Considered by many to be America’s finest author, Jack London, whose name at birth was John Griffith Chaney, was born “south of the slot” on Market Street in San Francisco, California, on January 12, 1876. It is believed that he is the illegitimate son of William Chaney, an itinerant astrologer and journalist, who deserted Jack’s mother, Flora, a spiritualist, before he was born. Flora married John London, a Civil War veteran who had recently moved to San Francisco, eight months after Jack was born. Jack did not learn the true circumstances of his birth until he was in his early twenties. Much of his youth was spent in Oakland, California, on the waterfront.
Jack had little formal schooling. Initially, he attended school only through the 8th grade, although he was an avid reader, educating himself at public libraries, especially the Oakland Public Library under the tutelage of Ina Coolbrith, who later became the first poet laureate of California. In later years (mid-1890s), Jack returned to high school in Oakland and graduated. He eventually gained admittance to U.C. Berkeley, but stayed only for six months, finding it to be “not alive enough” and a “passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence”.
Jack’s extensive life experiences included: being a laborer, factory worker, oyster pirate on the San Francisco Bay, member of the California Fish Patrol, sailor, railroad hobo, and gold prospector (in the Klondike from 1897-1898). In his teens, he joined Coxey’s Army in its famous march on Washington, D.C., and was later arrested for vagrancy in Erie County, New York. As a journalist, Jack covered the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspapers in 1904, and in 1914, he covered the Mexican Revolution for Collier’s.
It was during his cross-country travels that he became acquainted with socialism, which for many years, became his “holy grail”. He became known as the “Boy Socialist of Oakland” because of his passionate street corner oratory. In fact, he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Oakland several times as the socialist party candidate.
In 1900, Jack married his math tutor and friend, Bess Maddern. It was a Victorian marriage typical of the time, based on “good breeding”, not love. With Bess, he had two daughters — Joan and Bess (“Becky”). Following his separation from Bess in 1903, he married his secretary, Charmian Kittredge, whom he considered his “Mate Woman” and with whom he found true love. Together, they played, traveled, wrote and enjoyed life. Their one child, Joy, only lived for thirty-eight hours.
In 1907, with his second wife, Charmian, Jack sailed the Pacific to the South Seas in the Snark, which became the basis for his book, The Cruise of the Snark. With Charmian at his side, he also developed his “Beauty Ranch” on 1,400 acres of land in Glen Ellen, California.
By his death at age forty on November 22, 1916, Jack had been plagued for years by a vast number of health problems, including stomach disturbances, ravaging uremia, and failing kidneys. His death certificate states that he died of uremic poisoning.
Jack was among the most publicized figures of his day. In his lectures, he endorsed socialism and women’s suffrage. He was also one of the first celebrities used to endorse commercial products, such as grape juice and men’s suits.
Young Jack London’s exceptional brightness and his optimistic, buoyant personality eventually combined to transform his many experiences into a working philosophy of service and survival. He became the personification for his readers of many of the virtues and ideals of a turn-of-the-century Western American man and was the country’s first successful working class writer.
Jack London . . . The Writer
Once Jack had resolved himself to succeed as an author, his diligent habits and innate skills catapulted him far beyond most of his literary peers in both perspective and content. By following a strict writing regimen of 1,000 words a day, he was able to produce a huge quantity of high quality work over a period of eighteen years.
Jack had become the best-selling, highest paid and most popular American author of his time. He was prolific: fifty-one of his books and hundreds of his articles had been published. He had written thousands of letters. Many additional works have been published posthumously. His most notable books include The Call of the Wild (originally entitled “The Sleeping Wolf”) which was published in 1903, The Iron Heel, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf (originally entitled “Mercy of the Sea”), The People of the Abyss (a sociological treatise about the slums of London, England), John Barleycorn, Martin Eden, and The Star Rover. His short story, “To Build A Fire”, is considered to be an all-time classic. His writings have been translated in several dozen languages and to this day continue to be widely read throughout the world.