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Jack London | Biography

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John Griffith Chaney, later known as Jack London, was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California, to Flora Wellman and William Chaney. Chaney, an attorney, journalist, and astrologer, deserted the family in Jack's infancy. Flora married Civil War veteran John London later that year and moved the family to Oakland, California; the baby was given his stepfather's last name. After grade school, London decided to work rather than attend high school. He took a variety of jobs, including shoveling coal and patrolling the sea to catch people fishing illegally. Between jobs, he was often found in the library, devouring the works of influential 19th-century thinkers, such as Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

During his teenage years, London went on a seal-catching voyage to Japan, and his ship weathered a fierce typhoon. When he returned home, his mother suggested he write down one of the exciting stories for an upcoming writing contest. London did so and won first prize. Encouraged by the win, he decided to become a professional writer. However, publishers showed no interest in his early writing. As London endured long periods without work, he developed sympathy for the downtrodden. In 1894 he joined Kelly's Army, a group of workers protesting their unemployment, and became an ardent socialist.

London did not adhere to any one theory of social, economic, or biological systems, yet he was deeply impressed by English philosopher Herbert Spencer's idea of the "survival of the fittest," inspired by Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. In addition to Spencer and Darwin, London accepted 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's belief in "will to power," in which individuals strive for self-perfection, and Karl Marx's support for individuals working in association rather than competition. In his own writings, London linked ideas about evolutionary adaptation to sociopolitical ideas of belonging and community. Thus, London's interest in socialism was a combination of evolutionary and political theories.

In 1897 London joined the Klondike gold rush in the Yukon region of northwest Canada. Although he failed to gain a fortune in gold and suffered from scurvy due to his Vitamin C deficiency, London amassed a wealth of stories to tell. Returning to California in 1898, he wrote a best-selling collection of stories set in the Yukon called The Son of the Wolf (1900). That year, London married teacher Bess Maddern. They had two daughters, but within a few years, their marriage—which had been more for convenience than love—fell apart. A few years later, London married writer Charmian Kittredge, who shared his love for adventure and travel. This marriage offered him emotional redemption, a strong theme running through his works.

In 1903 at age 27, London published The Call of the Wild, a short novel about a domesticated dog that reverts back to his primal wolf nature while being forced to work as a sled dog during the Klondike gold rush. The Call of the Wild, like White Fang, makes use of London's extensive experience in and knowledge of the far North, while also providing an exciting setting for the elemental struggle of survival. At the time London wrote White Fang, published in 1906, he was in terrible pain from injuries, illnesses, and accidents he suffered as part of his adventurous lifestyle of world travel and hard labor. He was prescribed strong pain medications, to which he quickly became addicted.

In his lifetime, London wrote more than 50 works of fiction and nonfiction, hundreds of short stories, and many articles. Many critics lauded London's bold, straightforward writing style, a sharp contrast to the popular style of the day, which was refined and subtle. Others, including President Theodore Roosevelt, criticized London's personification of animals, claiming the stories to be unrealistic. London's other works include The People of the Abyss (1903), a severe criticism of capitalism; The Sea Wolf (1904), a novel featuring a harsh, domineering hero; The Iron Heel (1908), a dystopian novel about a dictatorial government and a proletariat revolution; and John Barleycorn (1913), an autobiographical novel whose protagonist suffers from alcoholism, as London did for most of his life. London died on November 22, 1916, on his California ranch.

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