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Jack London: Biography, Books & Short Stories

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

From the frozen tundra to glistening beaches, the stories of Jack London can take you just about anywhere you'd want to go. Learn more about this adventurous author and his work in this lesson.

An Adventurous Life: A Brief Biography of Jack London

Many of us are born into situations where we think we couldn't possibly hope for any real adventure in our lives, and that's just the sort of start John Griffith Chaney had when he was born January 12, 1876 in San Francisco. The illegitimate son of a poor unwed mother and a local attorney and journalist, the boy called 'Jack' didn't seem to have much of a bright future at all.

Jack's mother Flora eventually married John London, and the family settled in the slums of Oakland. Here, Jack performed every manner of menial task available to make money, including shoveling coal and working in a cannery and aboard a sealing vessel. When only seventeen, Jack was caught in a typhoon while on a sealing run, and when he told Flora the story on his return, she urged him to submit it to a local newspaper contest. After winning the top prize, Jack was convinced of his career choice. He just had to convince others.

John Griffith Chaney, aka Jack London (1876-1916), American author, journalist, and social activist
Photo of Jack London

After a string of bad luck with publishers on the East coast, Jack returned to California and was enrolled for a short time at UC Berkeley. He left the university to prospect gold in the largely wild Yukon Territory of Canada; however, he discovered in little over a year that this wasn't the way for him to make a living, either. But although Jack never pulled a fortune of gold out of the Yukon, it certainly furnished him with a wealth of literary material.

When Jack returned from the Yukon, his career as a writer really took off. Starting with 'A Thousand Deaths' in 1899, he began to publish short stories in various magazines. His short-lived marriage to Bess Maddern in 1900 gave him two daughters; however, with the couple divorced in 1904, Jack left for Japan and Korea to work as a newspaper correspondent on the Russo-Japanese War. He also later traveled extensively in Hawaii, and London's stories from the islands were America's first introduction to Hawaiian culture, including the sport of surfing.

Jack married Charmian Kittredge in 1905, and the next decade proved to be a very productive one for the author. A prolific writer who reportedly wrote at least 1,000 words every day, London spent the next ten years writing well over 100 different novels, short stories, poems, and nonfiction works. He also spent this time lecturing in various venues on the evils of capitalism, having become an activist for socialism as a result of his own early socio-economic difficulties and the many impoverished he met in the Yukon.

Jack London died from kidney disease on November 22, 1916. Though only forty years old at the time of his death, London had had plenty of time to become one of the best-known and most highly regarded American writers of his day, leaving us some beloved tales of adventure that reflect the truly bold life of their author.

Novels and Short Stories by London

The Call of the Wild

Perhaps one of London's most famous novels, The Call of the Wild was first published in 1903 with wide critical and popular success. As with his similar novel White Fang (1906), London drew from his experiences in the Northern wilderness to tell this story of a dog named 'Buck' whose initial dog-napping leads him on an adventure through the Yukon with a series of different owners. Though eventually Buck reclaims his wild roots with a pack of wolves, his return as the legendary Ghost Dog to mourn the loss of his most beloved master demonstrates a bond between humans and animals that was frequently a theme for London.

The Sea-Wolf

Have you ever heard someone asked if he was raised by wolves? It's an expression commonly applied to people who are unpleasant, unruly or just plain aggressive. Either way, these and a number of even less savory characteristics earned Wolf Larsen his name and marked him as one of Jack London's most memorable characters. This antagonist of The Sea-Wolf is a calculating, self-serving, enterprising sea captain whose dialogue and mannerisms suggest he may be an allegorical representation of the capitalist system London so detested. Whatever the case, he certainly helped make this novel an instant classic from its first publication in 1904.

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