Jack London was born John Griffiths Chaney and changed his name for unknown reasons. He was born on January 12, 1876 in San Francisco. His mother, Flora Wellman, was unmarried and of wealthy background. His father may have been William Chaney. Chaney was a journalist, lawyer, and a major figure in the development of American astrology. During his childhood his parents weren’t there for him and he was looked after by an ex-slave, Virginia Prentiss (Memmie Jennie). London dropped out of school at the age of fourteen, and worked at a series of low-paying sweatshops until he was sixteen.
In 1894, during America’s worst depression of his time, London traveled across the United States and Canada on railroads. He was arrested in 1894 in Niagara Falls and jailed for vagrancy. As an adolescent, he worked at various hard labor jobs, pirated for oysters, served as a fish patrol to capture poachers, sailed the Pacific on a sealing ship, joined Kelly’s Army of unemployed working men, and returned to attend high school. University of California at Berkeley, is where London went when he went back.
Jack started to become a writer to escape from the horrific prospects of life as a factory worker. He studied other writers and began to submit stories, jokes, and poems to various publications, mostly without success. These writers he studied were Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Jung.
London went to the Klondike for hopes of digging up gold in 1897. The attempt to find gold was unsuccessful. The winter of 1897 provided the metaphorical gold for his first stories. From that point he was a highly disciplined writer, who wrote over fifty volumes of stories, novels, and political essays. London also spent the winter suffering from scurvy, and later returned to San Francisco in the spring. In 1899 London was starting to make headway in the publishing world, despite more than 250 rejections a year.
London was married to Bess Maddern in 1900, with whom he had two daughters, Joan and Bess. With her as his inspiration, he followed the precept in a book be CO-wrote with Anna Strunsky, The Kempton-Wace Letters. London divorced Bess due to an affair with his “New Woman,” Charmian Kittredge. In 1905 he married Charmian, who became the persona for many of his female characters and who avidly joined him on his many travel ventures. He encouraged her to a writings career, and she wrote three books concerning their life: The Log of the Snark, Our Hawaii, and The Book of Jack London.
London went to England in 1902, where he studied the backside of the British imperium. He wrote a report of his findings about the economic degration of the poor (The People of the Abyss), and was a success in the U.S. He traveled to Korea as a correspondent for Hearst’s newspapers to cover the was between Russia and Japan. Later a piece called, “The War of the Classes” was published, which included his lectures on socialism. In 1907 London and his wife boarded a ship called the Snark, and sailed around the world.
The great voyage was to last seven years and take Jack and Charmian around the world. The “Snark” was to cost an amount of $7000. The final bill came in at about $30.000 (For comparison: a first class ticket on the “Titanic” was about $1.800, a steerage ticket about 100$). The journey in fact lasted 27 months and took them “only” as far as the South Pacific and Australia. Discouraged by a variety of health problems, and heartbroken about having to abandon the trip and sell the Snark, London returned to Glen Ellen and to his plans for the ranch.
In 1909, ‘10 and ‘11 he bought more land, and in 1911 moved from Glen Ellen to a small ranch house in the middle of his holdings. He rode horseback throughout the countryside, exploring every canyon, glen and hill top. And he threw himself into farming – scientific agriculture – as one of the few justifiable, basic, and idealistic ways of making a living. A significant portion of his later writing; Burning Daylight (1910), Valley of the Moon (1913), Little Lady of the Big House (1916), had to do with the simple pleasures of country life, the satisfaction of making a living directly and honestly from the land and thereby remaining close to the realities of the natural world.
Jack and Charmian London’s dream house began to take definite shape early in 1911 as Albert Farr, a well-known San Francisco architect, put their ideas on paper in the form of drawings and sketches, and then supervised the early stages of construction. It was to be a grand house, one that would remain standing for a thousand years. By August 1913, London had spent approximately $80,000 (in pre-World War I dollars), and the project was nearly complete. On August 22 final cleanup got underway and plans were laid for moving the Londons’ specially designed, custom-built furniture and other personal belongings into the mansion. That night, at 2 a. m., word came that the house was burning. By the time the Londons arrived on the scene the house was ablaze in every corner, the roof had collapsed, and even a stack of lumber some distance away was burning. Nothing could be done.
London looked on philosophically, but inside he was seriously wounded, for the loss was a crushing financial blow and the wreck of a long-cherished dream. Worse yet, he also had to face the probability that the fire had been deliberately set – perhaps by someone close to him. To this day, the mystery remains unsolved, but there are strong indications that the fire started by spontaneous combustion of oily rags which had been left in the building on that hot August night. London planned to rebuild Wolf House eventually, but at the time of his death in 1916 the house remained as it stands today, the stark but eloquent vestige of a unique and fascinating but shattered dream.
The destruction of the Wolf House left London terribly depressed, but after a few days he forced himself to go back to work. Using a $2,000 advance from Cosmopolitan Magazine, he added a new study to the little wood-frame ranch house in which he had been living since 1911. Here, in the middle of his beloved ranch, he continued to turn out the articles, short stories, and novels for which there was an ever-growing international market.
From the time he went east to meet with his publishers in New York, or to San Francisco or Los Angeles on other business. He also spent a considerable amount of time living and working aboard his 30-foot yawl, the Roamer, which he loved to sail around San Francisco Bay and throughout the nearby Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. In 1914 he went to Mexico as a war correspondent covering the role of U.S. troops and Navy ships in the Villa-Carranza revolt.
In 1915 and again in 1916 Charmian persuaded him to spend several months in Hawaii, where he seemed better able to relax and more willing to take care of himself. His greatest satisfaction, however, came from his ranch activities and from his ever more ambitious plans for expanding the ranch and increasing its productivity. These plans kept him perpetually in debt and under intense pressure to keep on writing as fast as he could, even though it might mean sacrificing quality in favor of quantity.
His doctors urged him to ease up, to change his work habits and his diet, to stop all use of alcohol, and to get more exercise. But he refused to change his way of life, and plunged on with his writing and his ranch, generously supporting friends and relations through it all. If anything, the press of his financial commitments and his increasingly severe health problems only made him expand his ambitions, dream even larger dreams, and work still harder and faster. As if knowing that his time was nearly up.
On November 22, 1916, Jack London died of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning. He was 40 years of age and had been suffering from a variety of ailments, including a kidney condition that was extraordinarily painful at times. Nevertheless, right up to the last day of his life he was full of bold plans and boundless enthusiasm for the future.