Called the “Boy Socialist: and the “American Karl Marx,” Jack London succeeded so well as a writer under the capitalistic system that he could afford to build a “palace for his pigs,” to popularize the sport of surfing, and to show off his bridge of artificial teeth to huge crowds. In addition to being one of the highest paid writers of his time, Jack London also ran for Mayor of Oakland twice and was pushed to run for the presidency — all on the Socialist ticket.
He was born Jan. 12, 1876, in San Francisco as John Chaney. His parents were Flora Wellman, the headstrong daughter of a well-to-do businessman, and “Professor” W.H. Chaney, an itinerant astrologer, whose celestial counseling took a more earth-bound course (though he later claimed, in correspondence with London, that he was impotent and couldn’t possibly be his father).
At this juncture, the stars didn’t augur too well for London-Chaney, who was never to meet his father but from whom he was said to have received a strong physique, imagination, and the notion that radical social measures were needed to save western civilization. His mother gave him a frenetic temperament and an innate difficulty in handling money, primarily his own.
When he was eight, his mother married John London, a middle-aged widower with two daughters. She wanted to make money quickly but his stepfather failed as a grocer (Mrs. London didn’t help as she spent more time on spiritualism than paying bills) and the new family had a series of disasters which drove them from home to home in the Bay Area.
Flora had little time for young Jack, so he found mother substitutes in Mammie Jenny, his black nurse, and his stepsister, Eliza, eight years his senior. Shy and sensitive (he later called himself a boy without a boyhood), London felt the only way he could win social acceptance from his peers was by excelling, which meant being a better fighter (he lost a few teeth along the way, but made his point). But he wasn’t so shy he didn’t develop a strong mercantile instinct, such as selling other boys’ rags, bottles and oil cans to junkmen for commissions. He also got a headstart on his writing career when, upon his refusal to sing with his class, the school principal sentenced him to write a composition each noon.
A restless nature and family finances caused him to quit school at 14 and start working around the Oakland waterfront. He also made good use of the Oakland library, beginning to delve into Marx and Nietzche. Between the ages of 15 and 18 he held a variety of jobs such as newsboy, saloon cleaner, and fruit canner. He bought a skiff at the tender age of 15, replete with live-in girlfriend, and became an oyster pirate; he was known as “the prince of the oyster pirates” due to his prowess at this unusual craft. He also hunted for wild cats on the belief that the Chinese would pay large sums for these felines which allegedly gave them strength for tong wars.
He went on to sail to Japan as a North Pacific sealer and bummed hisway around the U.S., part of the time as a member of Kelly’s Industrial Army, a protest group which arose out of the Panic of 1893 and which marched on Washington D.C.
But after serving a 30-day vagrancy charge at Niagara Falls, Londonreturned to Oakland determined, despite his refusal to become a “work beast,” to improve his lot in life. At 19, he enrolled in an Oakland high school but found the pace too slow. Taking a five-week cram course, he passed the entrance examination to the University of California. He only went one semester, however, before family finances compelled him to quit school and work, regardless of the risk, for 10 cents an hour at a jute mill.
He was so poor he ate meat once a week at the house of his girlfriend,Mabel Applegarth. He did manage, through Eliza, to get a set of false teeth (he chewed tobacco to relieve the pain in his teeth from all the cavities) and celebrated this event by buying his first toothbrush. (Years later, in Korea, he was called to a hotel balcony thinking the crowd wanted to see him as a famous author and discovered the people just wanted to look at his bridge of artificial teeth!).
But he received writing encouragement when, in 1893, he won a prize in the San Francisco Morning Call for a story “Typhoon Off The Coast of Japan.”
Restless, he fled Oakland again and spent the winter of 1897 in theAlaskan Klondike, which was to provide a substantial amount of material for later stories. By this time he had deduced that writing was the best way to earn a living as a socialist under a capitalistic system.
But his family and friends disagreed. As a concession, perhaps, Londontook and passed a civil service examination for a post office position paying $40 a month. He didn’t take the job, however. In a letter to Mabel, after his return from the Yukon in 1898, he wrote: “Nor has anybody ever understood. Duty said ‘do not go on; go to work.’ So said my sister, though she would not say it to my face. Everybody looked askance; though they did not speak. I knew what they thought, not a word of approval, but much of disapproval. If only someone had said, ‘I understand.'”
Beginning with short stories, and a regimen of 1,000 words a day, London got published in some Bay Area magazines. He also amassed though the next five years some 644 rejections. Persevering, he eventually won recognition, particularly among the more powerful and influential East Coast magazines. His action stories on the harsh life of Alaska provided quite a contrast with the more sedate and sentimental material of the day. Throughout his life, his major theme remained the primitive instincts in man, which occasionally presented him with a problem in handling romantic heroines — but only in books!
His first novel, The Son of the Wolf, was published in 1900. For thenext 17 years, until his death in 1916, London produced two or three books a year, becoming a literary “work beast.” He wrote, overall, some 50 books. Call of the Wild in 1903 is considered his best collection of stories. His best novel, Martin Eden, is primarily autobiographical. Another autobiographical work, John Barleycorn, was a kind of tract on alcoholism (one chapter of which was based on his experiences on the waterfront at Benicia on the northeast arm of San Francisco Bay) which helped create the climate for the era of prohibition. The Iron Heel predicted, accurately, the rise of fascism.
London married twice, but neither wife produced the son he wanted. He first wed Elizabeth Maddern in 1900, writing: “Finding myselfanchored with a household (like his mother) I resolved to have the compensations of a household, so I married and increased the weight of my anchor.” He divorced her, after two daughters came, in 1903 and married Charmian Kittridge, several years his senior. His sudden split from his wife caused a scandal and his marriage to Charmian was termed invalid in places like Illinois, as it was declared he had not been divorced long enough. Though living in California, this angered London enough to declare: “I’ll get married in every state in the Union, as fast as I can get from one to the other.”
First, he and Charmian took a round-the-world cruise on his 45-footboat, “Snark,” a 26-month voyage duly recorded in “The Cruise of the Snark.” London had estimated the ship would cost him around $7,000 to build but the craft eventually cost $30,000. Cosmopolitan Magazine wanted him to name the ship after the publication, but he would only agree if the magazine would subsidize its cost (in which case he generously offered to throw in taking subscriptions en route). London’s stay in Hawaii during this epic voyage produced an article, “The Royal Sport,” which did a lot to popularize surf riding.
In 1901, he was nominated for Mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket and amassed some 245 votes. He ran again several years later and quadrupled his votes. Though spoken of for the Socialist candidate for the presidency, London’s political career never got past these two unsuccessful mayoral tries. This might be because he signed some his letters, “Yours for the Revolution” and lectured on the evils of capitalism, stressing that “Excess profits were unpaid profits.”
Earning more and more money from his writing, London fell more and more in debt. He got in the habit of buying bankrupt ranches he hadn’t time to manage and supporting a growing retinue of relatives and alleged friends.
In a self-appointed program to rehabilitate California agriculture, hebegan to experiment with farming techniques at his Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma County, and even became an expert on pork. “I have just completed a pigpen,” he wrote, “that will make anyone in the U.S. who is interested in the manufacture of pork sit up and take notice. There is nothing like it in the way of piggeries ever built.” Called the “Pig Palace,” this porcine edifice had private indoor and outdoor suites for each pig and his family.
London planned his dream home at the ranch in 1913, calling it “WolfHouse” (one of his novels was called The Sea Wolf). Unfortunately, the house burned down before it was finished (probably arson, though this was never proven). London tried to give everyone work who needed a job,including paroled convicts. One man who was turned down wrote back: “You don’t have to be afraid to let me work around the house. I wouldn’t steal anything. I’m only a murderer.”
London kept writing, and became one of the best known and paid authors of the day at the cost of considerable plagiarism and rumors. “Do you know,” he complained once, “that when a university girl wandered into the hills of Berkeley and was attacked by a tramp the papers said it must have been Jack London.” He also bought plot ideas for as much as $2.50 from other writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, each replete with invoices and list prices.
A world-famous figure, London also covered wars like the Russo-Japanese conflict in 1904-05 and the American intervention in Mexico in 1914. He was extremely unhappy with the restrictions put on journalists in the Russo-Japanese war and wrote: “I am disgusted! I’ll never go to a war between Orientals again. The vexations and delay are too great.”
At the age of 40 he was somewhat written out, and also bloated with uremia from drinking. In an ongoing controversy, some people believe that he committed suicide (his character Martin Eden committed suicide in the novel of the same name) by swallowing a fatal dosage of morphine and atrophine because he was convinced of his imminent death; but others dispute this and claim he died of natural causes. He passed away at his beloved ranch in November 1916.
The primary testimonial to London is the Jack London Historical State Park, one mile west of Glen Ellen. The 40-acre site includes the author’s “Beauty Ranch,” comprising the House of Happy Walls, the site of the Wolf House, and his grave. The House of Happy Walls was built by Charmian in 1919 and houses numerous London mementos. Only the stark walls and chimneys of volcanic stone remain of Wolf House. London’s grave, containing his ashes, is on a wooded knoll near Wolf House. The park is open daily.
There is also a “Jack London Village” on Arnold Drive, a couple of miles from the park. The Village includes the Jack London Book Store and an adjunct, the World of Jack London Museum with such memorabilia as the typewriter London used from 1904-1916. Jack London Square in Oakland, a waterfront area bounded by Broadway, Webster and First Streets and the Oakland estuary, has various stores, restaurants and bars — many with decorations and other London mementos including mobiles depicting characters drawn from his books.
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Glen Ellen, California 95442
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