Jack London (1876–1916)
The adventures told in Jack London’s fiction hardly surpass those from his real life. On January 12, 1876, the man we know as Jack London was born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco, California, to an unwed mother, Flora Wellman. When Flora refused to have an abortion, the probable father—William H. Chaney—deserted her. Her depression was so severe that she attempted suicide twice in two days. Eight months later, Flora married John London, a widower with two daughters. John London gave his adopted son his surname and his love, and Jack spent his young boyhood on California ranches.
After the family moved to Oakland in London’s ninth year, Flora expected her son to contribute to the family income. His formal education stopped after grammar school, and his career among the working-class poor began. During his teen years, some of his jobs included newspaper boy, factory worker, oyster pirate, seal hunter, coal stoker, and sailor in Japan. In 1894, while tramping across America and Canada, London was imprisoned for vagrancy in an appalling New York penitentiary—an experience that helped make him a Socialist.
These events also ignited his desire for education, so the nineteen-year old enrolled as a freshman at Oakland High School while working as a janitor there. After one year, he quit school and often studied fifteen hours a day on his own—with the help of librarians from the Oakland Public Library—to prepare for the entry exams to the University of California, Berkeley. He was ultimately accepted, but his family’s poverty again proved too great a responsibility. He left Berkeley after one semester, tried to earn money by writing, and worked in a steam laundry.
When his brother-in-law asked him to join the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, Jack London quickly agreed. Though they never found gold, London found literary riches in 1899 by selling stories to magazines based on his experiences in Alaska and Canada. His breakthrough came in 1900 when Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish a collection of his Klondike tales, The Son of the Wolf.
Between 1900 to 1905, London married Bess Maddern, had two daughters, wrote and published The Call of the Wild (1903) and The Sea-Wolf (1904), and traveled to Japan and Korea to report on the Russo-Japanese War. When he returned from Korea he divorced Bess, bought his beloved Sonoma Valley ranch in Glen Ellen, and married the woman he loved—Charmian Kittredge.
A man of abounding energy and zeal for life, he wrote more than two-hundred short stories, twenty novels, four-hundred nonfiction works, and three plays in less than twenty years. Despite his worldwide travels and diverse interests, he maintained a disciplined, rigorous writing schedule: one-thousand words (by hand) every morning. About writing he once said: “The three great things are: Good Health; Work; and a Philosophy of Life. I may add, nay, must add, a fourth—Sincerity. Without this, the other three are without avail. With it you may cleave to greatness and sit among the giants.” Despite his early death at age forty, Jack London remains seated deservedly among America’s literary giants.
An Interview with Sara S. Hodson
On August 28, 2007, Adam Kampe of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Jack London scholar Sara S. Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. An excerpt from their conversation follows.
Adam Kampe: How old was Jack London when he began writing?
Sara Hodson: He started writing in his teens. He would send his stories to magazines and publishers, and every one would come back, rejected. He would impale every letter on a tall spindle that he had in his writing room next to his rented typewriter, and soon he had a four-foot-tall spindle of rejection letters. But he never gave up! London had a burning desire to fulfill his potential as a writer. He felt it was simply a matter of getting that first sale, of selling the first story.
AK: London was a voracious reader. Is it true that he carried Paradise Lost and Origin of the Species with him to the Klondike?
SH: That’s right. The fact that he took Milton and Darwin tells you how much they meant to him, that those two books would carry him through the hardships and isolation. Each miner had to bring a thousand pounds of supplies—mostly food, of course—which was required by the Canadian government, so that they wouldn’t have more dead bodies than would already be inevitable. Because he saw all the dead animals, London carried his own supplies in multiple trips up the Chilkoot Pass. He was there in the summertime, and it took him ten trips to get his equipment and supplies to the top of the pass.
AK: What motivated him to leave California and head to the Yukon?
SH: He needed money, and he heard about the reports of gold strikes in the Klondike. I think he was also motivated by a historic time of adventure and excitement. Actually, he didn’t get any gold, but he really struck it rich with gold nuggets of stories that he heard from other Klondike miners. These were the kind of strong, stirring, adventurous tales that he was drawn to. He recognized that this is where the future of his writing lay.
AK: How much did that one year influence the writing of The Call of the Wild?
SH: That one year was an enormous influence for The Call of the Wild. London saw dogsled teams in the Klondike. He saw the way they behaved. He saw the way they were treated by their owners and mistreated. He saw life at its most harsh, at its most elemental, where to make a very small mistake can mean the loss of your life.
AK: Are there parallels between Jack London and his canine protagonist, Buck?
SH: London was much like the dog Buck in that he was a scrapper. He fought for what he knew was his right, and he never settled for less. Buck started out in a sheltered environment and is then thrown suddenly, rudely, brutally into a world where he has to fight to survive every single day. If he doesn’t learn the laws, he’s not going to survive. He learns which dogs he can trust.
Jack London was like that when he arrived in the Klondike. He didn’t know the life. He learned which men would show him what he needed to survive, the right way to behave toward other people and toward animals. John Thornton is also very much like Jack London. He’s a man of compassion, who can deal fairly with both humans and animals. London had his own way of approaching people, which was always to be fair, generous, and caring.
AK: Why is The Call of the Wild still considered a worldwide classic?
SH: The Call of the Wild is a timeless book in that it’s appropriate, useful, and enjoyable to read for anyone at any age at any time. It is a book about survival, and survival is an issue for everyone no matter whether we’re surviving a day in the office, a hard day of manual labor, a bad relationship, or the Klondike without fire or food. A story of survival speaks to all of us, because it makes us look within. Would I have what it takes to survive in that kind of environment? What would happen to me? It lets you imagine yourself in that circumstance.
Sled dogs in the frozen wilderness (Copyright Paul Souders/Corbis)
London with his dog, Rollo, 1885 (Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens)