Jack London was the most successful writer in America in the early 20th century, and his books have been cherished by travelers, environmentalists, and activists for decades. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he was the first American novelist to achieve worldwide celebrity status from his fiction alone. His works surrounded radical topics at the time, including socialism, workers rights, unions, and Darwinism.
Despite London’s accounts of being poor, he actually had a very middle class upbringing. He was born in January of 1876 to his single mother Flora Wellman. Nothing can be confirmed about the identity of London’s real father because his birth documents were one of many that had been destroyed by the fires in California after the big earthquake in 1906. However, it is speculated that his father was Wellman Chaney.
According to Flora Wellman’s written account, as told by the San Francisco Chronicle, Chaney had wanted her to get an abortion while she was pregnant with John, nicknamed Jack. When she refused, he abandoned them both, and she shot herself in desperation. Though she did not kill herself, the gun wound left her temporarily disabled after Jack’s birth, and so she handed him into the care of Virginia Prentiss, an African American woman and former slave, who served as a mother figure for Jack throughout his life.
Within a year after Jack’s birth, Flora married John London, a Civil War veteran with some disabilities. The family of three lived together, moving around the Bay Area quite a bit until finally settling down in Oakland, where Jack London attended public school. After completing grade school, London held a number of odd jobs, including working as an oyster pirate and a jute miller. Tired of the grueling work he had endured, he joined Kelly’s Army, which eventually led him to a 30-day stint in Erie County Penitentiary in Buffalo, NY.
Jack London’s month in jail was the turning point in his life, one that led him to become an author. During his time in the penitentiary, he saw unspeakable horrors, which he never fully disclosed after leaving. In his autobiographical memoir, The Road, he writes:
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 indescribable. 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.
Whatever happened in there, it inspired London to seek out further education. He moved back to Oakland and enrolled in Oakland High School, where he began writing and contributing articles to the school paper, The Aegis. True to his style, all of the stories and articles he contributed were based on his own life experiences. His first published work was titled “Typhoon off the Coast of Japan,” which detailed his experiences as a sailor.
London attended University of California, Berkeley, but was unable to stay until he graduated for financial reasons. He left school in 1897 and sailed with his sister’s husband to join the Klondike Gold Rush, which would become the setting for many of his short stories and published novels later on. Jack London claimed that it was in Klondike that he found himself.
His most famous story set during the Klondike Gold Rush was The Call of the Wild, a novel which falls into the category of animal fiction. London was largely inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which was published only a few years earlier. London anthropomorphized sled dogs, illustrating them with complex feelings and reactions to man and the environment.
The plot for The Call of the Wild begins in Santa Clara, when a young collie is stolen from his home and sold to a series of men involved in the Klondike Gold Rush. He is badly treated and underfed, and when he is let out of his crate for the first time he attacks but is beaten down and taught to respect “the law of the club.”
Throughout the story, the dog becomes a sled dog and witnesses many deaths of other dogs and eventually his masters. He ends up answering “the call of the wild” when he joins a wolf pack and must kill the leader to be respected. London’s main message with this novel was to convey how animals become who they are mainly because of how they are treated by man and how they must survive in the environment men have imposed on.
The Call of the Wild was a huge success, adapted first to film in 1923 and many times afterwards. Children and adults still read and relate to the story today.
Jack London lived a life of adventure. He was a writer, but his other jobs and experiences are what fueled his published works. His life was so extraordinary, his autobiographical work The Road is just as famous and well-read as his best novels. Both The Road and The Call of the Wild are available in their first editions.