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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor


Jack London was born in San Francisco to Flora Wellman, a young unmarried woman who had run away from her Ohio family. His father was probably William Chaney, an itinerant astrologer, who left London's mother when he learned of her pregnancy. London was adopted and raised in Oakland and its environs by the man his mother soon after married, John London. The Londons were never able to establish themselves securely; alternating hard work with spiritualism and get-rich-quick-schemes, they struggled to maintain a precarious lower-middle-class respectability. During his adolescence, London held a variety of manual jobs, dropped out of high school, shipped out on a sealing vessel, apprenticed himself as an electrician, and became a tramp. While he was on the road, he was imprisoned in the Erie County Penitentiary for vagrancy. The "unspeakable" brutalities he witnessed in his thirty days in prison awakened him to the reality of his downward class mobility. He saw a vision of the "Social Pit," and of himself slipping further and further into it. The contradictions of his life and writings are suggested in his responses: in rapid succession he returned to high school, fled to the Alaskan Gold Rush, embraced socialism, and determined to become a writer.

Longing for stability and roots, he seized upon writing as a ticket to a secure middle-class identity. At a time when novelists like Henry James were becoming self-conscious about their profession and articulating a privileged culture around their activity, London approached writing as a working-class trade; he apprenticed himself to the popular magazines and learned their formulas. In 1899 he broke into print in the Overland Monthly with his Alaskan stories. They brought him immediate success and are among the finest he ever wrote. London's first novel, A Daughter of the Snows (1902), was a commercial and critical failure, but The Call of the Wild (1903) brought him national fame at the age of twenty-six. As myth, adventure story, and lyrical transformation of his working-class experiences, it remains his most fully realized work. Success was accompanied by sharp disillusionment, reflected in the pessimism and contradictions of The Sea-Wolf (1904) and the dissolution of his short-lived marriage to Bessie Maddern. By the willpower that marked his attempt to pull himself out of the Social Pit, London pulled himself out of his depression, married Charmian Kittredge, and wrote a total of fifty-one volumes before he died at the age of forty. In addition to many novels and volumes of short stories, including tales of the South Seas, he wrote political essays and a journalistic exposť of the East End of London (The People of the Abyss, 1903), covered the Russo-Japanese War, and published several autobiographical volumes (The Road, 1907, and John Barleycorn, 1913). Both participant in and observer of the American dream, London in his most powerful work articulated the longings and contradictions at its heart. These are movingly depicted in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden (1909), which chronicles in vivid detail his own struggle to become a writer and his disillusionment with success. At the time of his death he was in poor health, his body marked by the strenuous life he had sometimes glorified in his fiction. He died of a self-administered overdose of morphine, which he was taking to counter the pain of nephritis, a side effect of his alcoholism.

Joan D. Hedrick
Trinity College

In the Heath Anthology
South of the Slot (1909)

Other Works
The Call of the Wild (1903)
The Iron Heel (1908)
Martin Eden (1909)

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Jack London at Centenary College
An extensive secondary bibliography.

Jack London Collection
Scans of London's book covers and illustrations.

Jack London International
A biography, primary and secondary materials, photos and more.

Jack London Square History Project
Clever but brief biography.

The Jack London Collection
Berkeley's Digital Library, with links to texts, bibliography, criticism, photos, and more.

Secondary Sources

Jonathan Auerbach, Male Call: Becoming Jack London, 1996

Leonard Cassuto and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Rereading Jack London, 1996

Joan Hedrick, Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work, 1982

Carolyn Johnston, Jack London-an American radical? (1984)

Alex Kershaw, Jack London: A Life, 1998

Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Jack London, rev. ed., 1994

James McClintock, White Logic: Jack London's Short Stories, 1975

Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Jack London: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1999

Joan Sherman, Jack London: A Reference Guide, 1977

Andrew Sinclair, Jack: A Biography of Jack London, 1977

Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, Critical Essays on Jack London, 1983

Franklin Walker, Jack London and the Klondike: The Genesis of an American Writer, rev. ed, 1994

Charles N. Watson, The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal, 1983