On January 12, 1876, John Griffith Chaney was born near Third and Brannan Streets in San Francisco, California. Better known as Jack London, he was an American novelist, journalist, and social activist. A pioneer in the world of commercial magazine fiction, he was one of the first writers to become a worldwide celebrity and earn a large fortune from writing. He was also an innovator in the genre that would later become known as science fiction.
His most famous works include The Call of the Wild and White Fang, both set in the Klondike Gold Rush, as well as the short stories “To Build a Fire”, “An Odyssey of the North”, and “Love of Life”. He also wrote about the South Pacific in stories such as “The Pearls of Parlay” and “The Heathen”, and of the San Francisco Bay area in The Sea Wolf.
London was part of the radical literary group “The Crowd” in San Francisco and a passionate advocate of unionization, socialism, and the rights of workers. He wrote several powerful works dealing with these topics, such as his dystopian novel The Iron Heel, his non-fiction exposé The People of the Abyss, and The War of the Classes.
The house London was born in burned down in the fire after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; the California Historical Society placed a plaque at the site in 1953. Although the family was working class, it was not as impoverished as London’s later accounts claimed. London was largely self-educated.
In 1885, London found and read Ouida’s long Victorian novel Signa. He credited this as the seed of his literary success. In 1886, he went to the Oakland Public Library and found a sympathetic librarian, Ina Coolbrith, who encouraged his learning. She later became California’s first poet laureate and an important figure in the San Francisco literary community.
In 1889, London began working 12 to 18 hours a day at Hickmott’s Cannery. Seeking a way out, he borrowed money from his foster mother Virginia Prentiss, bought the sloop Razzle-Dazzle from an oyster pirate named French Frank, and became an oyster pirate himself. In his memoir, John Barleycorn, he claims also to have stolen French Frank’s mistress Mamie. After a few months, his sloop became damaged beyond repair. London hired on as a member of the California Fish Patrol.
In 1893, he signed on to the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland, bound for the coast of Japan. When he returned, the country was in the grip of the panic of ’93 and Oakland was swept by labor unrest. After grueling jobs in a jute mill and a street-railway power plant, London joined Coxey’s Army and began his career as a tramp. In 1894, he spent 30 days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary at Buffalo, New York. In The Road, he wrote:
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.
After many experiences as a hobo and a sailor, he returned to Oakland and attended Oakland High School. He contributed a number of articles to the high school’s magazine, The Aegis. His first published work was “Typhoon off the Coast of Japan”, an account of his sailing experiences.
As a schoolboy, London often studied at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a port-side bar in Oakland. At 17, he confessed to the bar’s owner, John Heinold, his desire to attend university and pursue a career as a writer. Heinold lent London tuition money to attend college. London desperately wanted to attend the University of California, Berkeley. In 1896, after a summer of intense studying to pass certification exams, he was admitted. Financial circumstances forced him to leave in 1897 and he never graduated. No evidence suggests that London wrote for student publications while studying at Berkeley.
While at Berkeley, London continued to study and spend time at Heinold’s saloon, where he was introduced to the sailors and adventurers who would influence his writing. In his autobiographical novel, John Barleycorn, London mentioned the pub’s likeness seventeen times. Heinold’s was the place where London met Alexander McLean, a captain known for his cruelty at sea. London based his protagonist Wolf Larsen, in the novel The Sea-Wolf, on McLean.
On July 12, 1897, London (age 21) and his sister’s husband Captain Shepard sailed to join the Klondike Gold Rush. This was the setting for some of his first successful stories. London’s time in the harsh Klondike, however, was detrimental to his health. Like so many other men who were malnourished in the goldfields, London developed scurvy. His gums became swollen, leading to the loss of his four front teeth. A constant gnawing pain affected his hip and leg muscles, and his face was stricken with marks that always reminded him of the struggles he faced in the Klondike. Father William Judge, “The Saint of Dawson”, had a facility in Dawson that provided shelter, food and any available medicine to London and others. His struggles there inspired London’s short story, “To Build a Fire” (1902, revised in 1908), which many critics assess as his best.
His landlords in Dawson were mining engineers Marshall Latham Bond and Louis Whitford Bond, educated at Yale and Stanford, respectively. The brothers’ father, Judge Hiram Bond, was a wealthy mining investor. The Bonds, especially Hiram, were active Republicans. Marshall Bond’s diary mentions friendly sparring with London on political issues as a camp pastime.
London left Oakland with a social conscience and socialist leanings; he returned to become an activist for socialism. He concluded that his only hope of escaping the work “trap” was to get an education and “sell his brains”. He saw his writing as a business, his ticket out of poverty, and, he hoped, a means of beating the wealthy at their own game. On returning to California in 1898, London began working to get published, a struggle described in his novel, Martin Eden (serialized in 1908, published in 1909). His first published story since high school was “To the Man On Trail”, which has frequently been collected in anthologies. When The Overland Monthly offered him only five dollars for it — and was slow paying — London came close to abandoning his writing career. In his words, “literally and literarily I was saved” when The Black Cat accepted his story “A Thousand Deaths”, and paid him $40 — the “first money I ever received for a story”.
London began his writing career just as new printing technologies enabled lower-cost production of magazines. This resulted in a boom in popular magazines aimed at a wide public audience and a strong market for short fiction. In 1900, he made $2,500 in writing, about $75,000 in today’s currency. Among the works he sold to magazines was a short story known as either “Diable” (1902) or “Bâtard” (1904), two editions of the same basic story; London received $141.25 for this story on May 27, 1902. In the text, a cruel French Canadian brutalizes his dog, and the dog retaliates and kills the man. London told some of his critics that man’s actions are the main cause of the behavior of their animals, and he would show this in another story, The Call of the Wild.
In early 1903, London sold The Call of the Wild to The Saturday Evening Post for $750, and the book rights to Macmillan for $2,000. Macmillan’s promotional campaign propelled it to swift success.
While living at his rented villa on Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, London met poet George Sterling; in time they became best friends. In 1902, Sterling helped London find a home closer to his own in nearby Piedmont. In his letters London addressed Sterling as “Greek”, owing to Sterling’s aquiline nose and classical profile, and he signed them as “Wolf”. London was later to depict Sterling as Russ Brissenden in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1910) and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913).
London accepted an assignment of the San Francisco Examiner to cover the Russo-Japanese War in early 1904, arriving in Yokohama on January 25, 1904. He was arrested by Japanese authorities in Shimonoseki, but released through the intervention of American ambassador Lloyd Griscom. After travelling to Korea, he was again arrested by Japanese authorities for straying too close to the border with Manchuria without official permission, and was sent back to Seoul. Released again, London was permitted to travel with the Imperial Japanese Army to the border, and to observe the Battle of the Yalu.
London asked William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the San Francisco Examiner, to be allowed to transfer to the Imperial Russian Army, where he felt that restrictions on his reporting and his movements would be less severe. However, before this could be arranged, he was arrested for a third time in four months, this time for assaulting his Japanese assistants, whom he accused of stealing the fodder for his horse. Released through the personal intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt, London departed the front in June 1904.
In 1905, London purchased a 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California, on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain, for $26,450. He wrote: “Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.” He desperately wanted the ranch to become a successful business enterprise. Writing, always a commercial enterprise with London, now became even more a means to an end: “I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.”
Stasz writes that London “had taken fully to heart the vision, expressed in his agrarian fiction, of the land as the closest earthly version of Eden … he educated himself through the study of agricultural manuals and scientific tomes. He conceived of a system of ranching that today would be praised for its ecological wisdom.” He was proud to own the first concrete silo in California, a circular piggery that he designed. He hoped to adapt the wisdom of Asian sustainable agriculture to the United States. He hired both Italian and Chinese stonemasons, whose distinctly different styles are obvious.
London spent $80,000 ($2,230,000 in current value) to build a 15,000-square-foot (1,400 m²) stone mansion called Wolf House on the property. Just as the mansion was nearing completion, two weeks before the Londons planned to move in, it was destroyed by fire. The ranch (abutting stone remnants of Wolf House) is now a National Historic Landmark and is protected in Jack London State Historic Park.
In 1906, London published his eye-witness report of the San Francisco earthquake in Collier’s magazine. In later life, London indulged his wide-ranging interests by accumulating a personal library of 15,000 volumes. He referred to his books as “the tools of my trade”.
London witnessed animal cruelty in the training of circus animals, and his subsequent novels Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry included a foreword entreating the public to become more informed about this practice. In 1918, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Humane Education Society teamed up to create the Jack London Club, which sought to inform the public about cruelty to circus animals and encourage them to protest this establishment. Support from Club members led to a temporary cessation of trained animal acts at Ringling-Barnum and Bailey in 1925.
London’s last visit to Hawaii, beginning in December 1915, lasted eight months. He met with Duke Kahanamoku, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole, Queen Lili’uokalani and many others, before returning to his ranch in July 1916. He was suffering from kidney failure, but he continued to work.
London died November 22, 1916, in a sleeping porch in a cottage on his ranch. London had been a robust man but had suffered several serious illnesses, including scurvy in the Klondike. Additionally, during travels on the Snark, he and Charmian picked up unspecified tropical infections, and diseases, including yaws. At the time of his death, he suffered from dysentery, late-stage alcoholism, and uremia; he was in extreme pain and taking morphine.
London’s ashes were buried on his property not far from the Wolf House. London’s funeral took place on November 26, 1916, attended only by close friends, relatives, and workers of the property. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated and buried next to some pioneer children, under a rock that belonged to the Wolf House. After Charmian’s death in 1955, she was also cremated and then buried with her husband in the same simple spot that her husband chose. The grave is marked by a mossy boulder. The buildings and property were later preserved as Jack London State Historic Park, in Glen Ellen, California.
Western writer and historian Dale L. Walker writes:
London’s true métier was the short story … London’s true genius lay in the short form, 7,500 words and under, where the flood of images in his teeming brain and the innate power of his narrative gift were at once constrained and freed. His stories that run longer than the magic 7,500 generally — but certainly not always — could have benefited from self-editing.
London’s “strength of utterance” is at its height in his stories, and they are painstakingly well-constructed. “To Build a Fire” is the best known of all his stories. Set in the harsh Klondike, it recounts the haphazard trek of a new arrival who has ignored an old-timer’s warning about the risks of traveling alone. Falling through the ice into a creek in seventy-five-below weather, the unnamed man is keenly aware that survival depends on his untested skills at quickly building a fire to dry his clothes and warm his extremities. After publishing a tame version of this story — with a sunny outcome — in The Youth’s Companion in 1902, London offered a second, more severe take on the man’s predicament in The Century Magazine in 1908. Reading both provides an illustration of London’s growth and maturation as a writer. As Labor (1994) observes: “To compare the two versions is itself an instructive lesson in what distinguished a great work of literary art from a good children’s story.”
Other stories from the Klondike period include: “All Gold Canyon”, about a battle between a gold prospector and a claim jumper; “The Law of Life”, about an aging American Indian man abandoned by his tribe and left to die; “Love of Life”, about a trek by a prospector across the Canadian tundra; “To the Man on Trail,” which tells the story of a prospector fleeing the Mounted Police in a sled race, and raises the question of the contrast between written law and morality; and “An Odyssey of the North,” which raises questions of conditional morality, and paints a sympathetic portrait of a man of mixed White and Aleut ancestry.
London was a boxing fan and an avid amateur boxer. “A Piece of Steak” is a tale about a match between older and younger boxers. It contrasts the differing experiences of youth and age but also raises the social question of the treatment of aging workers. “The Mexican” combines boxing with a social theme, as a young Mexican endures an unfair fight and ethnic prejudice in order to earn money with which to aid the revolution.
Several of London’s stories would today be classified as science fiction. “The Unparalleled Invasion” describes germ warfare against China; “Goliath” is about an irresistible energy weapon; “The Shadow and the Flash” is a tale about two brothers who take different routes to achieving invisibility; “A Relic of the Pliocene” is a tall tale about an encounter of a modern-day man with a mammoth. “The Red One” is a late story from a period when London was intrigued by the theories of the psychiatrist and writer Jung. It tells of an island tribe held in thrall by an extraterrestrial object.
Some nineteen original collections of short stories were published during London’s brief life or shortly after his death. There have been several posthumous anthologies drawn from this pool of stories. Many of these stories were located in the Klondike and the Pacific. A collection of Jack London’s San Francisco Stories was published in October 2010 by Sydney Samizdat Press.
London’s most famous novels are The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, The Iron Heel, and Martin Eden. In a letter dated December 27, 1901, London’s Macmillan publisher George Platt Brett, Sr., said “he believed Jack’s fiction represented ‘the very best kind of work’ done in America.” Critic Maxwell Geismar called The Call of the Wild “a beautiful prose poem”; editor Franklin Walker said that it “belongs on a shelf with Walden and Huckleberry Finn“; and novelist E.L. Doctorow called it “a mordant parable … his masterpiece.”
The historian Dale L. Walker commented:
Jack London was an uncomfortable novelist, that form too long for his natural impatience and the quickness of his mind. His novels, even the best of them, are hugely flawed.
Some critics have said that his novels are episodic and resemble linked short stories. Dale L. Walker writes:
The Star Rover, that magnificent experiment, is actually a series of short stories connected by a unifying device … Smoke Bellew is a series of stories bound together in a novel-like form by their reappearing protagonist, Kit Bellew; and John Barleycorn … is a synoptic series of short episodes.
Ambrose Bierce said of The Sea-Wolf that “the great thing — and it is among the greatest of things —is that tremendous creation, Wolf Larsen … the hewing out and setting up of such a figure is enough for a man to do in one lifetime.” However, he noted, “The love element, with its absurd suppressions, and impossible proprieties, is awful.”
The Iron Heel is interesting as an example of a dystopian novel that anticipates and influenced George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. London’s socialist politics are explicitly on display here. The Iron Heel meets the contemporary definition of soft science fiction. The Star Rover (1915) is also science fiction.
On January 11, 1988, in Glen Ellen, California, the United States Postal Service released a single 25-cent blue stamp in its Great American series bearing a portrait of Jack London (Scott #2182). This was printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, engraved through the intaglio process in sheets of 100 and perforated 11 in a quantity of 50,850,000. The stamp was designed by Jim Sharpe of Norwalk, Connecticut as the 27th issue in the Great American Series.
On May 3, 1988, the stamp was reissued in booklets, perforated 10, with the first sales conducted in San Francisco, California (Scott #2197). Adaptation to booklet format required the use of two new printing sleeves (one for six-stamp panes and one for 10-stamp panes). As a result, stamps in the $1.50 and $3 booklets are slightly larger overall than those in the $5 booklet. Stamps in both booklet pane formats are a slightly different size than those produced in sheet format. The printed stamp images are identical in all cases, however. The three booklet cover designs are similar, but variations do exist in color, references to booklet value, and number of stamps included. There were 48,675,900 copies of this stamp printed.
The Great Americans definitive series, a set of stamps with sixty-three designs, issued between 1980 and 1999, comprises the largest set of face different ordinary stamps issued through the beginning of the twenty-first century. Sixty-two of the stamps honor individuals and one honors a couple, Lila and DeWitt Wallace. The general public, and even many collectors, had no knowledge of most of the individuals portrayed. Many subjects appear to have been selected to satisfy various political agendas with no apparent unifying theme.
The Great Americans are characterized by their standard definitive size, simple design lines, and monochromatic colors. They offer more complicated varieties than typically found in previous definitive series. The defining characteraistics of these varieties are attributed to the numerous printing presses, perforation processes and machines, paper, phosphorescent tagging, and gum utilized by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the several private contract security printers used to produce stamps of the series.
The Great Americans Series premiered on December 27, 1980, with the issuance of the 19-cent Sequoyah stamp, fulfilling the need for a stamp to pay the international postcard rate effective January 1, 1981. All the designs were produced as sheet stamps. Only the 25-cent Jack London design was produced additionally in booklet format. In 1987, the 5-dollar Bret Harte stamp became the first definitive stamp issued in miniature sheet format, panes of twenty stamps. A major plate variety on the 1-dollar Johns Hopkins stamp was discovered in July 1990. The variety manifests itself as a large spot on the subject’s shirt just below his bow tie.
Lost revenue prompted the Postal Service to produce untagged low value stamps in January, 1991. The 4-cent Father Flanagan, printed by the Bureau, was the first to appear intentionally without tagging. The Bureau also experimented with phosphor coated paper. The 15-cent Cody was the only Great Americans stamp printed on this paper. In 1995, the Bureau added a second ink supplier, which created new shades on some stamps. After 1991, contract suppliers produced twelve of the Great Americans, the first being the 35-cent Chavez issued April 3, 1991. It became apparent that private contractors could produce stamps at lower costs than the Bureau. Private contractors printed ten of the last eleven Great Americans to be issued.