Jack London

Jack London

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."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) San Francisco Chronicle (16th February, 1896)

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.

(2) Jack London, letter to Anna Strunsky (21st December 1899)

Somehow I am like a fish out of water. I take to conventionality uneasily, rebelliously. I am used to saying what I think, neither more nor less. Soft equivocation is no part of me. As had I spoken to a man who came out of nowhere, shared my bed and board for a night, and passed on, so did I speak to you. Life is very short. The melancholy of materialism can never be better expressed than by Fitzgerald's "O make haste." One should have no time to dally. And further, should you know me, understand this: I, too, was a dreamer, on a farm, nay, a California ranch. But early, at only nine, the hard hand of the world was laid upon me. It was never relaxed. It has left me sentiment, but destroyed sentimentalism. It has made me practical, so that I am known as harsh, stern, uncompromising. It has taught me that reason is mightier than imagination; that the scientific man is superior to the emotional man. It has also given me a truer and a deeper romance of things, an idealism which is an inner sanctuary and which must be resolutely throttled in dealing with my kind, but which yet remains within the Holy of Holies, like an oracle, to be cherished always but to be made manifest or be consulted not on every occasion I go to market. To do this latter would bring upon me the ridicule of my fellows and make me a failure; to sum up, simply the eternal fitness of things:

All of which goes to show that people are prone to misunderstand me. May I have the privilege of not so classing you?

Nay, I did not walk down the street after Hamilton - I ran. And I had a heavy overcoat, and I was very warm and breathless. The emotional man in me had his will, and I was ridiculous.

I shall be over Saturday night. If you draw back upon yourself, what have I left ? Take me this way : a stray guest, a bird of passage, splashing with salt-rimed wings through a brief moment of your life - a rude and blundering bird, used to large airs and great spaces, unaccustomed to the amenities of confined existence. An unwelcome visitor, to be tolerated only because of the sacred law of food and blanket.

(3) Jack London, letter to Anna Strunsky (15th March, 1900)

Regarding box... please remember that I have disclosed myself in my nakedness - all those vain efforts and passionate strivings are so many weaknesses of mine which I put into your possession. Why, the grammar is often frightful, and always bad, while artistically, the whole boxful is atrocious. Now don't say I am piling it on. If I did not realize and condemn those faults I would be unable to try to do better. But - why, I think in sending that box to you I did the bravest thing I ever did in my life.

Say, do you know I am getting nervous and soft as a woman. I've got to get out again and stretch my wings or I shall become a worthless wreck. I am getting timid, do you hear? Timid! It must stop. Enclosed letter I received to-day, and it brought a contrast to me of my then 'unfailing nerve' and my present nervousness and timidity. Return it, as I suppose I shall have to answer it some day.

(4) In September 1905 Upton Sinclair joined with Jack London to form the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Sinclair later wrote about their first meeting.

I was prepared to give my hero the admiration of a slave. But we spent the next day together and all that day the hero smoked cigarettes and drank. He was the red-blood, and I the mollycoddle, and he must have fun with me.

(5) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

When I was in San Francisco I re-read Jack London's Martin Eden, and was struck by his description of the frightful gloom into which his hero's literary success had plunged him - a gloom which ended in suicide in the story. The account must have been fairly autobiographical. Jack London, then had been depressed by his literary success, so hard fought for; but he had explained it on rational grounds, as a bitter realization of the hollowness of achievement in bourgeoise society.

(6) The autobiographical novel about alcoholism, John Barleycorn, was used by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, to promote their campaign. Upton Sinclair later remarked on the irony of the situation.

That the work (John Barleycorn) of a drinker (Jack London) who had no intention of stopping drinking should become a major propaganda piece in the campaign for Prohibition is surely one of the ironies in the history of alcohol.

(7) (7) Jack London, John Barleycorn (1913)

I achieved a condition in which my body was never free from alcohol. Nor did I permit myself to be away from alcohol. If I travelled to out-of-the-way places, I declined to run the risk of finding them dry. I took a quart, or several quarts, along in my grip. I was carrying a beautiful alcoholic conflagration around with me. The thing fed on its own heat and flamed the fiercer. There was no time in all my waking time, that I didn't want a drink.

(8) Jack London, letter to the Socialist Party (7th March, 1916)

I am resigning from the Socialist Party, because of its lack of fire and fight, and its loss of emphasis upon the class struggle. I was originally a member of the old revolutionary up-on-its-hind legs, a fighting, Socialist Labor Party. Trained in the class struggle, as taught and practised by the Socialist Labor Party, my own highest judgment concurring, I believed that the working class, by fighting, by fusing, by never making terms with the enemy, could emancipate itself.

Since the whole trend of Socialism in the United States during recent years has been one of peaceableness and compromise, I find that my mind refuses further sanction of my remaining a party member. Hence, my resignation.

(9) H. L. Mencken, letter to Max Broedel on the death of Jack London (24th November, 1916)

I daresay Jack London's finish was due to his chronic alcoholism in youth. He was a fearful drinker for years and ran on hard liquor. I have often argued that he was one of the few American authors who really knew how to write. The difficulty with him was that he was an ignorant and credulous man. His lack of culture caused him to embrace all sorts of socialistic bosh, and whenever he put it into his stories, he ruined them. But when he set out to tell a simple tale, he always told it superbly.

(10) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

My boyhood's Socialist hero, Jack London, had died in 1916, no hero any longer in my eyes. 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. 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. As it was, the ending which seemed to belong rightfully to his life came to another life, that of a young man who was in many ways like Jack London - Jack Reed.

(11) International Socialist Review (April, 1917)

Our Jack is dead! He who arose from us and voiced our wrongs; who sang our hopes, and bade us stand alone, not compromise, nor pause; who bade us dare reach out and take the world in our strong hands. Comrade! Friend! Who let the sunshine in upon dark places. Great ones may not understand, nor grant you now the measure of your achievements; but, in the days to come, all men shall see.