Jack London took up a career in writing at a time when innovative printing technologies made magazines quite inexpensive to publish. Perhaps best known for the trilogy of Wolf books – The Call of the Wild (1903), White Fang (1906), and The Sea Wolf (1904) – London was also one of the first Americans to make a lucrative career exclusively from writing. Along with his contemporaries in the newly emergent literary genres of realism and naturalism, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Charles Chesnutt, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris, London freely borrowed from the discourses which described the industrial technologies of Taylorization and scientific engineering, as well as from cultural anthropology and the faits divers of the daily newspaper to endow his literary constructions with the formal authority of literal reality. The shift from romanticism to realism and naturalism was part of a more pervasive social transformation in which innovative industrialization processes had accelerated the profitability of the commercial system.
London was born out of wedlock in San Francisco, California on January 12, 1876. His mother, Flora Wellman, was a piano teacher and spiritualist. His father, “Professor” W. H. Chaney, was an astrologer, con artist, and philanderer who abandoned Flora shortly before Jack, who would never lay eyes on him, was born. After she gave birth, Flora turned the baby over to ex-slave Virginia Prentiss. When Jack was eight months old, Flora married John London, a widower and Civil War veteran with a carpenter's income and two daughters of his own.
At 15, London took up the first of a series of legendary careers when he bought the sloop Razzle-Dazzle and became known as the “Prince of the Oyster Pirates” for raiding the oyster beds in the bay off Oakland. Two years later he shipped aboard the Sophia Sutherland. In 1893, he joined Kelly's Army, the western regiment of Coxey's March on Washington, to protest the economic depression, then deserted in Hannibal, Missouri on May 25, 1894 to tramp across the country. That adventure ended with his arrest for vagrancy in Niagara, New York and a 30-day sentence in Erie County Penitentiary. Those experiences became the real-life basis for the reminiscences published 13 years later in The Road (1907).
Following his 20th birthday, London left Oakland High School without a diploma to start cramming for the University of California entrance examination. At the University of California, Berkeley, London joined the Socialist Labor Party and discovered his passionate interest in Marxian socialism. He dropped out of Berkeley, after only one semester, to begin his formal career as a writer.
In the 23 years in between the publication of his first story in 1893 and his death from uremic poisoning at the age of 40 on November 22, 1916, London produced nearly 200 short stories, 20 novels, and three full-length plays along with several volumes of lectures and correspondence. London's more than 400 pieces of non-fiction certainly bear significant witness to his prodigious compulsion to have his say about almost any topic (from animal rights to anthropology, environmentalism, greed, Marxian socialism, Nietzschean supermen, political corruption, primitivism, racial opression, prizefighting, social reform, social Darwinism, war, and xenophobia) likely to incite impassioned debate. Characteristically, London did not formulate a systematic understanding of any of these topics, but approached each as if to stake a claim on the passionate energies these topics aroused.
London's essays are best understood as efforts at consuming these subjects with an appetite that his rational processes could not possibly have satisfied. Three of these topics – Marxian socialism, Nietzsche's doctrine of the superman, and Social Darwinism – in the contradictory response they consistently evoked, supplied London with a tendentious intellectual orientation. London's relationship to socialism is indicative of the ways in which he rendered his ambivalence productive. London joined the Socialist Labor Party in April 1896. He ran unsuccessfully as the socialist nominee for mayor of Oakland in 1901 and 1905, crossed the country lecturing on socialism in 1906, and published two collections of essays on the topic. But in his essay “How I Became a Socialist” (1910), London provided a Darwinian explanation for his attraction to Marxian socialism, describing these views as having evolved from his identification with persons at the bottom of the social order. In other essays, London explained his attraction to socialism as a way of gratifying his Nietzschean desire to become the superman at the head of a socialist movement. These vacillations in London's writerly commitments led some of his contemporaries to poke fun at London's identification with the working class as a pose designed to sell books.
When he traveled to the Klondike in 1897, London was in search of subject matter that would focus his restless literary imagination. Before the Klondike expedition, London imposed immense demands on creative talents lacking an appropriate subject. By the time he returned to California in 1898, he had discovered his subject matter as well as the figure that would become his totem animal and literary trademark – the Klondike wolf.
Throughout the stories collected in The Son of the Wolf (1900), the first volume of the Northland saga, London proposed the Alaskan timberwolf as the representative in nature of contradictions he found socially pervasive. Like Jack London, the Klondike wolf found the Nietzschean loner and the socialist pack animal equivalently attractive social personae. The featured story of the volume contained an account of the elevation of the wolf into the white prospector's totem animal. In the Northland tales written thereafter, Wolf became known as the tutelary presence under whose aegis the entire white population conducted heterogeneous transactions – ranging from fur trading to interracial marriage – with the indigenous tribes.
London correlated biological with literary paternity when he married his former mathematics tutor, Bessie Maddern, on April 7, 1900, the same day that Houghton Mifflin published The Son of the Wolf. Over the next three years he became in rapid succession the father of two daughters, Joan and Bess London; the author of seven additional books; and the lover of Anna Strunsky. Strunsky was a brilliant young social philosopher of Russian Jewish heritage whom London had met at socialist Austin Lewis's lecture at Stanford in December 1899, and with whom he later collaborated on a book-length dialogue about love, published anonymously as the Kempton-Wace Letters in 1903.
In that same marathon year, London initiated another love affair, this time with Charmian Kittredge, the woman London believed was endowed with all the virtues of his “mate-woman.” To mark this turning point in his public life, London published two books, The People of the Abyss (1903), a sociological study of the impossible living conditions in London's East End, and The Call of the Wild, a novel about a dog adapting to the Klondike wilderness.
The first tales of the Northland Saga were concerned with white prospectors whose struggles to learn the natives' ways led to the reciprocal commercial and social exchanges epitomized in interracial marriage. The Call of the Wild replaced these earlier tales of miscegenation with a mixed-breed dog named Buck whose spectacular regression in the Yukon wilderness elevated him into London's literary trademark. As London's new means of taking verbal possession of the Klondike, Buck erased offending erotic relations from memory and offered in their place the sentimental education of a noble creature who always remained loyal to his white masters.
The totemic system London introduced in Buck's narrative was symptomatic of the racism that would eventuate in the notorious diatribes that London would later direct against what he called the yellow peril and that required that he place race loyalty above his obligations to international socialism. By 1903, US imperialist ideology had mutated homegrown anti-foreignism into a comparable strain of racism. The extensive relay that Buck traced through the Northland wilds linked Judge Millers Santa Clara estate with John Thornton's camps, and thereby expanded the circle of his master's symbolic property to include the entire Klondike region.
The eagerness that the mongrel Buck displayed in The Call of the Wild to sacrifice his life in executing John Thornton's will in Klondike Territory would be acted out on a much larger scale in the US imperial adventures whose dates more or less coincided with Jack London's personal chronology and whose trajectory – Hawaii, Panama, Cuba, and the Pacific Rim – London's later tales would retrace. Whereas The Call of the Wild had recorded Buck's regressive adaptation to the wilderness, White Fang reversed direction and described Wolf's transformation from a natural force into a surrogate national agent. White Fang's progression from Klondike nature to US culture reenacted the nation's imperial design as its plotline.
The reversibility of the two plots mirrored a larger reversal in ideological accounts of imperialism wherein the acquisitive drives of an imperial adventurer were redescribed as defensive reactions directed against what these adventurers described as the senseless aggression of native populations. By finding it thoroughly acted out in companion dog stories, London effectively reinscribed the entire circuit of US imperial appropriation – its aggressive policies of colonial annexation followed by the blandishments of acculturation – upon the “white silence of the Klondike.” After delinking White Fang from the network of associations he shared with the Northwest tribal communities, London realigned his interests with the more inclusive project of US imperialism in the South Pacific, in which such later writings as The Cruise of the Snark (1911), South Sea Tales (1911), and the Son of the Sun (1912) would play a significant role.
Unlike contemporaries, like William Dean Howells, who tried to free their characters from romantic dependencies, Jack London submitted his protagonists to the complex of confinements and determinations posed by market and biological forces as well as by the mechanisms of the disciplinary society. While American realists continued to correlate their protagonists with the bourgeois subject of aesthetic ideology, in the quasi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909), London subordinated the aesthetic sphere to the laws of the market, and he described that sphere's appeals to a transcendental standpoint and its enforcement of a universal standard of taste as having turned the aesthetic against the social markers of the lower classes.
In preparation for writing The People of the Abyss, a sociological study of living conditions in East London, London reenacted Buck's regressive evolution. In August 1902, he disguised himself as a derelict and then disappeared for six weeks into what were then believed to be the worst slums in the Western hemisphere. With the publication of The Sea Wolf in 1904, London created a narrative that demonstrated uncanny intuition into the change of his reading public's needs. In The Sea Wolf and People of the Abyss, London relocated Wolf, the totem animal from his literary imagination, in environments – the slums of East London, the open sea – that, while different from the Klondike, nevertheless recalled its demands on the survival instinct. Wolf Larsen, the protagonist of The Sea Wolf, combined Buck's and White Fang's courage with the ruthless will to power that constituted the only political order that he acknowledged.
Following his marriage to Charmian Kittredge on November 19, 1905, London reversed the habit of construing his life as raw material for his writing, and turned his most popular literary formula – combining the themes of survival and sentimental romance – into the basis for their relationship. After they set sail in 1907 for a seven-year around-the-world cruise in Snark, the schooner London had built for $35,000, the theme of survival predominated. During extensive travel throughout the South Seas and Polynesia – from Hawaii to the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, New Hebrides, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands – Jack and Charmian contracted multiple tropical diseases and returned after only two years to London's California estate.
London's adaptation of his craft to a quasi-Taylorized mode of production made him quite wealthy, but it also inclined him to create formulaic plots and stereotypical characters. Because he purchased plots and novels from other writers and used incidents from newspaper clippings as writing material, London's Taylorization of his writing labors rendered him vulnerable to accusations of plagiarism. After 1910, his literary works were dismissed by his critics as potboilers that he wrote to cover the operating costs of Wolf Ranch, the most valuable piece of real estate in Sonoma, California.
But London's work has recently played an important role in the revaluation of literary naturalism. Mark Seltzer has explained the recent spectacular shift in literary attention away from American romanticism to the logics of naturalism as reflective of a more encompassing cultural transition that has supplanted the interpretive attention to the contradictions of market society with analyses of what Michel Foucault called disciplinary society. The negative counterpart of American romanticism, Jack London's naturalism, has became newly fascinating because his writings were saturated with the disciplinary powers from which the American romance aspired to emancipate itself.
SEE ALSO: Naturalist Fiction (AF); Norris, Frank (AF); Politics and the Novel (BIF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF)
- Male Call: Becoming Jack London. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (1996).
- Jack London. New York: Twayne. (1974).
- Son of the Wolf. London: Isbister. (1900).
- Children of the Frost. Chicago: Donohue. (1902a).
- A Daughter of the Snows. Philadelphia: Lippincott. (1902b).
- The Call of the Wild. New York: Macmillan. (1903a).
- The People of the Abyss. London: Macmillan. (1903b).
- The Sea-Wolf. New York: Macmillan. (1904).
- The Game. New York: Macmillan. (1905).
- Tales of the Fish Patrol. New York: Heinemann. (1906a).
- White Fang. New York: Macmillan. (1906b).
- Before Adam. New York: Macmillan. (1907a).
- The Road. New York: Macmillan. (1907b).
- The Iron Heel. New York: Macmillan. (1908).
- Martin Eden. New York: Macmillan. (1909).
- Burning Daylight. New York: Macmillan. (1910a).
- Lost Face. New York: Macmillan. (1910b).
- Revolution, and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan. (1910c).
- Adventure. New York: Macmillan. (1911a).
- The Cruise of the Snark. New York: Macmillan. (1911b).
- South Sea Tales. New York: Macmillan. (1911c).
- The Scarlet Plague. New York: Macmillan. (1912a).
- Smoke Bellew. New York: Macmillan. (1912b).
- A Son of the Sun. New York: Macmillan. (1912c).
- The Abysmal Brute. New York: Macmillan. (1913a).
- John Barleycorn. New York: Macmillan. (1913b).
- The Valley of the Moon. New York: Macmillan. (1913c).
- The Mutiny of the Elsinore. New York: Macmillan. (1914).
- The Star Rover. New York: Macmillan. (1915).
- The Little Lady of the Big House. New York: Macmillan. (1916a).
- The Turtles of Tasman. New York: Macmillan. (1916b).
- Jerry of the Islands. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. (1917a).
- Michael, Brother of Jerry. New York: Macmillan. (1917b).
- Hearts of Three. New York: Macmillan. (1920).
- The Kempton-Wace Letters. New York: Macmillan. ; (1903).
- Jack London: Adventures, Ideas, and Fiction. New York: Ungar. (1987).
- Martin Eden and the Limits of Aesthetic Experience. Boundary 2, 17(1), 139-60. (1998).
- Bodies and Machines. New York: Routledge. (1992).
- Jack: A Biography of Jack London. New York: Harper and Row. (1977).
Related Credo Articles
Though Jack London is remembered today mainly as a writer of adventure stories for young adults, in his own time he was one of the most famous and p
Interest in the writings of Jack London is often inseparable from a fascination with his biography. Born in San Francisco on...
Born in San Francisco, he grew up on the tough Oakland waterfront, spending much of his youth on the wrong side of the law....