Last reviewed: June 2018
American novelist and short-story writer.
January 12, 1876
San Francisco, California
November 22, 1916
Glen Ellen, California
John Griffith London—the ardent socialist whose individualistic tales of adventure have long made him an idol of young readers—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. Jack London
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 White Fang and 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, despite becoming the highest-paid author in the country.
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 has been subject ot much speculation, though modern research suggests kidney disease was the main culprit, aggravated by the morphine London was taking to ease the pain of various conditions. 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.