This Day In Writing History
On January 12th, 1876, the legendary American writer Jack London was born. He was presumably born John Chaney in San Francisco, but his record of birth was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. His mother, Flora Wellman, a music teacher and spiritualist, had become pregnant by her boyfriend, astrologer William Chaney. Chaney demanded that she have an abortion; when she refused, he refused to accept responsibility for the child.
In desperation, Flora Wellman attempted suicide by shooting herself. She wasn't seriously injured, but had become mentally ill, so her friend, ex-slave Virginia Prentiss, took care of the baby while she recovered. Virginia would remain a strong maternal figure throughout Jack London's life. After his mother recovered, she met and later married John London, a disabled Civil War veteran. The baby, named John but called Jack, came to live with them.
The Londons moved around the San Francisco Bay Area before settling in Oakland. Jack London began his schooling. In 1886, at the age of 10, he discovered the Oakland Public Library and became a voracious reader, his love of literature nurtured by the librarian, poet Ina Coolbrith, who later became the state's first poet laureate.
In 1897, when he was 21 years old and a student at the University of California, Berkeley, London read an old newspaper account of his mother's attempted suicide. Learning the name of his biological father, William Chaney, London wrote to him. Chaney wrote back, telling him that he wasn't his father, and that his mother was a whore who had slandered him, ruining his good name. London was devastated.
Long before he had attended Berkeley, Jack London started working at the age of 13. He toiled from 12 to 18 hours a day for slave wages. Seeking a way out of this grueling labor, London borrowed money from his black foster mother and bought a boat from an oyster pirate named French Frank. He became an oyster pirate himself for a few months, but then his boat was damaged beyond repair. So, he gave up piracy and switched sides, joining the California Fish Patrol.
From there, London signed up to work on a sealing schooner bound for Japan. When he returned to the U.S., he found his country in the grip of the Panic of '93, a precursor to the Great Depression. Labor unrest had swept through his hometown of Oakland. After suffering through more grueling, low-paying jobs, London joined the famous Kelly's Army protest march of unemployed workers and became a tramp. These experiences would result in London becoming a lifelong socialist.
After living as a hobo for a while, Jack London decided that he would have to use his brains to escape poverty. So, he completed high school and went on to the University of Berkeley. Financial difficulties forced him to leave university in 1897, so he never graduated. He set sail for Alaska with his brother-in-law, James Shepard, hoping to strike it rich in the Yukon Gold Rush. Instead, like most would-be prospectors, he fell ill from exposure to the harsh Alaskan climate. He suffered from malnutrition and a bad case of scurvy. He soon found himself living in a shelter and medical facility for the poor. London would later base one of his greatest short stories, To Build A Fire, (1908) on these struggles.
When he returned to California in 1898, Jack London determined to become a writer. His first published short story, To The Man On Trial, appeared in The Overland Monthly that year. The magazine paid him $5 for the story, but was slow in sending him a check. Just as he was about to give up on being a writer, The Black Cat accepted another of his stories, A Thousand Deaths, (1899) and paid him $40 for it.
London had begun his literary career at the right time; new printing technology had just been introduced that enabled high quality magazines to be produced quickly at low cost. This resulted in a boom of literary magazines that catered to a wide variety of genres and tastes and a strong market for short fiction and serialized novels. London's writings continued to sell and sell well. By 1900, he was making $2,500 a year - the equivalent of $51,000 in today's money.
That year, London married his first wife, Bess Maddern. She had been an old and close friend of his. They both knew (and publicly acknowledged) that they didn't really love each other, but they liked each other enough that they figured they could make a successful marriage. Bess bore Jack two daughters, Joan and Bessie, who was called Becky. After the birth of their second daughter, their marriage soured. Bess wanted no more children, and she believed that sex without the express purpose of procreation was immoral, so she wouldn't let her husband touch her. Frustration led London to frequent brothels. Bess finally agreed to a divorce, and they parted amicably.
A year later, Jack London married his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. She had been his publisher's secretary. In Charmian, Jack found a soul mate. Despite her prim and dignified exterior, Charmian was a libertine who enjoyed sex. She also possessed an intellect equal to her husband's. She had been raised by an aunt who was a libertine, a feminist, and a disciple of the famous suffragist Victoria Woodhull. Jack and Charmian tried to have children together, but their first child died at birth and a second pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage.
In 1903, Jack London's most famous novel, The Call Of The Wild, was published, first in a serialization by the Saturday Evening Post. They asked London to set his price, and he received a payment of $750. Later, Macmillan bought the book rights. London chose to take a lump sum payment of $2000 instead of royalties, not realizing that his novel would become a classic, selling millions of copies. He had no regrets, because Macmillan's extensive promotional campaign made his name as a writer and helped him sell more novels.
The Call Of The Wild told the story of Buck, a domesticated dog living in the rough and frigid Yukon during the Gold Rush who finds himself forced into service as a sled dog. Buck's experiences cause him to revert to his primordial instincts. Although considered a children's novel because its main character is a dog, The Call Of The Wild is actually a dark tale with many scenes of cruelty and violence.
Jack London would publish more classic novels, including The Sea-Wolf (1904) and White Fang (1906). In The Sea-Wolf, pampered, rich intellectual Humphrey Van Weyden is on board a San Francisco ferry which collides with another ship in the fog and sinks. Adrift in the sea, Van Weyden is rescued by Wolf Larsen, the captain of a sealing schooner. The misanthropic Larsen is no hero; he rules his crew with an iron fist and promptly shanghais Van Weyden, forcing him to work as cabin boy. The formerly pampered rich man must toughen up fast in order to do his work and protect himself from the brutal crew. When the crew attempts a mutiny, Wolf Larsen fights them off, then tortures them in retribution.
White Fang tells the story of the title character, a wolf-dog hybrid who is adopted by an Indian tribe in the Yukon. The pack of dogs that live with the tribe see White Fang as a wolf and attack him. The Indians save him, but the dogs still persecute him relentlessly. The morose and solitary White Fang grows up to be a savage and deadly fighter. The Indians sell him for a bottle of whiskey to Beauty Smith, a white prospector who runs a dog-fighting operation. The savage White Fang goes undefeated until one opponent, a ferocious bulldog, nearly tears him apart. Left to die, he is rescued by Weedon Scott, a wealthy young prospector. After nursing White Fang back to health, Scott manages to tame the formerly vicious wolf-dog.
In 1905, Jack London bought a 1,000 acre ranch in Glen Ellen, California, on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain. He loved the ranch, and over the next decade, he invested his writing income (after 1910, he mostly wrote potboilers strictly for money) into making it successful, but it turned out to be a huge failure. By 1916, he began suffering from both kidney failure and dysentery. He continued to work, both on his writing and on the ranch, even as his health deteriorated. On November 22nd, 1916, Jack London died at the age of 40. Although uremia was listed as the official cause of death, London was taking large doses of morphine to relieve the extreme pain he was in, and most believe that he really died from an accidental or intentional overdose of morphine.
Throughout his remarkable career, Jack London wrote numerous novels and short stories. He also published several works of non-fiction, including two memoirs: The Road (1907), about his life as a tramp, and John Barleycorn (1913), about his battles with alcoholism. As a lifelong socialist, he wrote political books, including The People Of The Abyss, (1903) - an expose of slum life in London - and Revolution, And Other Essays (1910). He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest American writers of all time.
Quote Of The Day
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” - Jack London
Today's video features a rare 1969 short film adaptation of Jack London's classic short story, To Build A Fire, narrated by Orson Welles. Enjoy!