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The Life of Jack London as Reflected in his Works

by Murray Lundberg

Jack London Online - Sonoma State University

Jack London State Historic Park, California

Jack London Museum, Dawson City

This article was originally written as a paper in a history course at Yukon College in 1993. With minor edits, it was published online in April 1998, and has been most recently received minor edits and an introduction to a new controversy about Jack London in June 2020.

      Jack London was a prolific writer; over the period from 1899 until his death in 1916, he wrote 50 books and over 1,000 articles. Though he was made most famous by his stories of the Klondike, he wrote on subjects ranging from boxing to romance, from survival in the Arctic to labour strife in Australia. He led a harsh, erratic life; born illegitimate, raised as a poor "work beast", constantly questing after every adventure and all the knowledge the world might offer, he died young as a result. The fact that his gift for writing was ever realized came to be used as an example of "The American Dream"; London rose

out of the lower depths of American society, out of the social and economic abyss where art, thought and rebellion are all but unknown, where the primal struggle for survival absorbed the energy, ambition and creativity that produced art and speculative thought in the more favoured classes (Powers, 1975, vii)
London's rough view of the world changed dramatically as he studied the works of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Jung, and uncounted others; by carefully sorting through his works, it is possible to trace his emotional and literary development through the characters in his stories and the way they react with their environment.

      Sorting through London's stories and articles to find the philosophical roots is a daunting task, but the vitality and variety of his narratives ensures that the search is never boring; Howard Lachtman describes London as "...a born teller of tales who wrote as he lived - in a hurry. The writer, like the man, was a creature of force and eloquence, pulsing with enthusiasm or indignation."

      Jack London dropped out of school at the age of fourteen, and worked at a series of low-paying sweatshop jobs until he was sixteen, when his adventures began. London's exploits during the years 1892 and 1893 are part of the London legend: oyster pirate, fisheries patrolman, seal hunter in the North Pacific, rail-riding hobo, and hard-drinking dockhand. In 1894, during America's worst depression until that time, he traveled across the United States and Canada on the rails; the impact of that journey, "during which he saw the pains and disorders of American society in one of its most disturbing crises, cannot be underestimated. [He saw] for the first time that society was badly put together" (Walker, 1978: 31). In April 1896, he joined the Socialist Labour Party, and very soon became a regular speaker for them.

      By the spring of 1897, London had decided that society would not drag him down and force him to spend his life slaving as a "work beast"; he would become a writer. He later said of that period: "never was there a creative fever such as mine from which the patient escaped fatal results." He wrote fifteen hours a day, composing everything from "ponderous essays and ... short stories... to elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas" (Walker, 1978: 40).

      In July 1897, only twelve days after the Excelsior landed with the first word from the gold-laden Klondike, he and his brother-in-law joined the mad exodus to "the frozen North"; he was about to find his literary niche.

      Jack London had a talent for rapid, intimate perception of his physical surroundings. The scenes in his stories of the Klondike were developed from what he saw and heard during his one winter at Split-Up Island, at the mouth of the Stewart River. His story plots came from rumours, bar-room tales, newspaper clippings, story plots purchased from other writers, and self-admitted "modification" of other writers' works, including those of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad (Calder-Marshall, 1966). In London's stories, the Klondike became "not only a real country, but a territory of the mind" (Lachtman, 1984: 13), in which his characters lived or died because of what they had inside them; in this, London was "a saga writer to a nation of emotional frontiersmen, who had reached the Pacific Ocean, only to find unemployment as acute there as further east" (Calder-Marshall, 1966: 9).

      It is often said that London's characters lack depth (ie Powers,1975), but that seems an unfair criticism. While it is true that much of his "hack-work" suffers from superficial character development, his best work reaches deeply into his characters' hearts, sometimes in the form of anthropomorphism, as with Buck, the dog-hero in The Call of the Wild. The allegoric use of Buck to represent the struggle of all working-class people to maintain their dignity is often commented on.

      Although Jack London was famous as an action-writer, he was a master at describing the physical sensations of slow death. His descriptions in The White Silence are vivid enough to put a shiver down the spine of anyone who has traveled through the Northern wilderness in the depths of winter:

Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity - the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven's artillery - but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot's life, nothing more.

      Death is a common theme in London's work; Arthur Calder-Marshall (1966: 17) states that London "was always very much in love with death," and his descriptions make it obvious that he spent a great deal of time thinking about the subtleties and progressions of various ways of dying. He had some degree of first-hand knowledge of the matter from an early age, having barely survived drowning after attempting suicide by swimming to exhaustion in San Francisco Bay while drunk at the age of sixteen (Sinclair, 1977: 12). Most of the action in To Build A Fire concerns itself with the slow process of freezing to death at 75 degrees below zero. Interestingly, London never gives his protagonist in that story a name, and Walker (1978: 257) suggests that that anonymity may have been intended to personalize for all readers the starkness of the struggle with nature." In The Call of the Wild, the death-cry of the rabbit that Spitz kills is reverently described as "the cry of Life plunging down from Life's apex in the grip of Death."

      London particularly enjoyed killing off incompetents such as Percy Cuthfert in In a Far Country, who "mistook ... an abnormal development of sentimentality ... for the true spirit of romance and adventure." Franklin Walker suggests that the basic plot of the story was borrowed from Joseph Conrad's An Outpost of Progress, with Northern twists. The idea for the story actually came from an incident during London's Klondike winter, during which he used his partner's axe to cut ice; the ensuing argument forced Jack to move out into a neighbouring cabin. In the In a Far Country version, two men, complete opposites in breeding and personality, are trapped in a remote cabin for the winter, and end up killing each other, succumbing to "The Fear of the North":

This fear was the joint child of the Great Cold and the Great Silence, and was born in the darkness of December, when the sun dipped below the horizon for good. ...[Cuthfert] allowed his soul to become saturated with the Fear. He dwelt upon the unseen and the unknown till the burden of eternity appeared to be crushing him. ...This was the Universe, dead and cold and dark, and he its only citizen. ...the Fear of the North laid icy fingers on his heart."

      Jack London has often been classed as a racist, but he was a man of complex reasoning, with many contradictions, and atypical outbursts during his frequent sicknesses; to classify him as a racist is much too simplistic a label. As a child, his mother taught him to believe that he was better than the Chinese, the Italians, the Irish, and the other immigrants who were taking away jobs from Americans of good Anglo-Saxon breeding. In his youth, he clearly believed in the inferiority of non-whites, and particularly of those people who were of mixed blood. He definitely did not believe, however, that all Anglo-Saxons were inherently noble creatures; he often portrayed whites as heartless aggressors both against the "weaker races", and against the weaker members of their own race. To emphasize that point, Andrew Sinclair (1977: 89) describes London's pessimistic viewpoint on Anglo-Saxon civilization following seven weeks researching in the slums of East London for The People of the Abyss at the height of his socialist period, in the summer of 1902:

To him, the London Abyss was another Social Pit. The inefficient were weeded out and flung downwards. The efficient emigrated, taking the best qualities of the stock with them. The British race was enfeebling itself into two classes, a master race and a ghetto race. A short and stunted race was being created - a breed strikingly different than their rulers. ...If this was the best that civilization could do, then savagery was preferable. 'Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss'.
Returning from England, London stated that if he were God for one hour, he would "blot out all London and its 6,000,000 people, as Sodom and Gomorrah were blotted out" (Kingman, 1979: 115).

      One of the philosophers read by London was Friedrich Nietzsche, and London was often ctriticized, by early critics for the most part, for promoting Nietzsche's "superman" ideal. This seems to arise as a result of attaching "cultural baggage" to a poor translation of Nietzsche's Ubermensch; "overman" was the term he used to describe a person who has "organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character, and become creative"; in short, a person who has developed "a unique supernatural dignity" (Edwards, 1967: 511). London seemed to ignore those criticisms, for no clarification of the philosophy was published.

      In stories such as those in Tales of the Fish Patrol, published in 1905, racist attitudes against Greeks and Chinese are particularly blatant. However, much of London's work was written strictly to pay the bills, and he wrote exactly what he though the public of the day wanted. Those racist attitudes were the norm of the day:

Anglo-Saxon superiority was a basic assumption not just of the popular audience - some of the most sophisticated thinkers in America identified American cultural traits with the racial characteristics of Anglo-Saxons (Powers, 1975: xv)
As London absorbed the Social Darwinist theories of Herbert Spencer, and modified them from his own experiences, stories such as The League of Old Men (1902), Negore the Coward (1907), and On the Makaloa Mat (1919) stand out in showing a much different racial and social philosophy forming in London's mind.

      The League of Old Men is one of the four pieces "which are essential to the London vision of the North-west," according to Calder-Marshall, and London often said that it was his personal favourite. In it, London gives a sensitive description of the white man's destruction of the lives of the original people of the Yukon as related by Imber, an Elder of the fictional Whitefish tribe. A technique which London uses often in his stories appears here; when speaking to whites, the natives use broken English, but between themselves, flowery Victorian English is used to portray their dignity. Imber's tribe has been virtually wiped out by diseases brought in, and by the young people of the tribe being lured away by the wonders of the whites' world; even their wolf-dogs have been ruined by breeding with the whites' dogs:

...the white men come as the breath of death; all their ways lead to death, their nostrils are filled with it; and yet they do not die. Theirs, the whiskey and tobacco and short-haired dogs; theirs the many sicknesses, the smallpox and measles, the coughing and mouth-bleeding; theirs the white skin, and softness to the frost and storm. ...And yet they grow fat on their many ills, and prosper, and lay a heavy hand over all the world and tread mightily upon its peoples.

      Imber and the other old men of the League have killed many white people in an attempt to stem the tide of cheechakos. Now all the other Elders have died or been killed, and, sitting by the busy main street of Dawson, Imber realizes that he has failed. He turns himself in to the police, to face the white man's justice; during the trial, a member of the Whitefish tribe who has been educated at a church-run school interprets for Imber. The result of the trial is "a forgone conclusion. ...It has been the custom of the land-robbing and sea-robbing Anglo-Saxon to give the law to conquered peoples, and ofttimes this law is harsh."

      During 1904 and 1905, Jack London's work took on an extremely pessimistic, morbid note, particularly in The Game, All Gold Canyon, and The Minions of Midas. At the time, London was going through what he termed "the long sickness," his personal reassessment centred around the impending end of a very unhappy marriage. The "sickness" was compounded by a difficult relationship with poet George Sterling that included a strong physical attraction, and the start of London's physical collapse during a trip to Korea to cover the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.

      The Game introduced a new minor genre to the American literary scene - the boxing story (Sinclair, 1977). In this tale, two "working-class aristocrats," Joe, a very successful boxer, and his fiancee Genevieve, are due to be married as soon as he wins one more fight. She attends the fight in disguise, and sees Joe die in the ring. London was very vain about the beauty of the Anglo-Saxon male's body, even taking pictures of George Sterling on the beach in the nude; his description of Joe, with his "deep smooth chest" and "muscles under their satin sheaths - crypts of energy wherein lurked the chemistry of destruction" has been said by some critics to be a sign of at least latent homosexuality.

      In The Mexican, which Sinclair called London's "masterpiece of the genre," a poor Mexican boy wins a fight against the cheating gringo hero in order to buy guns for the Mexican revolution. Although he hates fighting the "hated game of the hated gringo," his only focus is to avenge the murders of his parents by the federales during a strike, and he has a natural talent for the game. The money is easy, and "not first among the sons of men had he been to find himself successful at a despised vocation." This sympathy for the Mexican youth and the justification for the Revolution is in stark contrast to London's seven articles on the actual Revolution in 1914, when he was sent to Vera Cruz as correspondent for Colliers magazine:

His racism grew rampant. He explained that the confusion of the Mexican revolution was due to the childish and predatory games of the "breeds," the one-fifth of the mestizo population which was neither Spanish or Indian. "Like the Eurasians, they possess all the vices of their various commingled bloods and none of the virtues" (in Sinclair, 1977: 202).
London was drinking heavily while in Mexico,and caught amoebic dysenetry, complicated by pluerisy, nearly dying while in a Vera Cruz hospital.

      In June 1905, the Londons bought the first piece of what would, by 1914, be a 1,439-acre ranch in the Valley of the Moon. The ranch became the anchor of his life, and his passion. He became noted for his prize stock, state-of-the-art barns, soil reclamation projects and water conservation measures. As always, Jack London did nothing half-way; "he was always excessive, if not ecstatic, about what he believed at the moment" (Sinclair, 1977: 163). On August 23, 1913, the fabulous home, "Wolf House," that was being built on the ranch, mysteriously burned; arson was suspected, but recent studies indicate that spontaneous combustion caused the fire.

      London's new-found awareness of the fragile beauty of nature is shown in All Gold Canyon; in this story, the destructive power and callousness of men searching for gold is portrayed. The story begins with a lengthy description of the beauty of a tiny pocket canyon in the Sierras, off the main desert valley; in this pocket, "the air was sharp and thin. It was as starlight transmuted into atmosphere, shot through and warmed by sunshine, and flower-drenched with sweetness." An old prospector appears, shattering the peace, and soon the slow progress of his digging for gold "was like that of a slug, befouling beauty with a monstrous trail." The obligatory gunfight with a thief follows his discovery of a deposit of pure gold; the thief is killed and dumped in the pit, while the old prospector goes on his way, loaded down with gold.

      The Minions of Midas possibly best portrays London's sense of frustration and cultural isolation, never quite accepted by "proper" society, and indeed never really sure if he wanted to be accepted. In this futuristic story, the capitalist class is made to pay for their oppression of the working class. The Minions of Midas, "the nightmare stereotype of the proletariat" (Powers, 1975: xxi), kill innocent people without mercy or guilt in their successful blackmail campaign to take over industry and control the means of production. The "M of M" call themselves "the successful failures of the age," and state that they "turn upon the society which has created them." Some businessmen initially refuse to be blackmailed, even as the assassinations progress, professing to beleve that "it was manifestly just that a few should be martyred for the ultimate welfare of the many" (in Horowitz, 1980: 56). Their guilt, however, eventually drives even those men to suicide.

      Surely the most surreal of London's stories is The Red One; it presents a mixture of science, philosophy, and anthropology, written with a strong sense of irony, and tinged with a strange vein of black humour. Barrett, a scientist in search of a certain jungle butterfly on Guadalcanal, gets attacked by cannibals, but survives because a particularly ugly woman of the tribe lays claim to him. In the heart of the island, the Red One, a huge metallic sphere, possibly some kind of message from outer space, is worshipped as a god. Hundreds of men, women and children are regularly sacrificed to the Red One. Barrett develops malaria and black-water fever, and just before he dies, offers to let the shaman have his head for drying if he can see the Red One, and hear the incredible noise it makes when struck with a log set up for that purpose. Just as the tomahawk is about to sever his head,

'...it seemed that he gazed upon the serene face of the Medusa, Truth.' Yet what the truth was, the story does not tell - only that, in the total dichotomy between the hallucinatory message from the stars and the utter savagery of men, the boundaries of Jack's split personality lay. At last, he had the courage and awareness to decalre himself, as he prepared for his own death (Powers, 1975: 231).

      The stories contained in the collection On the Makaloa Mat, which London wrote in the last few months of his life, as he was slowly dying of uremia, are generally considered to be some of his most mature short stories:

[London's] recognition of his dependence on Charmian and Eliza and Joan [his wife, sister, and daughter], his laying to rest of his father's rejection of him, his Jungian discovery that his nightmares might be the good myths of his unconscious, all helped Jack write some of his better short stories... He no longer identified himself with the young Anglo-Saxon heroes braving the frozen wastes and bullying the lesser breeds... (Sinclair, 1977: 229).

      During London's last trip to Hawaii, in 1915, he came to love the Hawaiian people, and this comes across clearly in the short story "On the Makaloa Mat." In this, his fullest development of a female character and one of the most romantically moving of is tales, two aged sisters, descended from the Hawaiian royal family, are sitting on the lawn of one of their many estates. Bella, the younger of the two, tells her sister about a two-week affair she had almost fifty years previously with the heir to the throne; at the time she was married to a haole (white man) who was determined to get very rich by investing in land, and by denying himself and Bella every pleasure:

... that house of his, of ours, at Nahala, was gray. All the color of it was gray and cool and chill while I was bright with all colors of sun and earth and blood and birth. It was very cold, gray cold, with that cold gray husband of mine at Nahala. ...You know he was gray, Martha. Gray like those portraits of Emerson we used to see at school. His skin was gray. Sun and weather and all hours in the saddle could never tan it. And he was as gray inside as out.
Bella had married George because her uncle had told her that George would be "the ruler of Hawaii. It is written it the books. It is ever so where the haole conflicts with the easier races." Too late, she realized her mistake; when the charming, flambouyant Prince came along, she was swept away by excitement and by love: "I was like a survivor from the open boat falling down on the sand and lapping the fresh, bubbling springs at the roots of the palms." Two weeks later, the Prince left, ripping up the lei that Bella made for him, and mouthing the word "Pau" ["finish"]; she went back to George, who died two years later, leaving her very wealthy. As Bella was telling her story, her new car arrived:
'But oh, all the Pierce-Arrows and all the incomes in the world compared with a lover - the one lover, the one mate, to be married to, to toil beside and suffer and joy beside, the one male man lover husband -' Her voice trailed off...

      London's love of the Hawaiians was returned in kind; upon his death, a statement from the Royal Family said, "By the point of his pen his genius conquered all prejudice and gave out to the world at large true facts concerning the Hawaiian people..." (quoted in Kingman, 1979: 270)

      Through Jack London, millions of people around the world have experienced the outer edges of the world, the innermost core of the working-class world, and the complex struggles to survive in either place. Literary critic Alfred Kazin once said that "the greatest story London ever told was the story he lived." On November 22, 1916, that life came to an end.

      Jack London was an extremely complex man, and biographers use widely-varying terms to describe him. Although the London name is now a marketing tool for everything from shopping malls to tour companies, controversy still surrounds even his suitability as a commercial tool. In Whitehorse in 1996, the two main access routes into the city from the Alaska Highway were named to honour Robert Service and Jack London. But the "racist" label was successfully attached to London, however - the signs were removed, and the road is again just called "Two-Mile Hill." In June 2020, a petition was started to get the bust of Jack London removed from Whitehorse, using the same claims of racism and white superiority.

Further Reading:
  • "At the Rainbow's End" by Jack London.
  • Calder-Marshall, Arthur (editor) - The Bodley Head Jack London: Volume Four (London: Bodley Head, 1966).
  • Kershaw, Alex - Jack London: A Life (St. Martin's, 1998)
  • Kingman, Russ - A Pictorial Life of Jack London (New York: Crown, 1979).
  • Lachtman, Howard (editor) - Young Wolf: The Early Adventure Stories of Jack London (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra, 1984).
  • Powers, Richard Gid - The Science Fiction of Jack London: An Anthology (Boston: Gregg, 1975).
  • Sinclair, Andrew - Jack: A Biography of Jack London (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).
  • Walker, Franklin - Jack London and the Klondike: The Genesis of an American Writer (San Marino, CA: Huntington, 1978).

© 1993-2023 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author. It may be cited (in APA style) as:

Lundberg, Murray (April 1998). The Life of Jack London as Reflected in his Works. ExploreNorth. Retrieved from http://www.explorenorth.com/library/yafeatures/jack_london.html