Who Was Jack London?



John Griffith London was born in 1876 in a working class section of San Francisco, the only child of piano teacher/spiritualist Flora Wellman and astrologer William Chaney. The couple was never married while together and Chaney deserted the pregnant Flora, who had the baby but was too ill to nurse him. He was sent to live with Virginia Prentiss, an African-American neighbor who had recently lost a baby and could nurse the boy. Mrs. Prentiss would become a loving mother figure to him for the rest of his life.

Nine months after the birth, Flora married John London, an aging and disabled Civil War veteran with two daughters of his own. The family moved frequently about the Bay Area, finally settling in Oakland. Young Johnny, as he was known, went to work at an early age to help the struggling family. Johnny became an avid reader, encouraged by Oakland librarian Ina Coolbrith (later to become California’s first Poet Laureate.)

He taught himself to sail on San Francisco Bay and as a teenager fell in with a boisterous crowd of oyster pirates along the Oakland waterfront. Drinking by day and raiding oyster beds at night, he later fictionalized his experiences in Tales of the Fish Patrol.

Now known as Jack, at the age of 17 he shipped out on the seal-hunting schooner Sophia Sutherland for seven months, later using his sea experiences as background for his novel The Sea Wolf.

Returning home, London found depression, unemployment and labor unrest. He became a tramp, riding the rails and joining a march of the unemployed on Washington. He wound up at Niagara Falls, where he was tossed in jail without trial for 30 days for vagrancy. This experience had a profound effect on the teenage London, who began to question America’s socioeconomic system. He later chronicled his tramping experiences in The Road.

Heading back to the West Coast, London resolved to gain more education, vowing that he did not want to become, in his words, a “work beast,” but rather live the life of a “brain merchant.” He became more interested in Socialism and intellectual pursuits, discovering Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and other scientists and philosphers.  He joined a debating society, becoming known as “the Boy Socialist of Oakland.” Lasting just one semester before dropping out of U.C. Berkeley for lack of funds, he decided that becoming a writer was his best chance at using his brain for a living. But his amateurish efforts collected nothing but rejection slips.

Unsuccessful as a writer, seemingly trapped in the underclass, Jack was at a crossroads when the steamship Excelsior docked in San Francisco in July of 1897 with 40 miners back from the Klondike, carrying a ton of Yukon gold. A week later, Jack London was headed north, among the first wave of novice prospectors heading to the Klondike Gold Rush. As he later wrote: “I had let career go hang, and was on the adventure path again in quest of fortune.”

London spent less than a year in the Klondike, spending more time soaking up atmosphere than actual mining. Coming home with only $4.50 in gold dust and a case of scurvy, he had discovered something far greater. “It was in the Klondike I found myself,” he later wrote. “There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine.”

Jack‘s stepfather John London had died while he was gone, and he discovered that his real father was Chaney, the astrologer. He wrote to the old man, who denied his paternity. This was to prove a pivotal blow to Jack, who thereafter put forth a carefully crafted mythical identity for himself as a descendant of pre-Revolutionary War “Anglo-Saxon” stock, with John London as his father.

Back home in Oakland, Jack found himself the sole family breadwinner, and plunged into writing as a profession with the spark of his Yukon experiences. Carefully studying the magazine market, London soon sold his first short stories. Thereafter, writing 1000 words every day, six days a week, Jack London sold almost everything he wrote for the next 17 years. 

When success finally came, it came quickly. The public was hungry for stories of realism and adventure in the new century. Soon London had a book contract as well as a wife, abruptly marrying his former tutor, Bess Maddern. The couple soon found themselves with two daughters. They settled in the Oakland, CA Hills, where Jack liked to entertain his intellectual and literary friends that would soon become known as “The Crowd.”

During this time, London departed for England to write a sociological expose of the slums of London, The People of the Abyss. He researched the book by living anonymously in the East End for two months, taking notes and photographs.

Upon his return home, he began writing a short story for the Saturday Evening Post that was to be called “The Sleeping Wolf.” It became The Call of the Wild, a milestone in American literature. Hugely popular, the powerful mythic story of a pet St. Bernard mix who devolves into a wild wolf-dog brought London worldwide acclaim. Though the book has never been out of print in more than 100 years, London sold the rights for a mere $2000. 

He followed it with The Sea Wolf, based on his sealing experiences, and White Fang, a counterpart to The Call of the Wild. Soon Jack London was one of the most famous and highest-paid writers in America. He got lucrative journalism assignments to report on the Russo-Japanese War and the San Francisco Earthquake, taking striking photos as part of his reports. He embarked on sold-out Socialist lecture tours to Harvard, Yale and Carnegie Hall.

And he also became involved with a vivacious female member of “The Crowd” five years his senior named Charmian Kittredge. Jack separated from Bess and married Charmian in 1905, the day after his divorce was final. Self-reliant, frank and adventurous, she would be his faithful “Mate-woman” to the end of his days. 

At the height of his fame in 1906, Jack made two more big decisions; he began buying pasture land near the village of Glen Ellen north of San Francisco, and he began planning his next great adventure, a seven-year, around-the-world voyage on a boat that he would design himself, the SnarkThe boat was plagued by construction delays and cost overruns as a result of the 1906 earthquake. When the Londons finally set sail in April of 1907, the voyage was six months behind schedule, the boat leaked and the engine failed. Jack had to take over from the captain and teach himself navigation to get them to Hawaii.

Finally docking in Honolulu after being presumed lost, the Londons spent five months there as the Snark was repaired, being wined and dined by Hawaiian colonial society. It would prove a crucial turning point in Jack’s awareness. Having always insisted on the primacy of the “Anglo-Saxon race,” in Hawaii he saw a harmonious, multi-cultural society where different races mixed freely and peacefully. London’s resulting stories of Hawaii were not about the high society of his hosts, but rather of leprosy, racism, loss of the native culture, and the hypocrisy of the Hawaiian ruling class, who were angered by London’s focus on what they perceived as negative aspects of their islands.

With a retrofitted Snark and a new crew, the Londons set sail for the Marquesas and Solomon Islands, where they would encounter headhunters, cannibalism and disease. The crew grew increasingly ill with skin sores and malaria, and the trip was finally abandoned in Australia in 1908. London later chronicled the trip in The Cruise of the Snark and explored the darker side of his South Pacific experiences in the short story collection South Sea Tales.

While in Australia recovering, London reported on the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns. He and Charmian returned to California by tramp steamer, and she became pregnant with their first child. Back home and healthy once more, Jack poured most of his energies into what he called his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen. Influenced by the Arts and Crafts and Efficiency Movements of the time as well as by methods he saw during his travels, London became devoted to agronomy and sustainable farming. The influence on his Sonoma ranch can be seen in later novels with back-to-the-land themes, Burning Daylight and The Valley of the Moon.

As London bought up more and more land and went further into debt, he began to design and build his redwood and stone dream home, which he called Wolf House. He had to continuously churn out contract “hackwork” to support his many grand projects, along with the books he wanted to write. He had trouble maintaining copyrights to his works as he tried to market them to the new medium of motion pictures. The strain began to show in his marriage to Charmian and London began drinking more. London frankly detailed his drinking life in his “alcoholic memoirs” John Barleycorn, which caused a sensation with the reading public.

After more than two years of construction, just weeks before Jack and Charmian were to move in, Wolf House burned to the ground in a suspicious fire. It was a devastating blow to Jack, who vowed to rebuild the mansion. He was to run out of time, however.

London slowly became more ill with kidney disease, a result of tropical ailments from the Snark trip. He and Charmian spent more time in Hawaii in an effort to improve Jack’s health. Their money problems eased and London began experimenting with short stories again.

London read Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious in the spring of 1916 and told Charmian: “I tell you I am standing on the edge of a world so new, so wonderful that I am almost afraid to look over into it.” Jung’s concepts greatly influenced his work in the last six months of his life, as his stories became more consciously mythic and psychological. He resigned from the Socialist Party, having found a new philosophy with which to explore Life’s Big Questions.

It was not to happen as London lapsed into a coma on Nov. 21, 1916 and died the following evening. Charmian lived nearly 40 more years on the ranch, scrupulously protecting Jack’s memory and the secret of his paternity. Her ashes are buried next to Jack’s under an oak-shaded boulder on the Beauty Ranch, now preserved as Jack London State Historic Park.