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Jack London Author Biography Essay

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Jack London - A Brief Biography

Jack London was born on January 12, 1876.  By age 30 London was internationally famous for his books Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea Wolf (1904) and other literary and journalistic accomplishments.  Though he wrote passionately about the great questions of life and death and the struggle to survive with dignity and integrity, he also sought peace and quiet inspiration. His stories of high adventure were based on his own experiences at sea, in the Yukon Territory, and in the fields and factories of California.  His writings appealed to millions worldwide.

London was also widely known for his personal exploits.  A colorful, controversial personality, London was often in the news.  Generally fun loving, he was quick to side with the underdog against injustice of any kind.  An eloquent public speaker, he was much sought after as a lecturer on socialism and other economic and political topics. Most people considered London a living symbol of rugged individualism, a man whose fabulous success was not due to special favor of any kind, but to a combination of immense mental ability and vitality.

Strikingly handsome, full of laughter, restless and courageous, always eager for adventure, Jack London was one of the most romantic figures of this time.  He ascribed his worldwide literary success largely to hard work - to 'dig', as he put it.  Between 1900 and 1916 he completed more than 50 fiction and non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and numerous articles.  Several of the books and many of the short stories are classics and still popular; some have been translated into as many as 70 languages.  Among the best known are Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden and John Barleycorn. In addition to his writing and speaking commitments, London carried on voluminous correspondence (he received some 10,000 letters per year), read proofs of his work as it went to press, and negotiated with his agents and publishers.  He spent time overseeing construction of his custom-built sailing ship, the Snark, (1906-1907); the construction of his dream house, Wolf House (1910-1913); and the operation of his farm, Beauty Ranch, (1905).

The natural beauty of Sonoma Valley was not lost on Jack London.  The magnificent vistas and rolling hills of Glen Ellen were an ideal place for Jack and Charmian (London's second wife) to relax and enjoy the natural life.  'When I first came here, tired of cities and people, I settled down on a little farm...130 acres of the most beautiful, primitve land to be found in California.'  Though the farm was badly run down, he reveled in its natural beauty.

'All I wanted,' London said later, 'was a quiet place in the counry to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don't know it.' 
But true to London's vigorous nature, he did little loafing and was soon busy buying farm equipment and livestock for his Sonoma Mountain ranch.  He began work on a new barn as well as envisioning his dream,  Wolf House.  'This is to be no summer residence proposition,' he wrote to his publisher as he began planning in 1905, 'but a home all the year round.  I am anchoring good and solid, and anchoring for keeps.'

Living and owning land near Glen Ellen was a way of escaping Oakland, from the city way of life he called 'the man trap.'  But, restless and eager for foreign travel and adventure, he decided to build a ship, the Snark, and go sailing around the world, serializing his adventure.  The Snark voyage made it as far as the South Pacific and Australia but was curtailed due to ill health.  Discouraged by health problems and heartbroken about having to abandon the trip and sell the Snark, the Londons returned to the ranch in Glen Ellen.

Between 1908 and 1913 London purchased adjoining farms and in 1911 he moved from Glen Ellen to a small wood frame house in the middle of his holdings.  (This cottage and adjoining stone dining room can be toured at the park, a touchstone to the early Twentieth century life Jack and Charmian enjoyed at the ranch).  On horseback Jack explored every canyon, glen and hilltop.  He threw himself into the farming fad of the period, scientific agriculture, believing this to be a truly justifiable, basic and idealistic means of making a living.  A significant portion of his later writing - Burning Daylight (1910), Valley of the Moon (1913) and Little Lady of the Big House(1916) centered on the simple pleasures of country life, the satisfaction of making a living from the land and remaining close to nature.

Jack and Charmian Londons dream house began to take shape early in 1911 when a well-known San Francisco architect, Albert Farr, created the drawings and sketches for Wolf House. Farr supervised the early stages of construction of a grand house that was to remain standing 'for a thousand years'.  

By August 1913 London had spent $50,000 and the project was nearly complete.  On August 22 final cleanup got underway and plans were laid for moving the Londons' specially designed custom furniture, thousands of books, collections from travel, and personal belongings into the massive stone and redwood residence.  That night, a ranch hand noticed a glow in the sky half a mile away. Wolf House was burning.  By the time the Londons arrived by horseback the house was ablaze, the tile roof had collapsed, and even a stack of lumber some distance away was burning.  Nothing could be done.

London looked at the fire philosphically, but the loss was a crushing financial blow and the end of a long-cherished dream.  Rumors abounded about the cause of the fire.  In 1995 a group of forensic fire experts visited the site and concluded that the fire resulted from spontaneous combustion in a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags left by workers. London planned to rebuild Wolf House, but at the time of his death in 1916 the house remained as it stands today, the stark but eloquent vestige of a shattered dream.

The loss of Wolf House left London depressed but he forced himself to go back to work.  He added a new writer's study to the cottage, continued his efforts to breed prize livestock, and expanded his plans for the 1400 acres he now owned.  

Occassionally London traveled to New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles on business. He spent time living and working aboard his 30 foot yawl, the Roamer, which he sailed around San Francisco Bay and the nearby Sacramento and San Joaquin deltas. 

In 1914 Jack was a war correspondent in Mexico, covering the role of US troops and Navy ships in the Villa-Carranza revolt.  In 1915 and 1916, Chamian persuaded her husband to spend time in Hawaii, a relaxing and healthful respite for the two of them. But London's greatest satisfaction came from his ranch activities. His amibitious plans to expand the ranch and increase productivity kept him in debt and under pressure to write as fast as he could, even though this might mean sacrificing quality for quantity. He continued to push to complete 1000 words per day regardless of his location, duties, or health.  

When London's doctors urged him to change his work habits and his diet, stop all use of alcohol and get more exercise, he refused.  If anything, the pressure of his financial commitments to helping friends and relatives and his increasingly severe health problems only made him dream larger dreams and work harder and faster.

On November 22, 1916, 40 year old Jack London died of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning.  He had been suffering from a variety of ailments, including a kidney condition, but up to the last day of his life he was full of bold plans and boundless enthusiasm for the future.  Words of grief poured into the telegraph office in Glen Ellen from all over the world.

'No writer, unless it were Mark Twain, ever had a more romantic life than Jack London.  The untimely death of this most popular of American fictionists has profoundly shocked a world that expected him to live and work for many years longer.'  ~Ernest Hopkins, San Francisco Bulletin, December 2, 1916.

2016 The Death of Jack London fact and fiction by Lou Leal, Jack London State Historic Park historian

London's gravesite

Jack London's naturalistic style sprang from a difficult and tumultuous childhood. His mother, Flora, suffered from typhoid fever as a child that left her nearly blind, hairless and small in stature. The brain damage caused by the fever lead to repeated bouts of depression and may have permanently unhinged her mind. When Flora was about twenty-five, she moved to San Francisco, suddenly a boom overflowing with rich gold prospectors and railroad magnates. Flora was just one of tens of thousands of immigrants following the money to San Francisco. At first, Flora gave piano lessons to support herself. In 1874 she moved in with a man named William Chaney, an astrologer who encouraged her fascination with spiritualism. Chaney would be remembered as an influential figure in the American Astrological movement. Together they ran an astrology parlor. Flora would receive money to communicate with the dead and send messages to the deceased loved ones of her customers. Unfortunately, it was not enough to pay the rent. Chaney, despite a day job as a magazine writer, was too obsessed with his experiments with the unknown to bring in a steady paycheck. Chaney was convinced that astrology was a science, and he thought that it could help man and woman produce a biologically superior child.

On January 12, 1876, Flora gave birth to a son; however, she was never sure that Chaney was the child's father. She named her son John, and she referred to him as her "badge of shame." John's birth had almost killed her, and she was unable to care for an infant. She sent him to a wet-nurse, an ex-slave named Virginia Prentiss, who took the place of his mother for the first eight months of his life. William Chaney deserted Flora. A few months after her son's birth, she met and quickly married John London, a widowed Civil War veteran with two young daughters. From this point on, her son John was called Jack to distinguish him from his step-father. Flora's restlessness, mood swings, hysterical breakdowns, and feigned heart attacks blighted the life of the entire family, but especially the life of her young son, to whom she never demonstrated affection. Eventually the Londons moved to Oakland, California. John London bought a ranch, and at age five Jack settled into the hard work of farming. He took a few swallows of ale while working, and became dreadfully ill. Two years later he was given wine at an Italian wedding, and he became delirious. His lifelong battle with alcohol had begun.

As Jack grew up, he became tough from fighting bullies, and despite a relatively small stature, he garnered a reputation for his cunning ability to brawl. At aged fourteen, Jack graduated from grammar school. Because his family could not afford to send him to high school, he went to work at a canning factory. Already Jack had developed a love for books, encouraged by a local librarian. These books opened up a world beyond Oakland. The more he canned pickles, the more he craved escape. Mostly this came in the form of alcohol. Jack would frequently get drunk in the local saloons after work. In these places he met men of the sea - sailors, sealers, whalers, harpooners. He took an opportunity to become an oyster-pirate, where he roamed the San Francisco Bay, stealing oysters from other people's farms. Having enjoyed himself immensely for three months, he returned to the San Francisco area when the job had ended, to work for the local fish patrol chasing poachers. When he got another chance to work on the open sea, London jumped at the opportunity.

When London returned to California, he tramped around the U.S. for almost a year before finding himself in his mother's kitchen, resolving to give up his vagrant ways and help support his family. His time away had made Jack newly determined to get an education, so at age nineteen, Jack decided to go back to high school. He now had to study as well as earn a living. He developed interests in political theory, especially socialism. Jack wanted to enter the revolutionary movement, but set his sights on finishing high school and attending college. His involvement in the Socialist Labor Party got him kicked out of school, so he studied on his own for entrance exams to the University of California at Berkeley. He was accepted, but he dropped out after six months, either because he was disappointed by the experience or because he needed to earn money for his family. He began to pursue writing in earnest, working at a laundry to support himself. When the Klondike gold rush hit, London borrowed money from his sister and struck out for gold and adventure. The experiences he had, the observations he made, would be crucial to some of his most successful writing. Returning to Oakland, Jack's big break finally arrived. "An Odyssey of the North," a short story, was published in 1900 and achieved critical success for its virility and vivid descriptions. That same year he met and married Bessie Maddern.

London subscribed to many popular beliefs of the nineteenth century. He believed so fervently in natural selection that he chose to marry based on social and genetic compatibility, rather than romantic love. While his career began to go extremely well - writing offers and money were pouring in - London's relationship with his wife almost immediately began to fall apart. Bessie gave London a daughter, Joan, with whom he would eventually have a close and happy relationship. But London began to spend less and less time with his family and more time with friends such as Anna Strunsky and George Sterling, who shared many of London's intellectual interests. London openly had affairs, and he traveled a great deal. In 1902, a second daughter was born, and Jack began to write The Call of the Wild. In 1903 The Call of the Wild was published and he separated from his wife.

During this period of his life, London began to expand his travels to other hemispheres. He also became interested in agriculture and farming and began to build a ranch in California. In 1904, London covered the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst Newspaper. He also published The Sea-Wolf, another of his most successful books. In 1905, he married his former secretary, Charmian Kittredge. In 1906, London begins building a sailing vessel he named the "Snark," and he publishes White Fang. Between 1907 and 1909, London and Charmian sailed around the world, and London wrote extensively about their time on the trip (The Cruise of the Snark) and about the Hawaiian Island, which he popularized as a vacation spot.

Throughout his adult life, London published prolifically: stories, essays, news articles and novels. He remained devoted to the idea of socialism, and twice ran for Mayor on a socialist platform. Both times he was soundly defeated. Though he was never able to overcome the racist views imbued to him in childhood, he advocated for other liberal causes, such as women's suffrage. While London was one of the highest paid and most successful writers of his time, he was terrible at managing money, and he was always short of cash. London died on November 21, 1916 of kidney failure, a result of his serious and lifelong problems with alcohol.

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