Who was . . .
Considered by many to be Americas finest author, Jack
London, whose name at birth was John Griffith Chaney, was born
south of the slotan area south of Market Street
and its cable lines in San Francisco, California, on January 12,
1876. The California Historical Society has
placed a plaque, attached to a former Wells Fargo Building at
Third and Brannan Streets, at what was formerly 615 Third Street,
a home destroyed by the famous April 18, 1906 fire that accompanied
the great quake. This plaque states that it marks the birthplace
of the noted author Jack London . . . The plaque marks the
location of the home of the Slocums, friends of Flora, Jacks
mother, where it has been said she was living after her reported
suicide attempt and release from Dr. Ruttleys (which was
on Mission Street). Jacks birth certificate does not indicate
where he was born, so although we cannot verify this as the actual
birthplace of Jack London, at the time, most children were born
at home, so this is feasible.
It is believed that he is the illegitimate son of William
Chaney, an itinerant astrologer and journalist, who deserted Jacks
mother, Flora, a spiritualist, before he was born. Flora married
John London, a Civil War veteran who had recently moved to San
Francisco, eight months after Jack was born. Jack did not learn
the true circumstances of his birth until he was in his early
twenties. Much of his youth was spent in Oakland, California,
on the waterfront.
Jack had little formal schooling. Initially, he attended
school only through the 8th grade, although he was an avid reader,
educating himself at public libraries, especially the Oakland
Public Library under the tutelage of Ina Coolbrith, who later
became the first poet laureate of California. In later years (mid-1890s),
Jack returned to high school in Oakland and graduated. He eventually
gained admittance to U.C. Berkeley, but stayed only for six months,
finding it to be not alive enough and a passionless
pursuit of passionless intelligence.
Jacks extensive life experiences included: being a
laborer, factory worker, oyster pirate on the San Francisco Bay,
member of the California Fish Patrol, sailor, railroad hobo, and
gold prospector (in the Klondike from 1897-1898). In his teens,
he joined Coxeys Army in its famous march on Washington,
D.C., and was later arrested for vagrancy in Erie County, New
York. As a journalist, Jack covered the Russo-Japanese War for
the Hearst newspapers in 1904, and in 1914, he covered the Mexican
Revolution for Colliers.
It was during his cross-country travels that he became acquainted
with socialism, which for many years, became his holy grail.
He became known as the Boy Socialist of Oakland because
of his passionate street corner oratory. In fact, he unsuccessfully
ran for mayor of Oakland several times as the socialist party
In 1900, Jack married his math tutor and friend, Bess Maddern.
It was a Victorian marriage typical of the time, based on good
breeding, not love. With Bess, he had two daughters
Joan and Bess (Becky). Following his separation from
Bess in 1903, he married his secretary, Charmian Kittredge, whom
he considered his Mate Woman and with whom he found
true love. Together, they played, traveled, wrote and enjoyed
life. Their one child, Joy, only lived for thirty-eight hours.
In 1907, with his second wife, Charmian, Jack sailed the
Pacific to the South Seas in the Snark, which became the
basis for his book, The Cruise of the Snark. With Charmian
at his side, he also developed his Beauty Ranch on
1,400 acres of land in Glen Ellen, California.
By his death at age forty on November 22, 1916, Jack had
been plagued for years by a vast number of health problems, including
stomach disturbances, ravaging uremia, and failing kidneys. His
death certificate states that he died of uremic poisoning.
Jack was among the most publicized figures of his day. In
his lectures, he endorsed socialism and womens suffrage.
He was also one of the first celebrities used to endorse commercial
products, such as grape juice and mens suits.
Young Jack Londons exceptional brightness and his
optimistic, buoyant personality eventually combined to transform
his many experiences into a working philosophy of service and
survival. He became the personification for his readers of many
of the virtues and ideals of a turn-of-the-century Western American
man and was the countrys first successful working class
Jack London . . . The Writer
Once Jack had resolved himself
to succeed as an author, his diligent habits and innate skills
catapulted him far beyond most of his literary peers in both perspective
and content. By following a strict writing regimen of 1,000 words
a day, he was able to produce a huge quantity of high quality
work over a period of eighteen years.
Jack had become the best-selling, highest paid and most
popular American author of his time. He was prolific: fifty-one
of his books and hundreds of his articles had been published.
He had written thousands of letters. Many additional works have
been published posthumously. His most notable books include The
Call of the Wild (originally entitled The Sleeping Wolf)
which was published in 1903, The Iron Heel, White Fang,
The Sea-Wolf (originally entitled Mercy of the Sea),
The People of the Abyss (a sociological treatise about
the slums of London, England), John Barleycorn, Martin
Eden, and The Star Rover. His short story, To
Build A Fire, is considered to be an all-time classic. His
writings have been translated in several dozen languages and to
this day continue to be widely read throughout the world.
This American literary genius brilliantly and compassionately
portrayed his life and times, as well as the neverending struggles
of man and nature. Millions of avid readers have been thrilled
by his stories of adventure. Authors and social advocates have
been inspired by his heartfelt prose. Nevertheless, many of his
life experiences were more exciting than his fiction.
Jack London . . . The Sailor
No man has ever loved to sail more than Jack London. Even
as a very young boy, fishing with his stepfather in small boats,
his head would fill with visions of tropical islands and faraway
places. As he grew up, he occasionally
rented boats with money earned from his many part-time jobs. At
fifteen, with the financial assistance of Aunt Jenny
Prentiss, Jack bought a sloop, the Razzle Dazzle, in order
to escape the life of the work beast. He became an
illegal oyster pirate, and before long, had earned the title of
Prince of the Oyster Pirates; he made more money in
one week than he was able to earn in his first full year as a
professional writer. Realizing that the life of an oyster pirate
frequently ended in prison or death, he reformed and became a
California Fish Patrol deputy.
During his lifetime, Jack sailed on a variety of ships including:
the sealing schooner Sophia Sutherland to Japan (on which
he served as an able-bodied seaman); on the steamship SS Umatilla
and the City of Topeka (to Alaska); the RMS Majestic
(to England); the SS Siberia (as correspondent during the
Russo-Japanese War); took a sampan to Korea; bought and sailed
the Spray; designed, built, and sailed the Snark
[named after the humoresque Lewis Carroll story] to Hawaii and
the South Seas; returned from Tahiti to San Francisco on the SS
Mariposa; sailed on the ketch Minota near Tahiti;
sailed from Australia to Ecuador on the Tymeric; cruised
on the San Francisco Bay and environs in the Roamer; sailed
from Seattle to California on the City of Pueblo;
sailed on the Dirigo from New York to San Francisco by
way of Cape Horn; took the US Army transport Kilpatrick
to Mexico (to write about the Mexican Revolution); sailed on fishing
boats; stayed on a houseboat; visited the hospital ship USS Solace,
the repair ship USS Vestal, and the battleships New
York, Arkansas, and Mississippi; returned to Galveston
on the transport Ossabow; sailed to Hawaii on the Matsonia;
and returned to California on the SS Sonoma.
Jack London . . . The Gold
Overcome with Klondike
fever, Jack departed from San Francisco on the SS Umatilla
on July 25, 1897, accompanied and bankrolled by his much older
brother-in-law, Captain Shepard, who returned home after only
two days on the rugged Alaska trails. With nearly 2,000 pounds
of required equipment including warm garments, food, mining
implements, tents, blankets, Klondike stoves, and a copy of Miner
Bruces Alaska, Jack entered the Yukon Territory by
way of the Dyea River and the notorious Chilkoot Pass.
Jack moved into a cabin and staked a claim on Henderson
Creek in early November of 1897, after a month of prospecting.
During the long winter which followed, he became well-known to
his fellow prospectors for his storytelling ability.
In May 1898, he developed a severe case of scurvy from lack
of fresh fruit and vegetables; he could no longer work his claim.
Desperately needing immediate medical attention, he anxiously
awaited the melting of the ice blocking the Yukon River. He eventually
did receive some medical help but was advised to return home.
On June 28, he arrived in St. Michael, after making his way in
a small boat down 1,500 miles of the Yukon River. From St. Michael,
he sailed home.
Jack London gained a tremendous amount of insight and perspective
while in Alaska and the Klondike [in Canada]. Although he had
not discovered much gold, he had uncovered a Mother Lode of experience
from which he would draw material for his future novels and stories.
Upon his return to Oakland, California, he discovered that
his stepfather, John London, had died. At the age of 22, he now
shouldered the responsibility of supporting his mother and his
stepnephew. Despite tackling every job opening possible, he could
not find steady work. In desperation, he sold many of his belongings
and dove into writing. He was talented and prolific, yet at first
all of his manuscripts were rejected. In early December 1898,
he sold his first short story, an Alaskan tale entitled, To
The Man On Trail. His writing career was launched.
Jack London . . . the Rancher
In 1905, while living with Charmian at Wake Robin Lodge
in Glen Ellen, California, Jack London decided to settle permanently
in the Valley of the Moon. In June, he purchased his first piece
of real estate the Hill Ranch 130 beautiful acres
of trees, fields, springs, streams, canyons, hills, and abundant
wildlife. After six additional land
purchases, Jack Londons Beauty Ranch eventually
totaled 1,400 acres and consisted of seven parcels of land bought
between 1905 and 1913.
Jack loved ranch life. At Beauty Ranch, he raised many animals
such as prize bulls, horses, and pigs. He cultivated a wide variety
of crops, including forty acres of wine grapes which were formerly
part of the Kohler-Frohling Winery. By damming a stream that crossed
the property, Jack built a lake for irrigation and recreation.
He introduced terracing and green water mulching. He produced
record yields of oat hay on acreage that had been considered overfarmed.
He experimented with innovative ideas such as growing spineless
cactus, which was developed by his friend, the Plant Wizard,
Luther Burbank (who lived in nearby Santa Rosa), for use as a
cattle feed in arid regions; unfortunately, the cactus was not
completely spineless and could not be used for feed. He imported
thousands of Australian eucalyptus trees hoping the wood could
be used for hardwood lumber and pier pilings, but the wood was
found to be too soft. Jacks Pig Palace was the
showplace of the county. It allowed one man to feed up to two
hundred hogs. And, his ranchs concrete silos were the first
The ranch was also the building site for the majestic Wolf
House. Constructed completely with native redwood trees, locally-quarried
boulders, volcanic rock and blue slate, Wolf House took more than
two years to build. Only a few days before Jack and Charmian were
to move in, the house tragically burned due to spontaneous combustion
caused by a careless oversight by a workman; only the walls were
You can visit and enjoy Jack Londons Beauty Ranch
today. It is now a California State Historic Park which includes
the House of Happy Walls museum, the Pig Palace, Jack Londons
grave, the Lake, the Wolf House ruins, and more.
To read: A Chronology of Jack Londons Life . . . click here.
It is difficult to include all the events that occurred
in Jack Londons life, especially the publication dates of
all the books, articles, jokes, essays, and other writings, but
we think youll find this to be one of the most complete
and accurate chronologies in existence. It is an
excerpt from The Wit and Wisdom of Jack London. Find out
more details about this book at our Bookstore.
Text © 1990 and 1999 by WORDSWORTH. All rights
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