Today would be Jack London’s 134th birthday. The man was not only one of the most popular writers at the turn of the last century, he was also one of the first writers to see his novels be turned into a movie. In fact, his novel, The Sea Wolf, was adapted into the first full-length feature film. Also notably, he was one of the first celebrities to use his endorsement to advertise a product --in his case, grape juice and dress suits. To honor this prolific man, let’s take a look at the life and times of Jack London.
Who’s Your Daddy?
Jack London never was certain of who his actual father was, although most biographers believe his dad was astrologer William Chaney. His mother, Flora Wellman, claimed that Chaney insisted she have an abortion and that when she refused, he refused all responsibility for the child and left the city. Flora shot herself as a result of her overwhelming depression. Although she survived, she was temporarily deranged, and after Jack was born, she gave him to an ex-slave named Virginia Prentiss. After Flora married a Civil War veteran named John London, baby Jack was given back to the her, but Virginia remained a strong maternal figure to Jack throughout his life.
When Jack was 21, he searched for newspaper reports of his mother’s attempted suicide and was able to research the name of his supposed biological father. He wrote to William Chaney, but William claimed he couldn’t be Jack’s father because he was impotent. He claimed Flora slept around and that she had slandered him when she said he told her to get an abortion. Needless to say, Jack was devastated.
Education Versus Working Life
Jack grew up very working class and was forced to educate himself in the public library, as he could not afford to attend primary school. He was mentored by Oakland public librarian Ina Coolbrith who became California’s first poet laureate later on. Jack referred to Coolbrith as his “literary mother.” At only 13, Jack started working at Hickmott’s Cannery clocking in for anywhere between 12 and 18 hours per day.
In an effort to get out of this difficult life, he borrowed money from his foster mother and bought a boat. He then started working as an oyster poacher. Within only a few months, his boat was damaged beyond repair and he soon started working for the California Fish Patrol to hunt down fish poachers. A few years later, Jack started protesting and fighting for labor unions in Kelly’s Army. He was known for giving stump speeches on Socialism to eager-eared workers. Soon enough, he spent 30 days in jail in Buffalo on vagrancy charges. The experience disturbed him seriously and he later wrote about it:
"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."
He returned to California where he finally started school at Oakland High. It was here, in the school magazine, that he was first published. His first story was Typhoon off the Coast of Japan, a recount of his experiences as a sailor. While attending classes, he was inspired to become a writer when he read the book Signa by Ouida, which told the story of an unschooled Italian peasant who became a famous opera composer. He credited this book as being the seed of his writing career. After high school, Jack eventually was able to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Unfortunately, the depression he began to experience after recently hearing from his father, paired with crushing financial circumstances, forced him to leave school only a year later.
Inspiration For "Bucks"
Most people know that Jack London was part of the Klondike Gold Rush, as this was the setting for his most popular story, Call of the Wild. Not everyone knows that the main character in the story, a dog named Buck, was based on a dog that Jack’s landlords had lent to him while he stayed in Dawson. While in the north, he developed a number of health problems, including scurvy, which eventually led to the loss of his four front teeth. The many hardships he faced during this period later served as inspiration for what is often called his greatest short story, To Build A Fire.
Breaking Into The Business
When Jack left the Klondike, he wanted to escape the difficulties of working class life and he realized his ticket out was his writing. Jack's first work printed by a major publisher, To the Man On Trial, ended up almost causing him to quit as soon as he started because the publisher was so slow to pay and the pay itself was so low. His second published story actually ended up being his first paid assignment, as they actually came through with payment on time. Luckily, that second story’s payment gave him the motivation he needed to continue writing, he entered his field at just the right time, as magazine production (and subsequently, the market for short fiction stories) was skyrocketing due to new technologies that allowed for lower production costs. Among the first stories he sold were Batard and Diable, which were two very similar stories about a French Canadian man who brutalized his dog, who then kills the man out of revenge. Those familiar with The Call of the Wild will recognize these plot lines as being fairly similar to the novel.
Eugenics Versus Love
Jack’s first marriage was to a friend Bessie Maddern. The couple never actually had a romantic relationship together --even after their marriage. They agreed to be married because they believed they would be able to produce strong and healthy children. While they had a loveless marriage, things remained exceptionally cordial before the children came along; Bessie edited Jack’s manuscripts and helped him improve his writing. After they had children though, the relationship became strained. Jack complained that “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." Not surprisingly, the couple’s relationship ended in divorce.
Jack’s next marriage was notably more successful, largely because it was based on love and not good genes. While his nickname for Bessie was “Mother-Girl,” his nickname for his new wife, Charmian Kittredge (pictured at right), was “Mate Woman.” With Charmian, Jack found more than a friend, he found a soul mate and a lover. She had been raised without prudishness and was very open to any and all of Jack’s lustful fantasies --this certainly helped keep Jack interested, as he was known for being a bit of a womanizer at the time.
The Making of a Historic Park
Speaking of his true loves, Jack was enamored with the ranch he bought in Sonoma County in 1905, saying, “next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me." Jack wanted his ranch to become its own money making enterprise and dedicated a lot of his time to growing and improving the farm. It wasn’t long before he started writing only to support his farm. His daughter, Joan, noted that after 1910, "few reviewers bothered any more to criticize his work seriously, for it was obvious that Jack was no longer exerting himself." While the ranch ended up being a failure, Jack was largely ahead of his time and would likely have thrived in today’s eco-friendly world. He was one of the first U.S. farmers to practice the concept of sustainable agriculture and designed the first concrete silo built in California. His home was designed and constructed by the finest Italian and Chinese stonemasons. Unfortunately, just before the mansion was completed, it was destroyed by fire. Nowadays, his ranch is a National Historic Landmark and part of the Jack London State Historic Park.
A Rip Off Artist?
Many people, both past and present, have claimed London plagiarized much of his work. To some extent, the accusations were fair. When accused of basing The Call of the Wild on Egerton R. Young’s My Dogs in the Northland, Jack admitted that it was a "source" and he said he wrote a letter to the author thanking him for the inspiration. Jack even bought plots and novels from Sinclair Lewis and used them as his own.
The most damning case against him involved a chapter in his book The Iron Heel. Jack claimed that he based this chapter on a speech by the Bishop of London that he clipped from an American newspaper that he didn’t realize was actually an excerpt from an ironic essay by Frank Harris called “The Bishop of London and Public Morality." Harris was angered by this use of his essay and he argued that he should receive 1/60th of all royalties for the book. On the other hand, some of the plagiarism accusations against Jack were merely a result of his using newspaper stories to inspire his plots.
A 1901 newspaper article criticized how similar his “Moon-Face” story was to Frank Norris’ “The Passing of Cock-eye Blacklock.” London defended himself by proving that both stories were inspired by the same newspaper story. Soon, there was even a third similar story discovered to have been written about the same article. This one was published a year earlier. When criticized for writing a story directly from a non-fiction article by Augustus Biddle and J. K Macdonald, London argued that it was fair game, saying, "I, in the course of making my living by turning journalism into literature, used material from various sources which had been collected and narrated by men who made their living by turning the facts of life into journalism."
A Contradictory Nature
Like most of us, Jack London was an extremely complex individual. As a result, many of his views seemed contradictory, even hypocritical. He was a life-long socialist, but was devoted to monetary pursuits. While he always looked to his black foster mother as a role model and worried about the white man destroying indigenous cultures, he also bought into Social Darwinism and eugenics. While he was a self-proclaimed alcoholic, he supported prohibition.
Death and Conspiracies
Jack died in 1916 of uremia. The kidney stones and dysentery he was suffering from at the time were extremely painful, so he was taking morphine, which may have contributed to his death. Because he wrote so many stories about people who killed themselves though, many people mistook his death for a suicide. A decade later, a writer known as B. Traven started to become known as “the German Jack London.” This author kept his identity secret his entire life, which led to some people speculating that Jack actually was B. Traven. Some supporters of the theory claim that Jack faked his own death only to reappear as the German later on. Funny enough, Traven’s own widow revealed his identity after his death, but some conspiracy nuts still claim he was actually Jack London, while others claim he was actually Ambrose Bierce.