Biography of Jack London

Jack London's naturalistic style sprang from a difficult and tumultuous childhood. His mother, Flora, suffered from typhoid fever as a child that left her nearly blind, hairless and small in stature. The brain damage caused by the fever lead to repeated bouts of depression and may have permanently unhinged her mind. When Flora was about twenty-five, she moved to San Francisco, suddenly a boom overflowing with rich gold prospectors and railroad magnates. Flora was just one of tens of thousands of immigrants following the money to San Francisco. At first, Flora gave piano lessons to support herself. In 1874 she moved in with a man named William Chaney, an astrologer who encouraged her fascination with spiritualism. Chaney would be remembered as an influential figure in the American Astrological movement. Together they ran an astrology parlor. Flora would receive money to communicate with the dead and send messages to the deceased loved ones of her customers. Unfortunately, it was not enough to pay the rent. Chaney, despite a day job as a magazine writer, was too obsessed with his experiments with the unknown to bring in a steady paycheck. Chaney was convinced that astrology was a science, and he thought that it could help man and woman produce a biologically superior child.

On January 12, 1876, Flora gave birth to a son; however, she was never sure that Chaney was the child's father. She named her son John, and she referred to him as her "badge of shame." John's birth had almost killed her, and she was unable to care for an infant. She sent him to a wet-nurse, an ex-slave named Virginia Prentiss, who took the place of his mother for the first eight months of his life. William Chaney deserted Flora. A few months after her son's birth, she met and quickly married John London, a widowed Civil War veteran with two young daughters. From this point on, her son John was called Jack to distinguish him from his step-father. Flora's restlessness, mood swings, hysterical breakdowns, and feigned heart attacks blighted the life of the entire family, but especially the life of her young son, to whom she never demonstrated affection. Eventually the Londons moved to Oakland, California. John London bought a ranch, and at age five Jack settled into the hard work of farming. He took a few swallows of ale while working, and became dreadfully ill. Two years later he was given wine at an Italian wedding, and he became delirious. His lifelong battle with alcohol had begun.

As Jack grew up, he became tough from fighting bullies, and despite a relatively small stature, he garnered a reputation for his cunning ability to brawl. At aged fourteen, Jack graduated from grammar school. Because his family could not afford to send him to high school, he went to work at a canning factory. Already Jack had developed a love for books, encouraged by a local librarian. These books opened up a world beyond Oakland. The more he canned pickles, the more he craved escape. Mostly this came in the form of alcohol. Jack would frequently get drunk in the local saloons after work. In these places he met men of the sea - sailors, sealers, whalers, harpooners. He took an opportunity to become an oyster-pirate, where he roamed the San Francisco Bay, stealing oysters from other people's farms. Having enjoyed himself immensely for three months, he returned to the San Francisco area when the job had ended, to work for the local fish patrol chasing poachers. When he got another chance to work on the open sea, London jumped at the opportunity.

When London returned to California, he tramped around the U.S. for almost a year before finding himself in his mother's kitchen, resolving to give up his vagrant ways and help support his family. His time away had made Jack newly determined to get an education, so at age nineteen, Jack decided to go back to high school. He now had to study as well as earn a living. He developed interests in political theory, especially socialism. Jack wanted to enter the revolutionary movement, but set his sights on finishing high school and attending college. His involvement in the Socialist Labor Party got him kicked out of school, so he studied on his own for entrance exams to the University of California at Berkeley. He was accepted, but he dropped out after six months, either because he was disappointed by the experience or because he needed to earn money for his family. He began to pursue writing in earnest, working at a laundry to support himself. When the Klondike gold rush hit, London borrowed money from his sister and struck out for gold and adventure. The experiences he had, the observations he made, would be crucial to some of his most successful writing. Returning to Oakland, Jack's big break finally arrived. "An Odyssey of the North," a short story, was published in 1900 and achieved critical success for its virility and vivid descriptions. That same year he met and married Bessie Maddern.

London subscribed to many popular beliefs of the nineteenth century. He believed so fervently in natural selection that he chose to marry based on social and genetic compatibility, rather than romantic love. While his career began to go extremely well - writing offers and money were pouring in - London's relationship with his wife almost immediately began to fall apart. Bessie gave London a daughter, Joan, with whom he would eventually have a close and happy relationship. But London began to spend less and less time with his family and more time with friends such as Anna Strunsky and George Sterling, who shared many of London's intellectual interests. London openly had affairs, and he traveled a great deal. In 1902, a second daughter was born, and Jack began to write The Call of the Wild. In 1903 The Call of the Wild was published and he separated from his wife.

During this period of his life, London began to expand his travels to other hemispheres. He also became interested in agriculture and farming and began to build a ranch in California. In 1904, London covered the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst Newspaper. He also published The Sea-Wolf, another of his most successful books. In 1905, he married his former secretary, Charmian Kittredge. In 1906, London begins building a sailing vessel he named the "Snark," and he publishes White Fang. Between 1907 and 1909, London and Charmian sailed around the world, and London wrote extensively about their time on the trip (The Cruise of the Snark) and about the Hawaiian Island, which he popularized as a vacation spot.

Throughout his adult life, London published prolifically: stories, essays, news articles and novels. He remained devoted to the idea of socialism, and twice ran for Mayor on a socialist platform. Both times he was soundly defeated. Though he was never able to overcome the racist views imbued to him in childhood, he advocated for other liberal causes, such as women's suffrage. While London was one of the highest paid and most successful writers of his time, he was terrible at managing money, and he was always short of cash. London died on November 21, 1916 of kidney failure, a result of his serious and lifelong problems with alcohol.


Study Guides on Works by Jack London

Jack London spent a single winter in the Canadian North during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898. When he returned, he claimed to have come upon a mythic wolf which inspired the character of Buck in The Call of the Wild. Whether or not London...

"To Build a Fire" is a prime example of the literary movement of naturalism. Naturalism was an offshoot of Charles Darwin's and Herbert Spencer's theories on evolution. In his monumental 1859 work Origin of the Species, Darwin...

After receiving rave reviews for his book The Call of the Wild in 1904, Jack London became very enthusiastic about a new idea for a book that would not be a sequel but a "companion" to The Call of the Wild. "I'm going to reverse...