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John Griffith “Jack” London was born John Griffith Chaney on January 12th 1876, near Third and Brannan Streets in San Francisco. He was directly descended from a prominent engineering family in Pennsylvania and some of the early Puritan settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Flora moved to the Pacific Coast following the death of her father, where she taught music and worked as a spiritualist. London’s relationship with his father was fraught. Though the fires which followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his birth certificate, it is believed that his father was the astrologist William Chaney since Chaney and London’s mother were living together when she became pregnant. There is strong evidence in support of this, particularly in several instances in Chaney’s memoirs in which he refers to Flora as his wife, and an advertisement of Flora’s for her teaching in which she refers to herself as “Florence Wellman Chaney”. The claim made by Flora that Chaney demanded she have an abortion is unsubstantiated, but that shortly afterward he disclaimed responsibility for the unborn child is certain. She attempted suicide by shooting herself, though she failed and the resulting injuries left her temporarily deranged such that, on giving birth, she gave the child to Virginia Prentiss, an ex-slave, who became a prominent maternal figure for the duration of London’s life. In late 1876 Flora married John London and brought her baby John wither her. As a family they settled in Oakland where London completed grade school.
By 1885 London had become an avid reader and that year he came across a copy of Signa, a lengthy Victorian novel by Ouida, which he later considered the catalyst for his literary career. He began frequenting the Oakland public library where he met Ina Coolbrith, the librarian, who actively encouraged his reading and learning through her recommendations and discussion. Later she became California’s first poet laureate. He continued with this self-education until 1889 when he started work at Hickmott’s Cannery, where he would often work up to eighteen hours per day. He quickly became dissatisfied with this and so borrowed money from Virginia Prentiss to buy Razzle-Dazzle, a small single-sail vessel known as a ‘sloop’, from an oyster pirate who was known as French Frank. Later, in his memoirs, London claimed to have stolen French Frank’s mistress Mamie. The sloop lasted mere months before it was damaged beyond repair, so London turned to the California Fish Patrol for employment who hired him as a member.
In 1893 he signed on with the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland as it was headed for Japan for several months. He returned to find the country threatened by polio, and Oakland by civil unrest brought about by labour shortage and exploitation. He found arduous work in a street-railway power plant and in a jute mill before joining Kelly’s Army, a protest march formed by unemployed labourers, who would eventually march on Washington D.C. in protest. During this time as a tramp he spent thirty days in the Erie County Penitentiary in Buffalo, New York, for vagrancy. Later, in The Road, he wrote of his experience there;
Man-handling was merely one of the very minor unprintable horrors of the Erie County Pen. I say 'unprintable'; and in justice I must also say undescribable. They were unthinkable to me until I saw them, and I was no spring chicken in the ways of the world and the awful abysses of human degradation. It would take a deep plummet to reach bottom in the Erie County Pen, and I do but skim lightly and facetiously the surface of things as I there saw them.
Having completed his outstanding responsibilities with the California Fish Patrol London returned to Oakland and attended the Oakland High School, contributing numerous articles to The Aegis, the school’s magazine. The first of these was “Typhoon off the Coast of Japan”, in which he recounted many of his sailing experiences. During his time as a student he would frequently study at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a bar on the port in Oakland. At the age of seventeen he confided in the proprietor, John Heinold, of his ambition to go to University. Heinold loaded London the money he needed for his tuition. He particularly wanted to go to the University of California, Berkeley, and was admitted in 1896. He continued to work at Heinold’s bar and during this time was introduced to several of the adventurers and sailors who would pass through Oakland, many of whom influenced his writing career, particularly Alexander McLean, a notoriously cruel sea captain who include Wolf Larsen, the protagonist in The Sea-Wolf. He was twenty-one when he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, and during his time there he undertook a search for the newspaper accounts of his mother’s suicide attempt wherein he found the name of his biological father who by then was living in Chicago. London wrote to him eagerly, though Chaney responded by claiming impotence and that therefore he could not possibly be London’s father. Moreover, on acknowledging that he had known London’s mother, Chaney breezily informed London that she had been in relations with several men and that the abortion claims were slander against him. This response crushed London, and months later he quit Berkeley and headed to join the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon.
His time in Klondike was difficult. He, like so many others, developed various health problems as a result of malnourishment and extreme weather conditions. London suffered from scurvy, was constantly bothered by joint problems and had scars on his body and face for the rest of his life as a result of injuries and sores sustained during this period. He had left Oakland with a passing interest in social issues and, having spent much of his camp time in the Yukon in good-natured debate of matters of social interest with the wealthy Republican mining investors, returned to Oakland with an active social conscience as a socialism activist. He had also picked up some of the Republicans’ capitalist ideals, realising his own intelligence and writing were his assets and that they could be exploited and nurtured in a businesslike fashion. Once back in California he wrote specifically in pursuit of publication, later detailing this experience in his 1908 novel, Martin Eden. The first work he saw published following his gold rush years was the short story To The Man On The Trail which was picked up by The Overland Monthly, though they offered him merely five dollars and were late to pay. This, he wrote later, almost ended his career, which was saved “literally and literarily” by The Black Cat, another magazine which offered forty dollars for A Thousand Deaths. That forty dollars was the first money he ever received for his writing. He eventually received his five outstanding dollars sometime afterward.
London’s writing career took off in conjunction with the development of new printing technology which allowed for low-cost mass-production of popular magazines, enabling an enormous rise in the readership and popularity of these publications. In 1900 London earned approximately $2,500 from his writing, roughly $71,000 when inflation-adjusted for 2014. On April 7th of that year London married Elizabeth “Bessie” Maddern. He had known her for several years through his circle of friends and had enjoyed a strong friendship with her for much of that time. They publicly acknowledged that their marriage was out of friendship and the surety that they would produce “sturdy” children, rather than love. They shared pet-names: his for her was “Mother-Girl” and hers for him was “Daddy-Boy”. On 15th January 1901 they had their first child, Joan, and a second, Bessie, on October 20th 1902. By 1903 the couple were “extremely incompatible”, though London remained kind and gentle towards his wife, though he would confide in his friends privately, saying
[Bessie] is devoted to purity. When I tell her morality is only evidence of low blood pressure, she hates me. She'd sell me and the children out for her damned purity. It's terrible. Every time I come back after being away from home for a night she won't let me be in the same room with her if she can help it.
It has been suggested that part of Bessie’s concerns were based on a fear that London had been “away from home for a night” visiting whores and that one day he would return carrying venereal disease.
In early 1903 London sold The Call of the Wild to The Saturday Evening Post for $750, and later the book rights to Macmillan for a further $2,000. Macmillan conducted an efficient and effective marketing campaign which saw the book sell in huge numbers. It addressed London’s belief that the behaviour of animals is a direct result of the treatment they receive by their handlers and owners, something he witnessed first hand in the relationships between humans and animals in the Yukon. On July 24th 1903 London told Bessie that he was moving out, and rented a villa on Lake Merritt in Oakland. Here he met the poet George Stirling and struck up an immediate friendship. In their correspondence London signed himself as “Wolf”, perhaps indicating his affinity to the animal and its wildness. With this in mind his remarks on the treatment of animals by their handlers can be seen as parallel to his own experience of his father, and that his abandonment at birth, and later personal disownment, perhaps caused London’s sense of kinship with the wolf’s wild existence.
The San Francisco Examiner offered London an assignment covering the Russo-Japanese War and he arrived in Yokohama on the 25th January 1904. He was quickly arrested by Japanese authorities in Shimonoseki, but thanks to American Ambassador Lloyd Griscom’s intervention was soon released. He then travelled to Korea where he was soon arrested again, this time for unacceptable unauthorised proximity to the Manchuria border, and was sent back to Seoul. Once granted permission to travel to the border with the Imperial Japanese Army to observe the battle of the Yalu he continued with his assignment, though considered himself too restricted and monitored. He applied to William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the Examiner, for permission for a transfer to the Imperial Russian Army where he hoped for increased journalistic freedom. During the arrangements for this he accused his Japanese chaperones of stealing his horse’s fodder which resulted in violence and his third arrest in four months. This time his release was secured by the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt and London returned to America in June of the same year. On the 18th of August London and Stirling went to the Bohemian Grove where he was elected to honour membership of the Bohemian Club. During the whole of 1904 he and Bessie negotiated terms of a divorce which was granted on 11th November of that year.
London was introduced to Charmian Kittredge by the publisher George Platt Brett, Sr., while she was working as his secretary. They married on the 19th November 1905. Together they travelled extensively and several of their experiences would inspire his writing, particularly their time in Hawaii and Australia. London pet-named Charmian “Mate-Woman”, indicating her uninhibited sexuality which was a complete contrast from his first wife Bessie. With Charmian they tried twice for a baby, suffering the death of the first at birth and the miscarriage of the second. In 1905 London bought a ranch in Glen Ellen, California, saying “next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.” Though he was desperate for the ranch to be a commercial success to the extent that he considered his writing now simply a means of funding his enterprise (“I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I wrote a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate”), it was an abject economic failure. Critics are divided over whether this is because his ranching techniques were ahead of their time (he owned the first concrete silo in California) or whether he was impaired by his alcoholism and grandiose attitude to being a ranch-owner (“London’s workers laughed at his efforts to play big-time rancher [and considered] the operation a rich man's hobby”). He built an $81,000 ($2,100,000 in 2014) property named Wolf House with 26 bedrooms over 15,000 square feet which burnt down just two weeks before he and his wife were due to move in.
His literary legacy is broad, and his social legacy even broader. Accusations of racism have been levelled at him, particularly for his opinions on the increasing population and domesticity of Asia, which he detailed in a 1904 essay named “The Yellow Peril”. However, he admits "it must be taken into consideration that the above postulate is itself a product of Western race-egotism, urged by our belief in our own righteousness and fostered by a faith in ourselves which may be as erroneous as are most fond race fancies.” George Orwell recognised “his love of violence and physical strength, his belief in 'natural aristocracy', his animal-worship and exaltation of the primitive, he had in him what one might fairly call a Fascist strain”. That ‘natural aristocracy’ and exaltation of the primitive can be found as a common theme throughout his life and is perhaps most informed by his childhood and relationship with his father.
London died on the 22nd of November, 1916, in the sleeping porch of one of his ranch’s cottages. He had suffered several illnesses deriving from his time in the Klondike and at the time of his death had dysentery, uraemia and late stage alcoholism. He was taking morphine as pain relief and it is possible that his death was a result of an overdose. He was cremated according to his wishes and buried under a rock taken from the ruins of Wolf House.