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Jack London is recognized as one of the most dynamic figures in American literature. London captured the popular imagination worldwide through his personal exploits as well as through his literary efforts, and his life as a sailor, social crusader, war correspondent, global traveler, and adventurer are legendary. Yet, it is his work of adventure fiction and pioneering literature of social protest that have won him a permanent place in American literature and distinguished him as one of the most widely translated American authors.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
John Griffith Chaney was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. He was the illegitimate child of Flora Wellman, a spiritualist, and her companion William Henry Chaney, a professional astrologer who abandoned Flora when he learned she was pregnant. Flora married John London in September of 1876, and renamed her child John “Jack” London. The couple moved to Oakland, where John London struggled to make a living at various occupations, including farming and managing a grocery store.
London’s childhood was financially and emotionally unstable. The family moved frequently from one rented house to another, and London compensated for his loneliness by finding companionship in books. In 1885, London discovered that he could check out books from the Oakland Public Library, an important discovery for a young man longing for escape. London later observed, ”It was this world of books, now accessible, that practically gave me the basis of my education.” Starting in grade school, London was called upon to help provide for the family. At first the work was part-time: delivering newspapers, setting pins in a bowling alley, sweeping saloon floors, and doing whatever odd jobs would bring a few extra pennies into the family budget. When he finished grade school in 1889, London went to work full-time in a cannery, spending as many as eighteen hours a day at ten cents an hour stuffing pickles into jars. It was a traumatic ordeal, and it impressed upon him a lifelong loathing of manual labor.
An Unquenchable Thirst for Escape
The pattern of London’s life, reflected in much of his fiction, is a series of escapes—first from the drudgery of poverty, later from the monotony of work. At the age of fifteen, he borrowed money to buy a sloop, a small sailing ship, and achieved notoriety on the Oakland waterfront as ”Prince of the Oyster Pirates” by raiding commercial oyster beds. After a year of this dangerous occupation, London switched sides to become a member of the California Fish Patrol. His maritime adventures continued into the next year when, a few days after his seventeenth birthday, he shipped out as a seaman aboard a sealing schooner bound for the northwest Pacific. This seven-month voyage provided the raw materials not only for his novel The Sea-Wolf but also for his first successful literary effort: ”Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan,” a prize-winning sketch published in the San Francisco Morning Call in 1893.
Subsequent experiences that winter working in a jute mill—which processed the material used to make burlap— and at the power plant of the Oakland Electric Railway intensified London’s wanderlust. At first, London rode with the West Coast contingent of Coxey’s Industrial
Army, a group of unemployed men who went to Washington to petition Congress for relief following the Panic of 1893, a period of economic crisis marked by massive bank failures. After deserting this army in Missouri, London hoboed northeast on his own. Arrested for vagrancy in New York in June of 1894, he served thirty days in jail, then headed back home to Oakland, determined to educate himself. London’s tramping experiences, later recounted in The Road (1907), were profoundly influential in shaping his career.
London’s series of low-wage jobs quickly taught him the vices of American capitalism, which he viewed as a demeaning caste system. When London was twenty, he joined the Socialist Labor Party and became a political activist, achieving a certain notoriety as the ”Boy Socialist” of Oakland. London’s essay ”How I Became a Socialist” in War of the Classes: Socialist Essays, published in 1905, describes his conversion to socialism as the result of intense reading and reflecting on his own personal experiences. London’s life experiences helped fuel his desire to be a writer. When he returned to Oakland, he studied intensely to prepare himself for college, and published six stories, three descriptive sketches, and one essay in his school’s student literary magazine. After three semesters in high school, London successfully passed the entrance examinations for the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied for one semester. Because of a lack of funds, however, he had to leave. London tried unsuccessfully to earn money by writing but was forced to get a job as a common laborer once again. His next escape came in July of 1897, when London sailed for Alaska with his brother-in-law to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush.
Finding His Voice, Beginning His Career
London’s experience in the Klondike was the turning point in his career. ”It was in the Klondike that I found myself,” London later confessed. Forced by an attack of scurvy to return home the next summer, he took back no gold, but a wealth of experiences that his artistic genius then translated into fiction. The year 1898 was for London a time of furiously intense work and a remarkable outpouring of creative energy, subsequently documented in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909). By January 1899, he had broken into print in the Overland Monthly; within a year his work was appearing in the most prestigious magazines in the country; and in the spring of 1900 his first book, The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North was published by a highly respected Boston publishing house. The same year, London also married Bessie Maddern. London and Bessie became the parents of two daughters: Joan, born in 1901, and Bess ”Becky,” in 1902.
The Son of the Wolf was an immediate success, and became the first volume of London’s Northland Saga, a sprawling literary achievement. The Saga included seventy-eight short stories, four novels—including The Call of the Wild and White Fang, a half-dozen nonfiction essays, and one play. Written during the winter of 1902-1903, The Call of the Wild has become one of the great books in world literature, published in hundreds of editions in more than fifty languages. The novel is the heroic journey of Buck, who is transformed from a ranch pet into the Ghost Dog of the Wilderness. An adventure novel, The Call of the Wild is also a sophisticated allegory of human nature.
While London had found the key to literary success in his Northland Saga, he was still searching for the key to domestic happiness during the years between the publication of The Son of the Wolf and The Call of the Wild. During this time, London went to England, presumably en route to South Africa to report on the aftermath of the Boer War for the American Press Association. That assignment was canceled, however, and he reported, instead, on the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution that he found in the London slums. The result was The People of the Abyss (1903), a pioneering work of creative nonfiction that championed social-justice issues. London returned home from Europe in November 1902, shortly after the birth of his second daughter, hoping to make his marriage work. But despite his efforts it was increasingly obvious that he and Bessie could not live happily together. In May 1903 he took his family to Glen Ellen, California, and that summer he fell in love with Clara Charmian Kittredge. He left Bessie shortly afterward, and moved into an Oakland apartment, where he completed his novel The Sea-Wolf, which became one of his most successful books.
A Life of Adventure and Writing
In the spring of 1905, after his unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket, he took up permanent residence with Charmian Kittredge and purchased Hill Ranch, near Glen Ellen. Now happily engaged, they would be married in 1905 as soon as London’s divorce became final. During those months he produced some of his best fiction, including what many critics consider the most artistically successful of his longer novels, White Fang, a gripping tale of survival and the power of the environment.
London then embarked on the most publicized of all of his adventures: an attempt to circumnavigate the globe on his own boat, the Snark. London carefully planned the construction of the boat, but due in part to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, it was so poorly built it required extensive repair when it reached Hawaii in 1907. London, suffering from several ailments, ultimately called off the voyage in Australia. The journey became the inspiration for London’s nonfiction book, The Cruise of the Snark (1911). After this disastrous journey, London focused on building up his ranch in Sonoma Valley, publishing several works that reflected his agrarian interests, including Burning Daylight (1911). His interest in socialism also began to wane, and he envisioned less violent solutions to modern man’s woes than social revolution.
In the last few years of his life, London suffered from severe health problems and sailed to Hawaii twice in 1915, in the hope of regaining his strength. That same year he published The Star Rover, his last great work. It is a science-fiction novel concerning the out-of-body experiences of an intelligent man and convicted murderer, Professor Darrell Standing, who is straitjacketed in San Quentin prison. London died at the age of forty on November 22, 1916, probably from kidney failure. He had achieved an astounding career in just fifteen years as a writer and public figure, becoming the first American author to earn one million dollars from his writing. More importantly, he had become a true literary craftsman, and the best-selling American writer in the world.
Works in Literary Context
London’s works are an example of American literary naturalism. The naturalist movement began in the late nineteenth century as an extension of realism, which was concerned with depicting contemporary life and behavior in an authentic, realistic way. By contrast, naturalism was concerned with exploring the social and environmental forces that determined individuals’ lives and their behavior. Many naturalistic works focused on exposing the social and environmental inequities that contributed to the harshness of people’s lives. In much of London’s work, an individual leaves behind the problems of urban life to determine his worth in a natural or primitive environment. Although its hero is a dog, The Call of the Wild epitomizes much of the subject matter and style of naturalistic fiction due to its storyline about a domestic dog who must adapt to conditions of the wild.
London’s work was enormously influential on the expansion of the American tradition of adventure writing, a literary genre that crosses over both fiction and nonfiction. London’s contribution to the genre took the form of both short stories, many of which were published in magazines and journals, as well as novels. The subject of adventure writing generally involves richly drawn characters who embark on travel or journeys and are often pitted against nature. London’s short story of survival in the wilderness, ”To Build a Fire” (1908), is often considered one of the greatest adventure stories ever written.
Works in Critical Context
Although London was an enormously popular and commercially successful writer, his reputation as an author was negligible among critics and members of the literary establishment for many years. As a result, many of his works, including The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, and White Tang were considered merely works of adventure fiction and relegated to young-adult fiction shelves until the latter half of the twentieth century. Since then, London’s work has steadily gained critical recognition for its literary artistry and philosophical depth. Critic Earle Labor concludes that London’s greatest achievement is his ”artistic modulation of universal dreams.”
The Call of the Wild
Widely considered a lively, engaging story about the relationship and struggle between civilization and barbarism, The Call of the Wild is widely recognized as one of London’s best works. Although critics have disagreed about how consciously London applied allegory to his very literal story of Buck, most agree that The Call of the Wild is both fascinating as a type of autobiography and as a compelling articulation of London’s exploration of human instincts. Critic and novelist Abraham Rothberg writes, ”A study of atavism, or reversion to type, it was also an allegory of man’s conditions in the society of London’s time as well as a revelation of the deepest emotions London felt about himself and that society.” Critic Jonathan H. Spinner further appraises the social and symbolic importance of violence in the novel, concluding, ”What is presented by London is a syllabus for the twentieth century, a syllabus that states that the way to solve the dilemma of existence in a harsh world is to accept the glory in the cleansing fire of violence.”
The Sea-Wolf is a novel that charts the transformation of an educated, literary man named Humphrey van Weydon into a rugged individualist who is capable of self-sufficiency aboard a sailing schooner captained by a the colorful character of Wolf Larsen. Critics agree that the novel is a lively engagement with many of the social issues that preoccupied London. James Dickey writes that London ”created his most memorable human character, Wolf Larsen, in The Sea-Wolf. Larsen exemplifies all of the characteristics London admired most: courage, resourcefulness, ruthlessness, and above all, a strength of will.”
- Cassuto, Leonard and Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. Rereading Jack London. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.
- Dickey, James. Introduction to The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories by Jack London. New York: Penguin Books, 1981, pp. 7-16.
- Hedrick, Joan D. Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.
- Johnston, Carolyn. Jack London: An American Radical? Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
- Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974.
- Nuernberg, Susan M., ed. The Critical Response to Jack London. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.
- Rothberg, Abraham. Introduction to The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London. New York: Bantam Books, 1963, pp. 1-17.
- Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
- Walker, Dale L. The Alien Worlds of Jack London. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wolf House, 1973.
- Spinner, Jonathan H. ”A Syllabus for the 20th Century: Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.” Jack London Newsletter vol. 7, no. 2 (May-August 1974): 73-78.
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