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Jack London


Date Born: 1/12/1876
Place of Birth: San Francisco, CA United States

Date Died: 11/22/0
Place of Death: Glen Ellen, CA United States

Jack London, probably born John Griffith Chaney, was a pioneer in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction, and was one of the first Americans to attain financial success from writing.

London was born near Third and Brannan Streets in San Francisco. London was essentially self-educated. A pivotal event was his discovery in 1886 of the Oakland Public Library and a sympathetic librarian, Ina Coolbrith (who later became California's first poet laureate and an important figure in the San Francisco literary community).

In 1893, he signed on to the sealing schooner Sophia 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 gruelling jobs in a jute mill and a street-railway power plant, he joined Kelly's industrial army and began his career as a tramp. In 1894, he spent thirty days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary at Buffalo. 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 'unthinkable'. 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, sailor, and member of Kelly's Army he returned to Oakland and attended Oakland High School, where 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.

On July 25, 1897, London and his brother-in-law, James Shepard, sailed to join the Klondike Gold Rush where he would later set his first successful stories. London's time in the Klondike, however, was quite detrimental to his health. Like so many others malnourished while involved in the Klondike Gold Rush, he developed scurvy. His gums became swollen, eventually leading to the loss of his four front teeth. A constant gnawing pain affected his abdomen and leg muscles, and his face was stricken with sores. Fortunately for him and others who were suffering with a variety of medical ills, a Father William Judge, "The Saint of Dawson", had a facility in Dawson which provided shelter, food and any available medicine. London's health recovered and his life was perhaps saved by the Jesuit priest. London's hardships of the Klondike inspired what is often called his best short story, To Build a Fire.

Jack London was fortunate in the timing of his writing career. He started just as new printing technologies enabled lower-cost production of magazines. This resulted in a boom in popular magazines aimed at a wide public, and a strong market for short fiction. In 1900, he made $2,500 in writing, the equivalent of about $75,000 today. His career was well under way.

In 1910 Jack London purchased a ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California for $26,000. He wrote that "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." After 1910, his literary works were mostly potboilers, written out of the need to provide operating income for the ranch. Joan London writes "Few reviewers bothered any more to criticize his work seriously, for it was obvious that Jack was no longer exerting himself."

London died on November 22, 1916. Jack London's ashes are buried, together with those of his wife Charmian, in Jack London State Historic Park, in Glen Ellen, California. 

Books by Jack London on Riapress.com

South Sea Tales

By: Jack London

Stories of cultures colliding in the South Pacific, by the author best known for Klondike short stories and larger-than-life personal history.

download or read online

The Cruise of the Snark

By: Jack London

London's memoir of cruising the South Pacific with his beloved wife.

download or read online

Related Books on Riapress.com

The Ebb-Tide

By: Robert Louis Steveson

download or read online

Author Web Sites of Interest

 Websites of interest:
Jack London Online Collection: london.sonoma.edu
The Spirit of the Snark:  jacklondonsnark.com
London on the 1906 earthquake: californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/jack_gallery.html
London’s magazine articles: carl-bell-2.baylor.edu/~bellc/JL/
The World of Jack London: jacklondons.net
Huntington Library’s London collection: huntington.org/LibraryDiv/JackLondon.html

Author Bibliography

Books about Jack London:
Russ Kingman, A Pictorial Life of Jack London. 1979.
Charmian London, The Book of Jack London. 1979.
Joan London, Jack London and His Times. 1939.
Clarice Stasz, American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London. 1988.
Irving Stone, Sailor on Horseback: The Biography of Jack London. 1938.
Franklin Walker, Jack London and the Klondike. 1966.