Arts & Entertainment

Who was Jack London?

By George Garza
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Jack London mainly educated himself by spending a lot of time in public libraries
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Jack London was a successful writer and author.

Jack London was a successful American writer and lived at the turn of the last century between 1876 and 1916. He was able to support himself exclusively through writing. His stories, Call of the Wild, White Fang, Sea Wolf and Martin Eden, fetched a lot of publicity and helped establish his literary reputation.


Early Years


Jack London was born in Oakland, California, and spent his early years with his mother, Flora Wellman. He was raised by an ex-slave, Virginia Prentiss. His father abandoned the family, and his mother Flora later married John London.


Jack was largely self-educated, spending time in the public library. In 1885 when he was nine-years old, he found and read the novel Signa by Quida. The book describes an unschooled Italian peasant child who achieves fame as an opera composer. To London this book became his literary inspiration.


He attended school sporadically but worked and traveled. In 1889 at age 13 he worked at a cannery, but later borrowed money and bought a sloop, Razzle-Dazzle. He used it for oyster fishing, but the sloop was later damaged in a storm beyond repair and he gave that up.


Early Travels


When he was 17 in 1893 he signed on with the ship Sophie Sutherland and sailed to Japan. But he returned to the States and went to Buffalo, New York, in 1894. He didn't do much there except spend 30 days in jail for vagrancy.


He returned to Oakland and finished high school, then he attended the University of California in 1896. Financial problems forced him to leave in 1897 at the age of 21


He and his brother-in-law went to Alaska for the gold rush at the Klondike. But he became ill with scurvy. Later his stories, White Fang and Call of the Wild were set in the Alaska wilderness.




London's break into print occurred with the stories To the Man on Trial and A Thousand Deaths. He was paid $40. As it turned out, the cost of print was dropping as new manufacturing techniques were implemented. The rise of the magazine was starting and with lower costs it was inexpensive to produce and inexpensive to sell. This low price for magazines allowed many writers to carve out a living. In 1900 London was able to make $2,000 from his writing, today's equivalent of $200,000.


Some of his early stories involved animals like Batard and The Call of the Wild from his days in the Klondike. Other stories would be re-written and re-published. One example is the story To Build a Fire which was published in 1902 and later re-written and republished in 1908. It tells the story of a man who goes out into the wilderness alone. Critics have compared the two stories showing the growing literary talent of a writer like Heminway. His memoir, John Barlycorn and the autobiographical novel Martin Eden were well-received.




Throughout his professional career there would be claims of plagiarism that followed him. Some stories would appear in print from other writers, and he would acknowledge them as the source of the stories. Others were more serious and newspapers would publish the London story in one column and its companion plagiarized source in a companion column. 




Even his death was controversial. Some say it was a suicide; others say it was an accident. Suicide did enter into his stories, but at the end he was suffering pain from uremia, or uremic poisoning. He was taking morphine, and he may have accidentally overdosed. Biographers have speculated that he had a heart attack or stroke.

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