Jack London was born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876, the illegitimate son of Flora Wellman, the rebellious daughter of an aristocratic family, and William Chaney, a traveling astrologer who abandoned Flora when she became pregnant. Eight months after her son was born, Flora married John London, a grocer and Civil War veteran whose last name the infant took. London grew up in Oakland, and his family was mired in poverty throughout his youth. He remained in school only through the eighth grade but was a voracious reader and a frequent visitor to the Oakland Public Library, where he went about educating himself and laying the groundwork for his impending literary career.
In his adolescent years, London led a rough life, spending time as a pirate in San Francisco Bay, traveling the Far East on sealing expeditions, and making his way across America as a tramp. Finally, London returned to Oakland and graduated from high school. He was even admitted to the University of California at Berkeley, but he attended for only a semester. The Klondike gold rush (in Canada’s Yukon Territory) had begun, and in 1897 London left college to seek his fortune in the snowy north.
The gold rush did not make London rich, but it furnished him with plenty of material for his career as a writer, which began in the late 1890s and continued until his death in 1916. He worked as a reporter, covering the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s; meanwhile, he published over fifty books and became, at the time, America’s most famous author. For a while, he was one of the most widely read authors in the world. He embodied, it was said, the spirit of the American West, and his portrayal of adventure and frontier life seemed like a breath of fresh air in comparison with nineteenth-century Victorian fiction, which was often overly concerned with what had begun to seem like trivial and irrelevant social norms.
London was married twice—once in 1900, to his math tutor and friend Bess Maddern, and again in 1905, to his secretary Charmian Kittredge, whom he considered his true love. As his works soared in popularity, he became a contradictory figure, arguing for socialist principles and women’s rights even as he himself lived a materialist life of luxury, sailing the world in his boat, the Snark, and running a large ranch in northern California. Meanwhile, he preached equality and the brotherhood of man, even as novels like The Call of the Wild celebrated violence, power, and brute force.
London died young, on November 22, 1916. He had been plagued by stomach problems and failing kidneys for years, but many have suggested that his death was a suicide. Whatever the cause, it is clear that London, who played various roles as a journalist, novelist, prospector, sailor, pirate, husband, and father, lived life to the fullest.