Authors: Jack London

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist and short-story writer.

January 12, 1876

San Francisco, California

November 22, 1916

Glen Ellen, California

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Long Fiction: A Daughter of the Snows, 1902 The Call of the Wild, 1903 The Sea-Wolf, 1904 The Game, 1905 White Fang, 1906 Before Adam, 1906 The Iron Heel, 1907 Martin Eden, 1908 (autobiographical) Burning Daylight, 1910 Adventure, 1911 The Abysmal Brute, 1913 The Valley of the Moon, 1913 The Mutiny of the Elsinore, 1914 The Scarlet Plague, 1915 The Star Rover, 1915 The Little Lady of the Big House, 1916 Jerry of the Islands, 1917 Michael, Brother of Jerry, 1917 Hearts of Three, 1920 The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., 1963 (completed by Robert L. Fish) Short Fiction: The Son of the Wolf, 1900 The God of His Fathers, and Other Stories, 1901 Children of the Frost, 1902 The Faith of Men, and Other Stories, 1904 Moon-Face, and Other Stories, 1906 Love of Life, and Other Stories, 1906 Lost Face, 1910 When God Laughs, and Other Stories, 1911 South Sea Tales, 1911 The House of Pride, and Other Tales of Hawaii, 1912 Smoke Bellew Tales, 1912 A Son of the Sun, 1912 The Night-Born, 1913 The Strength of the Strong, 1914 The Turtles of Tasman, 1916 The Human Drift, 1917 The Red One, 1918 On the Makaloa Mat, 1919 Dutch Courage, and Other Stories, 1922 Drama: Scorn of Women, pb. 1906 Theft, pb. 1910 The Acorn-Planter, pb. 1916 The Plays of Jack London, pb. 2001 Nonfiction: The Kempton-Wace Letters, 1903 (with Anna Strunsky) The People of the Abyss, 1903 The War of the Classes, 1905 The Road, 1907 Revolution, and Other Essays, 1910 The Cruise of the Snark, 1911 John Barleycorn, 1913 Letters from Jack London, 1965 (King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, editors) No Mentor but Myself: Jack London on Writers and Writing, 1979, revised and expanded 1999 (Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, editors) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The Cruise of the Dazzler, 1902 Tales of the Fish Patrol, 1905 Bibliography Auerbach, Jonathan. Male Call: Becoming Jack London. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. Auerbach reverses the trend of earlier London studies, emphasizing how London used his writing to reinvent himself. Above all, Auerbach argues, London wanted to become a successful author, and in that respect he shaped his life to suit his art. Includes detailed notes but no bibliography. Cassuto, Leonard, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, eds. Rereading Jack London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. Essays on London as "representative man," his commitment to authorship, his portrayal of American imperialism, his handling of power, gender, and ideological discourse, his relationship to social Darwinism, and his status as writer/hero. Includes end notes, but no bibliography. Doctorow, E. L. Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution: Selected Essays. New York: Random House, 1993. A long, thoughtful reflection on London’s politics and fiction from the point of view of a major novelist who is sympathetic but also critical of London’s example. Freund, Charles Paul. "Call of the Whites." Reason 28 (April, 1997): 52-53. Discusses London as a racist and a propagandist for the overthrow of capitalism; notes how London influenced some of the Weimar Germany’s pulp racists. Furer, Andrew J. "Jack London’s New Women: A Little Lady with a Big Stick." Studies in American Fiction 22 (Autumn, 1994): 185-214. Discusses London’s representation of "new womanhood" that emphasizes physical power and capability and an economic and intellectual independence, but is nonetheless feminine and heterosexual. Hedrick, Joan D. Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Hedrick interweaves a discussion of London’s stories and novels with details of his life in an attempt to see behind London’s self-created myth. She does some close reading of the stories and includes a useful bibliography and an index. Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Concentrates on the "powerful drama" of London’s life. Includes notes, illustrations, bibliography, and several helpful maps. Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1994. This clear introduction, first published in 1974, takes into account the twenty years of scholarship after the volume first appeared. This volume also takes issue with the widespread belief that the quality of London’s work declined in the last decade of his life. Includes chronology, notes, and an annotated bibliography. London, Jack. The Letters of Jack London. Edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard. 3 vols. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. Includes the most significant letters of the thousands London wrote during his lifetime. The editors have thoroughly annotated each letter, explaining references and identifying people. The letters include love letters, letters to editors and publishers, and to fellow writers on London’s ideas and methods, as well as to friends and family. McClintock, James I. White Logic: Jack London’s Short Stories. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wolf House Books, 1975. McClintock’s work focuses solely on London’s short stories. He provides a detailed analysis of the stories in a clear and useful way. Perry, John. Jack London: An American Myth. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981. A detailed biography that is especially good on London’s early life and his later adventures as sailor and journalist. Lacks illustrations but includes notes, bibliography, and index. Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. "‘Never Travel Alone’: Naturalism, Jack London, and the White Silence." American Literary Realism 29 (Winter, 1997): 33-49. Argues that even in London’s most naturalistic stories, readers find the search for spirit, the desire for community, and the need to address the Other. Provides a detailed analysis of "To Build a Fire" to illustrate these concepts. Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978. A well-researched, extensively documented biography that focuses on London’s life rather than his work. Includes a bibliography and many photographs. Stefoff, Rebecca. Jack London: An American Original. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Examines the life, beliefs, adventures, and works of London. Three-page bibliography and index. Watson, Charles N. The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982. A very good critical overview of London’s fiction. Highly readable and accessible to students of all levels.

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