Jack London, the illegitimate son of wandering astrologer, was born in San Francisco in 1876. He left school at 14 and after working as a sailor he experienced periods of unemployment and poverty. London enjoyed writing and as a teenager won a winning competition held by the San Francisco Morning Call with the short-story, Typhoon off the Coast of Japan.
London had a great love of books and spent most of his spare time in the Oakland Library. His reading included the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. These books converted London to socialism and by February 1896 the local paper was reporting how he was drawing large crowds to hear him in the City Hall Park.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported: "Jack London, who is known as the boy socialist of Oakland, is holding forth nightly to the crowds that throng City Hall Park. There are other speakers in plenty, but London always gets the biggest crowd and the most respectful attention. the young man is a pleasant speaker, more earnest than eloquent, and while he is a broad socialist in every way, he is not an anarchist."
In December 1899 he met the young writer, Anna Strunsky. She later recalled: "Objectively, I confronted a young man of about twenty-two, and saw a pale face illumined by large, blue eyes fringed with dark lashes, and a beautiful mouth which, opening in its ready laugh, revealed an absence of front teeth, adding to the boyishness of his appearance. The brow, the nose, the contour of the cheeks, the massive throat, were Greek. His form gave an impression of grace and athletic strength, though he was a little under the American, or rather Californian, average in height. He was dressed in gray, and was wearing the soft white shirt and collar which he had already adopted."
London spent spells working as a sailor and gold miner before attempting to become a full-time writer. His first story, To The Man on Trail, was published by the Overland Monthly in 1899. His adventure stories soon had a wide following and they were accepted by other magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan and McClure's Magazine. London still found time for politics and in 1901, campaigned as the socialist candidate for the post of mayor of Oakland. However he won only 246 votes and was not elected.
In July 1902 London moved to England where he worked with the Social Democratic Federation. He was shocked by the poverty he saw and wrote The People of the Abyss, a book about slum life in London. He later wrote that it was his favourite book: "Of all my books I love most 'The People of the Abyss'. No other book of mine took so much of my young heart and tears as that study of the economic degradation of the poor."
London returned to the United States in 1903. Later that year he and Anna Strunsky wrote a joint novel, The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903). Norma Fain Pratt argues that the "book is devoted to a debate on the nature of love in which the woman correspondent, Dane Kempton, defines the ideals of love as romantic, while the man, Herbert Wace, contends love is essentially biological."
London's novel, The Call of the Wild, appeared soon afterwards. It was an immediate best-seller. The first edition of 10,000 copies sold out in 24 hours. Unfortunately for London, he had sold the rights of the book to his publisher for a flat fee of $2,000.
London remained active in politics and was a member of the American Socialist Party. In 1905 he joined with Upton Sinclair to form the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Other members included Norman Thomas, Clarence Darrow, Florence Kelley, Anna Strunsky, Randolph Bourne, Bertram D. Wolfe, Jay Lovestone, Rose Pastor Stokes and J.G. Phelps Stokes. Its stated purpose was to "throw light on the world-wide movement of industrial democracy known as socialism."
London followed The Call of the Wild with The Sea-Wolf (1904), The War of the Classes (1905), The Iron Heel (1907) and Martin Eden (1909), a book that sold a quarter of a million copies within a couple of months of being published in the United States. London, a heavy drinker, wrote about the problems of alcohol in his semi-autobiographical novel, John Barleycorn (1913). This was then used by the Women's Christian Temperance Union in its campaign for prohibition.
With his royalties London bought a 1,400 acre ranch. He told one interviewer that he was still a socialist but: "I've done my part, Socialism has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the time comes I'm going to stay right on my ranch and let the revolution go to blazes."
London, was disappointed by the failure of the socialist movement to prevent the First World War that began in 1914. However, unlike most members of the American Socialist Party, London did not favour the United States remaining neutral. London, who was proud of his English heritage, was a strong supporter of the Allies against the Central Powers.
In September 1914 London agreed to write a propaganda article for a book being published in protest against the German invasion of Belgium. London's anti-German feelings were revealled in his comments to his wife that: "Germany has no honour, no chivalry, no mercy. Germany is a bad sportsman. German's fight like wolves in a pack, and without initiative of resource if compelled to fight singly."
London received support from Upton Sinclair and William English Walling, but felt isolated by his opinions on the war. He was also angry about how some fellow socialists had attacked him for spending so much money on his ranch. In March, 1916, London resigned from the party claiming that the reason was its "lack of fire and fight".
Floyd Dell complained that London had lost his faith in socialism: "A few years earlier, sent to Mexico as a correspondent, he came back singing the tunes that had been taught him by the American oil-men who were engaged in looting Mexico; he preached Nordic supremacy, and the manifest destiny of the American exploiters. He had, apparently, lost faith in the revolution in which he had once believed."
In October 1916 London urged Theodore Roosevelt to run for president against Woodrow Wilson. However, he told the New York World that although he supported Roosevelt "nobody in this fat land will vote (for him) because he exalts honour and manhood over the cowardice and peace-lovingness of the worshipers of fat."
London's health deteriorated rapidly in 1916. He was suffering from uraemia, a condition that impairs the functioning of the kidneys. On 21st November, 1916, Jack London died from a morphine overdose. From the available evidence it is not clear whether this was an accident or suicide.
Floyd Dell later recalled: "His death, as a tired cynic, to whom life no longer was worth living - according to the accounts of his friends - was a miserable anti-climax. But he died too early. If he had lived a little longer, he would have seen the Russian Revolution. Life would have had some meaning for him again. He would have had something in his own vein to write about. And he might have died with honor."