending to drown himself,
nearly succeeding before sobering up and being rescued by fishermen.
even closer 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. These accounts in his writings probably
contributed to the "biographical myth".
London's ashes are buried, together with those of his wife Charmian,
in Jack London State Historic Park, in Glen Ellen, California.
The simple grave is marked only by a mossy boulder.