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London, Jack (1876-1916).

novelist, short-story writer, political essayist, adventurer, hobo, seaman, socialist, rancher, war correspondent. London was born in San Francisco, the son of Flora Wellman Chaney and (probably) William H. Chaney, a well-known philosopher/lecturer and self-proclaimed Professor of Astrology, who denied his paternity and deserted his common-law wife on learning of her pregnancy. When the child was nine months old, Flora married John London, a widower who had placed his two youngest daughters, Eliza and Ida, in an orphanage while he worked as a carpenter.

The circumstances of London's impoverished childhood strongly influenced the essential attitudes of his adulthood. "My body and soul were starved when I was a child," he later wrote, and he never outgrew his resentment of poverty and of his mother's spiritualistic fervor and emotional coldness. The only maternal affection he received was from the African American woman "Aunt Jennie" Prentiss, who had been his wet nurse, and from his stepsister Eliza.

At age fourteen, London was forced to discontinue his education to work in a factory. At fifteen he quit work to become "Prince of the Oyster Pirates" on San Francisco Bay. At seventeen he shipped as an able-bodied seaman aboard a sealing schooner bound for the Northwest Pacific, subsequently winning $25 first prize in a contest sponsored by the San Francisco Morning Call for his "Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan." At eighteen he joined Kelly's Army--the Western contingent of General Jacob Coxey's Army of the Unemployed--in its March on Washington to protest the economic depression of 1893-94 but left the Army at Hannibal, Missouri, to hobo his way to the Midwest and the East Coast, was arrested as a vagrant in Niagara and served thirty days in the Erie County Penitentiary. At nineteen he resumed his education at Oakland High School. At twenty he joined the socialist party and, after intensive cramming, enrolled for a semester at the University of California. At twenty-one he joined the Klondike Gold Rush. At twenty-two, suffering from scurvy, he returned to Oakland and launched his career as a professional writer, selling his story "To the Man on Trail" to the Overland Monthly for $5. At twenty-three he made his major breakthrough into the literary marketplace by publishing "An Odyssey of the North" in the Atlantic Monthly for $120 and a year's free subscription to the magazine. At twenty-four he was hailed as the American Kipling with the publication of The Son of the Wolf by Houghton, Mifflin, and married Bessie Mae Maddern, who became the mother of his two daughters, Joan (1901) and Becky (1902). At twenty-six, after collaborating with Anna Strunsky in writing The Kempton-Wace Letters, an epistolary dialogue on love, he spent six weeks in the East End of London and wrote The People of the Abyss (1903). At twenty-seven he won worldwide acclaim as the author of The Call of the Wild and separated from Bessie after falling in love with Charmian Kittredge. At twenty-eight he reported the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst Syndicate. At twenty-nine he bought the 130-acre Hill Ranch in Glen Ellen, California, married Kittredge, and was elected first president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Party, lecturing at Harvard, Yale, and several other major universities. At thirty he reported the San Francisco earthquake for Collier's and began construction of a sailboat, The Snark. At thirty-one he sailed to Hawaii on the first leg of an around-the-world cruise, which he was forced to abandon in Australia two years later because of multiple tropic ailments contracted in the Solomon Islands. At thirty-four he won recognition in California as a scientific farmer through his development of Beauty Ranch, in the Valley of the Moon, began construction of Wolf House, and mourned the loss of his and Charmian's infant daughter Joy. At thirty-seven he was discovered to have diseased kidneys during surgery for appendicitis. At thirty-eight he reported the Mexican Revolution for Collier's, but was forced to return home following a severe case of bacillary dysentery. At thirty-nine, suffering from failing kidneys, he returned to Hawaii, hoping to regain his health. At forty he resigned from the Socialist Party "because of its lack of fire and fight," came home to devote his energies to the development of his ranch, and died on November 22, 1916, apparently of uremia (as diagnosed by attending physicians) but, more likely (as recent evidence attests) of stroke and heart failure.

In less than two decades London produced two hundred short stories, more than four hundred nonfiction pieces, twenty novels, and three full-length plays on an extraordinary variety of subjects: agronomy, alcoholism, animal and human psychology, animal training, architecture, assassination, astral projection, big business, ecology, economics, folklore, gold-hunting, greed, hoboing, love, mental retardation, mythology, penal reform, political corruption, prizefighting, racial exploitation, revolution, science, science fiction, seafaring, slum housing, socialism, stockbreeding, war, wildlife, and the writing game. His reputation was established initially on the basis of his Northland Saga, the largest single facet of his complex literary achievement, comprising twenty-eight stories, four novels, one play, and a half-dozen nonfiction pieces, informed by such naturalistic themes as primitivism, atavism, environmental determinism, and survival of the fittest in such stories as "The Law of Life" (1901), "Love of Life" (1905), and "To Build a Fire" (1908). His most famous Northland novels are <IR> THE CALL OF THE WILD </IR> (1903), the fabulous tale of a kidnapped ranch dog that achieves mastery as a Klondike sled dog and ultimately becomes the great Ghost-Dog of Northland legend; and <IR> WHITE FANG </IR> (1906), written as a companion-piece to the earlier novel and reversing the process of devolution by presenting the story of a savage Northland wolf-dog that is transformed into a gentle ranch pet through human love.

Other well-known works are <IR> THE SEA-WOLF </IR> (1904), an initiation story reminiscent of Kipling's Captains Courageous; <IR> THE IRON HEEL </IR> (1908), an apocalyptic version of the war between capitalism and the working classes; <IR> MARTIN EDEN </IR> (1909), a Bildungsroman drawn largely from London's own struggle to achieve success; John Barleycorn (1913), a fictional memoir written in support of the prohibitionist movement; and <IR> THE VALLEY OF THE MOON </IR> (1913), a dramatization of London's agrarian vision. Not known as well, but important to understanding London, are The People of the Abyss (1903), his sympathetic first-person account of living conditions in one of the world's most notorious slums; The Road (1907), the account of London's hoboing experiences; Burning Daylight (1910), a novel incorporating in its central character the three major archetypes of the American hero as frontiersman, businessman, and yeoman farmer; <IR> THE STAR ROVER </IR> (1915), an expose of brutal prison conditions comprising a series of vivid narrative sketches unified by the theme of astral projection; and The Red One (1918) and On the Makaloa Mat (1919), two short-story collections published posthumously and revealing London's philosophical shift from materialistic monism toward the theories of C.G. Jung, whose work he discovered six months before his death.

Strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer's "Philosophy of Style" and Rudyard Kipling's "plain style," London's literary techniques were predicated on functionalism, sincerity, and what he called "impassioned realism." He was instrumental in ushering into American literature a new prose for the modern fictionist: clear, straightforward, unpretentious, imagistic. He had mastered the principle of the objective correlative a generation before T.S. Eliot popularized the concept. A major force in establishing for fiction a respectable middle ground between the saloon and the salon, London had a pervasive and profound influence on modern writers, including such figures as Orwell, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, James Jones, Mailer, and Kerouac. Moreover, London has America's best claim to the title of Great World Author: his works have been translated into more than eighty languages, and he is regarded by many foreign critics as our most powerful writer.

While London's works have not yet appeared in a collected edition in the United States--the Soviet Union has published four so-called complete editions--the best available collection is one edited by Donald Pizer in the Library of America Series in 1982, two volumes including eight of London's most important book-length works, twenty-five stories, and four essays. Of more than a score of biographies, the most reliable is Russ Kingman's A Pictorial Life of Jack London (1979). Another rich source of information is The Letters of Jack London (1988), edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz, III, and I. Milo Shepard. Hensley C. Woodbridge's Jack London: A Bibliography (rev. ed. 1973), listing both primary and secondary materials, is indispensable. Earle Labor's Jack London (1973) is a concise critical introduction. The best studies of London's stories and novels, respectively, are James McClintock's White Logic (1974) and Charles N. Watson's The Novels of Jack London (1983). Also useful is Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin's collection of Critical Essays on Jack London (1983).
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Author:Labor, Earle
Publication:Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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