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W. W. Jacobs | Biography

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Early Life

W. W. (William Wymark) Jacobs was born in Wapping, England (now part of London) on September 8, 1863. Jacobs's father was a wharf manager on the Thames, the major river running through London. In the 19th century London was one of the busiest ports in the world, and the 10-mile stretch of the Thames that served the naval trade hosted ships from around the world. Jacobs played on these docks, meeting a wide array of characters who would later populate his fiction.

Jacobs's mother died in 1870, leaving her husband with four children. He remarried and had seven more children with his new wife, producing a large family that lived on a limited income. Jacobs attended a private school when he was young, and then he went to Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, later called Birkbeck College, which then became part of the University of London.

When Jacobs was 16, he started working in the Post Office Savings Bank, which was state-run. In 1883 he was promoted to the savings section of the bank, where he worked until 1899.

Jacobs's Writing Career and "The Monkey's Paw"

Not long after he entered the civil service, Jacobs started submitting short written pieces to magazines. He got his big break in 1895 when the popular magazine The Strand published one of his stories. In 1896 he published his first collection, Many Cargoes, and for quite some time, Jacobs published a book almost every year. Many of the stories published in his collections were first published in magazines like The Strand, which helped Jacobs increase his income. By 1899 he was making enough from his writing that he retired from the civil service. At his peak Jacobs was a well-paid writer of short stories.

Many of his early stories fall into two categories, which sometimes overlap: yarns about the world of the sea and docks and humorous pieces. (He also wrote a number of crime stories.) Some critics saw him as an heir to British novelist Charles Dickens (1812–70). He was praised by a diverse group of authors, such as American writer Henry James (1843–1916) and British author G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), and he influenced later writers like British author P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975). His work is classified as being part of the "well-made story" tradition, along with Scottish writer Saki (1870–1916) and English author M. R. James (1862–1936). This tradition is related to that of the "well-made play" that dominated the 19th-century stage. Both emphasized technical skill and tight plotting, leading audiences through well-managed suspense before resolving everything at the end of the work. Jacobs wrote slowly and meticulously, writing only 100 words a day, a pace that allowed him to write a story month. Despite this slow pace he published over 150 stories and several novels. A collection of his work published in 1931 included 17 volumes.

"The Monkey's Paw" stands out from the bulk of Jacobs's earlier work: it is much darker and not directly set around the docks. Jacobs published it in The Strand and then in 1902 in his collection The Lady of the Barge. It was immediately popular and has remained so. The rest of Jacobs's work has often been out of print, but "The Monkey's Paw" has been continually reprinted and has taken on a life of its own. It has been adapted many times and in many ways. It was modified for stage not long after its initial publication (1903). Almost a hundred years later a play version was published for children's theater. It has been adapted in many film or TV versions, from the comic (episodes of The Monkees and The Simpsons) to the serious (an episode of The X-Files). Various musical groups have incorporated the idea into songs, and an opera version was produced in the United States in 2009. Comic books have also reused the idea. Many literary works have adapted the general idea of an object that grants wishes but twists them, and some have commented on the story directly.

Jacobs's Personal Life and Later Years

In 1900 Jacobs married Agnes Eleanor Williams, a former suffragist who fought for women's right to vote. The two had five children (two sons, three daughters). The family lived in London, joined at times by his sister Amy and Agnes's sister Nancy Williams. The couple reportedly argued quite often, clashing in both temperament (Jacobs was quiet and shy, while his wife was jailed for her political activism) and politics (Jacobs was more conservative than his wife).

Jacobs didn't write as much new material after World War I (1914–18), instead dedicating a lot of his energy to adapting his earlier work for the stage. Jacobs died in London on September 1, 1943 at age 79.

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