American author and advocate of socialism Jack London (1876-1916) wrote popular adventure stories and social tracts based on unusual personal experiences. At their best, his works are powerful and moving narratives.
Jack London, in full John Griffith London, was born in San Francisco, the illegitimate son of a wandering astrologer and a spiritualist. At the age of 14 he quit school to seek adventure. As a sailor, he pirated San Francisco Bay oyster beds; then, aboard a sealing ship, he cruised to Japan. Later, as a tramp, he saw much of the United States and the interior of a Niagara Falls jail. He completed his high school education in a year and went to the University of California for a semester. He traveled to the Klondike with the gold prospectors and, returning to California, launched his writing career.
London won national acclaim for his short stories about the brutal and vigorous life of the Yukon, published in magazines and then in a book, The Son of the Wolf (1900). Other writings in the same genre followed; the best known is The Call of the Wild (1903), which describes how an Alaska dog leaves civilization to join a wolf pack. The Sea-Wolf (1904), in addition to portraying the predatory sea captain Wolf Larson, tells of the conversion of a civilized man to an elemental way of living. The stress upon the primitive survival of the fittest in both books stemmed from the author's belief in many of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. White Fang (1906), The Strength of the Strong (1911), Smoke Bellew (1912), and The Abysmal Brute (1913), as well as several volumes of tales set in the South Seas, developed similar themes.
London was also influenced by the socialistic theories of Karl Marx. Often London's writings attacked social abuses and advocated Marxist beliefs. An early book, The People of the Abyss (1903), described slum conditions in London. Other books included The War of the Classes (1905), The Iron Heel (1907), and The Human Drift (1917). The second of these prophesied a fascistic revolution, which eventually would be followed by egalitarianism. The Valley of the Moon (1913) showed how a return to the land might solve social and economic problems.
Two of London's best books are semiautobiographical—Martin Eden (1909) and John Barleycorn (1913). The former recounts his struggles as a writer; the latter tells about his long-lasting fight against alcoholism. The over all pattern of London's life was tragic—youthful poverty, two unsuccessful marriages, disillusionment, in time, with the Socialist party, and finally despair and (almost certainly) suicide.
Further Reading on Jack London
Popular biographies of London are Irving Stone, Jack London: Sailor on Horseback (1938); Richard O'Connor, Jack London (1964); and Franklin D. Walker, Jack London and the Klondike: The Genesis of an American Writer (1966). Philip S. Foner, Jack London: American Rebel (1947; rev. ed. 1964), is chiefly concerned with London's themes. Joan London, the author's daughter, wrote Jack London and His Times: An Unconventional Biography (1939), which contains letters and journals that the other biographies do not have. Hensely C. Woodbridge, John London, and George H. Tweney compiled Jack London: A Bibliography (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Sinclair, Andrew, Jack: a biography of Jack London, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
Stasz, Clarice., American dreamers: Charmian and Jack London, New York: Paragon House, 1991.
Barltrop, Robert, Jack London: the man, the writer, the rebel, London: Pluto Press; New York: available from Urizen Books, 1976.
Hedrick, Joan D., Solitary comrade, Jack London and his work, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.