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Jack London

January 12 marks the birthday of writer Jack London.  Born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco in 1876, the prolific author and journalist is best known for his novels, The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906).  An illegitimate child, London was deserted by his father, "Professor" William Henry Chaney, an itinerant astrologer who denied paternity and abandoned the family before young John's first birthday.  John's mother, Flora Wellman, a music teacher and spiritualist, gave him to a wet nurse, Daphna Virginia [Jennie”] Prentiss, to raise. 

On September 7, Wellman married widower John London, a failed storekeeper; and the child was returned to the family household, where he acquired his stepfather's surname, London.”

As a youth, London was engulfed in poverty.  By the age of 10, he had already become an avid reader.  He borrowed books from the Oakland Public Library, where he was introduced to the works of Flaubert, Tolstoy, and other major novelists.

After leaving grade school in 1889 at the age of 14, he grew increasingly socialistic in his views, protesting the government's policies leading to high unemployment.  He decided against going to high school and took a job at a cannery, where he worked long and hard for as many as 18 - 20 hours a day.  Desperate for a better life, he borrowed money from his "stepmother," Jennie Prentiss, to buy a sloop named Razzle-Dazzle from a notorious oyster pirate named French Frank.  The sloop came complete with its own mistress, Mamie, known as the Queen of the Oyster Pirates.  Frank was in love with her, although the feelings were unrequited.  During the lavish shipside drinking bout that accompanied the sloop's sale, Mamie followed London topside where the two made love. 

Here, in this atmosphere of bohemianism, I could not but contrast the scene with my scene of the day before, sitting at my machine, in the stifling, shut-in air, repeating, endlessly repeating, at top speed, my series of mechanical motions.  And here I sat now, glass in hand, in warm-glowing camaraderie, with the oyster pirates, adventurers who refused to be slaves to petty routine, who flouted restrictions and the law, who carried their lives and their liberty in their hands.  And it was through John Barleycorn that I came to join this glorious company of free souls, unashamed and unafraid. - from John Barleycorn, 1913

Before long, London was raiding oyster beds and selling the mollusks to the local fish markets.  He became so adept at the game that the locals called him the "Prince of the Oyster Pirates."  He made more money in one week of pirating than he earned in his first full year as a professional writer.  When his sloop finally became too ragged to sail, he switched allegiances and became a warden for the California Fish Patrol.

At the age of 17, London signed onto a sealing ship bound for exotic ports-of-call.  The turning point of his life came when he was forced to spend 30 days in the brig, an experience so humiliating and degrading that it forced him to reevaluate his career choices.  He decided to become a writer.

But his newly found career was put on hold when, after returning to the States, he was arrested in and jailed for vagrancy in Niagara Falls.  That made him more determined than ever to raise himself up out of poverty.  His experiences would later provide material for works such as The Sea Wolf (1904), which was partly based on his horrifying experiences as a sailor in the Pacific Ocean, and The Road (1907), a collection of short stories that inspired later writers like John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac.

London eventually returned to high school and gained admittance to the University of California at Berkeley.  He stayed for only six months, though, calling it "not alive enough" and a "passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence."

In 1897, scrounging around for a way to make money, he went to Alaska to pan for gold.  He never found any, but he gained a tremendous amount of insight and perspective.  Suffering from scurby, he returned to Oakland two years later and continued to struggle in poverty, writing day and night. 

In 1900, London married Elisabeth (Bess) Maddern, and their home became an overnight battlefield for Bess and London's mother, Flora.  Three years later, he left his wife and their two daughters and eventually married Charmian Kittredge, an editor and outdoorswoman.  The marriage lasted until London's death.  Charmian became the model of nearly all of London's female characters, such as Paula in The Little Lady of the Big House (1916).

In 1901, London ran unsuccessfully on the Socialist party ticket for the position of mayor of Oakland.  He continued cranking out novels, nonfiction, and short stories, becoming in his lifetime one of the most popular authors.  He built his productivity on a system of writing a thousand words a day.  He stuck to this quota even during his travels and through his drinking periods.  His first novel, The Son of the Wolf, appeared in 1900.  By 1904, he had published ten books.  

Son of the Wolf was widely received and cemented London's role as an important literary figure.  His other tales of Alaska, The Call of the Wild (1903), in which a giant pet dog finds his survival instincts in the Yukon, White Fang (1906), and Burning Daylight (1910) were also immensely popular.

"There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise.  And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.  This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight." - from The Call of the Wild

At his peak, London enjoyed the title of America's most famous and best-selling author and the first writer to become a millionaire through his work.  Although his income was high by the day's standards, his expenses were even higher.  An alcoholic with a compulsive personality, he often claimed that he only wrote for money.  To pay for his various dabblings in agricultural properties, he cranked out books that he felt confident would become commercially profitable.  As he grew older, he resorted to buying story plots from struggling young writers such as Sinclair Lewis and tried to imitate his own style to repeat his earlier accomplishments.

"Fiction pays best of all and when it is of fair quality is more easily sold.  A good joke will sell quicker than a good poem, and, measured in sweat and blood, will bring better remuneration.  Avoid the unhappy ending, the harsh, the brutal, the tragic, the horrible - if you care to see in print things you write. ( In this connection don't do as I do, but do as I say.)  Humour is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded...Don't write too much.  Concentrate your sweat on one story, rather than dissipate it over a dozen.  Don't loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don't get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it." - from Getting into Print, first published in 1903 in The Editor

In 1902, London set sail for England, where he studied the backside of the British imperium: the living conditions in East End and working class areas of the capital city. Originally, he had planned to go to South Africa to report the Boer War.  His book about the economic degradation of the poor, The People of the Abyss (1903), was a surprise success in the U.S. but flatly criticized in England.  London produced his  classic example of investigative reporting in seven weeks. 

In the middle of a bitter separation in 1904, London traveled to Korea as a correspondent for Hearst's newspapers to cover the war between Russia and Japan (1904-05).  The following year, he published his first collection of non-fiction pieces, The War of the Classes, which included his lectures on socialism.  In 1907, he and Charmian started a trip around the world aboard the Snark, the author's self-designed ketch.  On the voyage, he began to write Martin Eden.  After several hardships - his captain was incompetent, the ketch was inefficient - they aborted the journey in Australia. 

London's financial affairs were in chaos.  His bad teeth pained him constantly.  His health was failing, and his creativity was gone.

"Jack London was never an original thinker.  He was a great gobbler-up of the world, physically and intellectually.  He was the kind of writer who went to a place and wrote his dreams into it, who found an Idea and spun his psyche around it.  He was a workaday literary genius/hack who knew instinctively that Literature was a generous host, always having room for one more at her table." - L.E. Doctorow in The New York Times, December 11, 1988

In 1910, London purchased a large tract of land near Glen Ellen in Sonoma County.  He devoted an increasing amount of energy and funds to improving and expanding his California dream, the Beauty Ranch, which he and Charmian renamed Wolf House.  He also traveled widely and reported on the Mexican revolution where he contracted severe dysentery complicated by pleurisy.  He returned to Glen Ellen in June.  In 1913, Wolf House, still incomplete, was destroyed by fire, and he was told by his doctor that his kidneys were failing.  According to some sources, London's dream castle was burned deliberately.  It was uninsured.

A few months before his death, London resigned from the Socialist Party.  Debts, alcoholism, illness, and fear of losing his creativity darkened the author's last years.  He died on November 22, 1916, officially of gastro-intestinal uremia, but more likely of a stroke and heart failure.  Although there was speculation that London committed suicide with morphine, two vials that were found near his body did not contain enough of the drug for suicide, especially for someone who was trained to take morphine against suffering. 

London's influence upon writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Robert Ruark is unreputed.  Upton Sinclair has often been considered London's literary successor.

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