Jack London

Jeanne Campbell Reesman

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Jack London

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John Griffith Chaney, later Jack London (b. 1876–d. 1916), was born into a turbulent bohemian world in San Francisco, the child of Flora Wellman and, she believed, her common-law husband, William Henry Chaney, an itinerant astrologer who deserted her. However, there is also evidence for the possibility that John London, who married Flora nine months after her child’s birth, was actually his father. On the night of London’s birth, 12 January 1876, Flora was very weak and was not able to nurse her boy, and he was given to a wet nurse, Virginia Prentiss, a former slave from Tennessee who had made her way to Oakland, California; she had lost her baby that night. Flora married John London on 7 September of that year. Jack heard from a family member at age twenty-one that John was not his father. Perhaps in part because of the psychological dualities of his childhood, London frequently attempted to conjoin opposites in his work, such as socialism and individualism, wanderlust and love of home, travel overseas and California ranching, Friedrich Nietzsche versus Karl Marx or Charles Darwin, racism versus brotherhood. He wrote fifty books on extremely diverse subjects, including 198 short stories. His home, the Beauty Ranch, forms Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. He journeyed as a war correspondent and travel writer to dozens of countries, from the East End of London, England, to Korea, Japan, Hawaii, the Marquesas, the Society Islands, Fiji, and the Solomons. London was not just an adventurer who came home and wrote down his activities, however, as he is sometimes characterized, and he did not write only about dogs, though The Call of the Wild made him world famous in 1903. He was a constant reader, one who drew deeply from sources extending from the classics to psychiatric journals, to farming manuals, to the latest works of Darwin or Herbert Spencer or Thomas Henry Huxley alongside the writings of Henry James; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and Joseph Conrad. London’s personal files at the Huntington Library are filled with torn-out articles marked up by him—many the sources of story ideas—from the leading magazines and journals of the day. London married twice, first to Bess Maddern, with whom he had two children and who divorced him in 1905, and then to Charmian Kittredge, who outlived him. London died on 22 November 1916 of kidney failure, probably brought on eight years earlier, when he sailed aboard his yacht, the Snark, with Charmian and a small crew for two years through the South Seas. There he contracted tropical diseases, including yaws or Solomon Island sores, a flesh-eating bacterium. He used the approved treatment of the time, applying corrosive sublimate of mercury to the skin sores. The Snark voyage, his greatest adventure, is ironically what killed him.

Article.  20985 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

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