"I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me." - Jack London
John "Jack" Griffith London was born in 1876. His mother, Flora Wellman, was the youngest child of Pennsylvania Canal builder Marshall Wellman. London's father is believed to be astrologer William Chaney, with whom Flora was living in San Francisco when she became pregnant in 1875. It is not clear whether the couple were legally married, or whether Chaney's name was on Jack London's birth certificate as most of San Francisco's civil records were lost in the fires following the 1906 earthquake, but what is known is that, according to Flora, Chaney demanded that she have an abortion and when she refused he disclaimed all parental responsibility. In desparation she shot herself but was not seriously wounded. After the birth of her son, Flora handed over care of the baby to ex-slave Virginia Prentiss, who remained a significant figure throughout London's life.
In 1876 Flora married John London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran, and the small family moved to Oakland where John, who acquired the nickname Jack early on, attended grade school. By 1889, barely into his teens, Jack was working long hours at a cannery and was not attending school. Thus, it would seem that Jack was essentially self-educated, thanks in large part to Oakland Public Librarian Ina Coolbrith (later California's first poet laureate) who encouraged his love of reading. Soon after, thanks to a loan from Virginia Prentiss, he bought a boat to harvest oysters but shortly after the boat was damaged beyond repair; after which he was hired as a member of the California Fish Patrol. At about aged 17, he signed on to a sealing schooner bound for Japan. When he returned home in 1893, the country was in the grips of an economic depression. After working grueling jobs in a jute mill and power plant, he joined a protest march, known either as Coxey's Army or Kelly's Army, and became a tramp, spending a month in 1894 in a prison in Buffalo for vagrancy.
After all this he returned to Oakland where he enrolled in high school and, after a summer of intense studying, passed the exams to attend the University of California, Berkeley in 1896. Shortly after, aged 21, Jack researched the newspaper accounts of his mother's suicide attempt and wrote to William Chaney, who replied denying that he could be London's father and claimed that his mother had had relations with multiple men. London was devastated by the letter and soon after quit school (which might have been as much to do with financial circumstances as shock at Chaney's letter) and went to the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada.
He returned to Oakland two years later, determined to get an education and "sell his brains" - seeing writing as his ticket out of poverty. Although his writing career started slowly, and he nearly packed it in when he was paid just $5 for his first published story, he stuck with it and in 1900 made $2500 from writing (about $70,000 today). In 1903 he sold The Call of the Wild to the Saturday Evening Post and book rights to Macmillan, and his reputation was established.
He married twice, once in 1900 for four years, resulting in two daughters; and again in 1905 to Charmian Kittredge. In 1905 London purchased a ranch in Sonoma County which he hoped would become a successful business, but sadly it turned out to be an economic failure. To add insult to injury, the Londons spent $80,000 building a 15,000 square-foot home on the property, which was destroyed by fire two weeks before they were due to move in.
Jack London died in 1916 at forty years of age. Some sources say his death was a suicide but this is unproven. His death certificate lists the cause of death as uremia following acute renal colic (commonly caused by kidney stones). London was in extreme pain and had been taking morphine, so it is possible that his death was due to an overdose, whether accidental or deliberate. His ashes (and those of Charmian who died in 1955) were buried in what is now Jack London State Historic Park in California. The grave is marked only by a mossy boulder.
Image: Jack and Charmian London, circa 1911
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