About the Author
Prolific American novelist and short story writer, whose works deal romantically with the overwhelming power of nature and the struggle for survival. London's identification with the wilderness has made him popular among the Green movement. His left-wing philosophy is seen in the visionary novel The Iron Heel (1908). John Barleycorn (1913), which describes London's drinking bouts, connects him with such later authors as Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac. On the other hand, the author's views about the superiority of white people and Social Darwinism, have placed him among ultra-right conservatives.
Jack London was born in San Francisco. He was deserted by his father, "Professor" William Henry Chaney, an itinerant astrologer, and raised in Oakland by his mother Flora Wellman, a music teacher and spiritualist. London's stepfather John London, whose surname he took, was a failed storekeeper. London's youth was marked by poverty. At the age of ten he became an avid reader, and borrowed books from the Oakland Public Library, where Ina Coolbirth recommended him the works of Flaubert, Tolstoy and other major novelist.
After leaving school at the age of 14, London worked as a seaman, rode in freight trains as a hobo and adopted socialistic views as a member of the protest armies of the unemployed. In 1894 he was arrested in Niagara Falls and jailed for vagrancy. These years made him determined to raise himself out of poverty but they also gave later material for such works as The Sea-Wolf (1904), which was partly based on his horrific experiences as a sailor in the Pacific Ocean. The Road (1907), a collection of short stories, inspired later writers like John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac.
Without having much formal education, London spent much time in public libraries reading fiction, philosophy, poetry, political science, and at the age of 19 gained admittance to the University of California in Berkeley. During this period he had already started to write. His first great love was Mabel Applegate, a middle-class girl, who became the model for Ryth Morse in Martin Eden (1909). Later London wrote to Anna Strunsky, the second love in his life: "Her virtues led her nowhere. Works? She had none. Her culture was a surface smear, her deepest depth a singing shallow." London left the school before the year was over and went to seek a fortune in the Klondike gold rush of 1897. His attempt was unsuccessful. London spent the winter near Dawson City, suffering from scurvy. In the spring he returned to San Francisco his notebook full of plans for stories.
For the remainder of 1898 London again tried to earn his living by writing. His early stories appeared in the Overland Monthly and Atlantic Monthly. In 1900 he married Elisabeth (Bess) Maddern; their home became a battle field between Bess and London's mother Flora. Three years later he left her and their two daughters, eventually to marry Charmian Kittredge, an editor and outdoorswoman. The marriage lasted until London's death. Charmian became the model of London's women characters, such as Paula in The Little Lady of the Big House (1916).
In 1901 London ran unsuccessfully on the Socialist party ticket for mayor of Oakland. He started to produce steadily novels, nonfiction, and short stories, becoming in his lifetime one of the most popular authors. London had early built his system of producing a daily quota of thousand words. He did not give up even during his travels and drinking periods. London's first novel, The Son of the Wolf, appeared in 1900. By 1904 Jack London was the author of 10 books. Son of the Wolf gained a wide audience as his other Alaska stories, The Call of the Wild (1903), in which a giant pet dog Buck finds his survival instincts in Yukon, White Fang (1906), and Burning Daylight (1910).
"There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight." (from The Call of the Wild)
In 1902 London went to England, where he studied the backside of the British imperium: the living conditions in East End and working class areas of the capital city. Originally he set out for South Africa to report the Boer War. His book about the economic degradation of the poor, The People of the Abyss (1903), was a surprise success in the U.S. but criticized in England. London produced this classic of investigative reporting in seven weeks. In the middle of bitter separation in 1904, London traveled to Korea as a correspondent for Hearst's newspapers to cover the war between Russia and Japan (1904-05). Next year he published his first collection of non-fiction pieces, The War of the Classes, which included his lectures on socialism. In 1907 London and Charmian started aboard the Snark, the author's self-designed ketch, a sailing trip around the world. On the voyage he began to write Martin Eden. After hardships - his captain was incompetent, the ketch was inefficient - they abrupted the journey in Australia. London's financial affairs were in chaos, his teeth gave him incessant pain, and he began to buy plots from a struggling writer, Sinclair Lewis, to produce more articles and stories for sale.
London had purchased in 1910 a large tract of land near Glen Ellen in Sonoma County, and devoted his energy and money improving and enlarging his Beauty Ranch. He also traveled widely and reported on the Mexican revolution. In 1913 London's Beauty Ranch, still incomplete, was destroyed by fire, and he was told by his doctor that his kidneys were failing. According to some sources, London's dream castle was burned deliberately - and it was uninsured.
Among London's major works are The Sea-Wolf (1904), remembered from its Nietzschean hero, visionary fantasy The Iron Heel (1908), which became very popular in the Soviet Union, The Cruise of the Snark (1911), a travel book from his journeys in South Pacific, and semi-autobiographical Martin Eden, London's most autobiographical novel. "Being unaware of the needs of others, of the whole human collective need, Martin Eden lived only for himself, fought only for himself, and if you please, died for himself." The protagonist with the Biblical name is uneducated sailor, rough outsider, who aspires to money and status through his urge to write. He is drawn to Ruth Morse, a woman who has everything he thinks he wants a wife to have - beauty, charm, wealth. Brissenden, Eden's Faustian friend, was modelled on George Sterling, a minor romantic poet and London's close colleague. Eden gains success with his sea novel called Overdue. He becomes disillusioned, returns to the sea as a first-class passenger on the Mariposa, and commits suicide. "Perhaps Nietzsche had been right. Perhaps there was no truth in anything, no truth in truth - no such thing as truth," Eden thinks before his death. "And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know." The book was considered by critics a failure, and London's literary reputation sank.
Burning Daylight (1910), an optimistic Klondike adventure story, was greeted as a return from his "sad phase of unrest". In John Barleycorn London revealed his own artistic exhaustion and drinking problems: "The things I had fought for and burned my midnight oil for had failed me. Success - I despised it. Recognition - it was dead ashes. Society, men and women above the rack and the much of the waterfront and the forecastle - I was appalled by their unlovely mental mediocrity. Love of a woman - it was like all the rest. Money - I could sleep in only one bed at a time, and of what worth was an income of a hundred porter-houses a day when I could eat only one? Art, culture - in the face of the iron facts of biology such things were ridiculous, the exponents of such things only the more ridiculous." Politically London had come far from his earlyn idealism. Although he had begun his career as a Socialist, he did not support the Mexican freedom fighters, and took the side of American interests during the Mexican Revolution.
A few months before his death, London resigned from the Socialist Party. Debts, alcoholism, illness, and fear of losing his creativity darkened the author's last years. He died on November 22, 1916, officially of gastro-intestinal uremia. However, there has been speculations that London committed suicide with morphine, but the two vials which were found did not contained the doses acquired for a suicide - especially for someone who was trained to take morphine against suffering. - "Jack London was never an original thinker. He was a great gobbler-up of the world, physically and intellectually. He was the kind of writer who went to a place and wrote his dreams into it, who found an Idea and spun his psyche around it. He was a workaday literary genius/hack who knew instinctively that Literature was a generous host, always having room for one more at her table." (L.E. Doctorow in The New York Times, December 11, 1988)
London's literary models were Kipling, Stevenson. He was also influenced by the theories of Darwin, Spencer, Marx, and Nietzsche. In his later years London read the works of Carl Jung. His influence has been considerable on such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Robert Ruark. Upton Sinclair has often been considered London's literary successor.
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.