Biographies of Jack London

By Dr. Clarice Stasz
Sonoma State University

Introduction

No definitive or fully reliable biography of Jack London exists to date. Part of the reason is the literary estate has until recent years limited access to the private papers and manuscripts at the Huntington Library and Utah State University. As a result, some biographers used only secondary sources and hearsay information. To date, those writers with access to the papers have not attempted a comprehensive biography that integrates London's life, writing, activism, and agriculture.

Furthermore, London interpolated many of his experiences and adventures into his fiction. Consequently, unsophisticated interpreters too quickly presume that characters such as Martin Eden are an accurate representation of London's early adulthood. Some biographers have even quoted characters from London's fiction as representing himself.

Finally, a variety of circumstances have resulted in a mythology developing around London. Some journalists and encyclopedia writers continue to promulgate a version of London that does not hold up to scholarly scrutiny, namely, the womanizing alcoholic whose repeated failures resulted in his commiting suicide. This caricaturing and projection of a Hemmingwayesque personality substitutes for a thoughtful examination of the evidence and subtle interpretation of this very complex man.

Readers should be very demanding of evidence when examining these biographical studies, and check more than one source on any particular episode. Obviously, arguments based upon what historians call primary sources--letters, diaries, firsthand accounts written close to the event--are more credible than secondary sources--newspaper articles, memoirs written long after the event, or hearsay.

Biographies

Foner, Philip. Rebel Jack London: American Rebel. (Citadel Press, 1947). Writing without access to the private papers, Foner nonetheless weaves a provocative interpretation of London's socialism and its context in social history.

Haley, James L. Wolf: The Lives of Jack London. (Basic Books, 2010). This is a lively and entertaining read, with attention to London's socialism as well as his writing. Yet it fails to keep up with significant scholarship in its failure to separate London's claims about his life from realities.

Hedrick, Joan. Solitary Comrade. (University of North Carolina Press, 1982). Argues that London's socialism was attenuated by his mobility into the middle class and subsequent success. Some scholars question that London's socialism waned so in later life.

Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. (St. Martin's Press, 1997). Concentrates on London as "lover, fighter, and onetime hobo" and a "hard-drinking womanizer." A dramatic read, but suffers from uncritical use of sources and hyperbole.

Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Life of Jack London (Crown, 1979). Richly illustrated, the text emphasizes where Jack was when in great detail. A "keeper of the flame," Kingman tends to be an apologist. Still, this is the most reliable reference for London's chronology.

Johnston, Carolyn. Jack London--An American Radical? (Greenwood, 1966). A well-researched overview of London's socialist thought and activities.

Labor, Earle. Jack London. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014.) Having researched London for fifty years, Labor integrates his life and literature deftly while correcting commonly published myths.

London, Charmian Kittredge. The Book of Jack London, 2 volumes (Century, 1921). Uneven account that omits Jack's illegitimacy, yet has surprisingly frank information nonetheless concerning his personality. Quotes many letters, notes, and conversations.

London, Joan. Jack London and His Times (Doubleday, 1939). Scholarly and well-researched study, primarily of London's socialism, by the daughter who saw little of him. Biased by her particular Trotskyite leanings at the time of the writing and her unresolved anger towards her father.

London, Joan. Jack London and His Daughters (Heyday, 1990). An incomplete manuscript, written not to contribute to London studies, but to warn parents against dissension over children following divorce. (Unpublished notes on the incomplet chapters show she had resolved her previous ill feelings toward her father.)

O'Connor, Richard. Jack London: A Biography (Little, Brown, 1964). Uneven account, limited because the author had no access to London's private papers. Emphasizes pathology rather than literary, political, and agricultural contributions. Some insightful passages nonetheless from this noted biographer of his day.

Sinclair, Andrew. Jack: A Biography of Jack London (Harper & Row, 1977). The author had access to London's private papers, and has a strong analytical sense. A curious preoccupation with London's medical history throws the account off balance at times, yet this is a significant contribution.

Starr, Kevin. The Sonoma Finale of Jack London, Rancher in Americans and the California Dream (Oxford, 1973). One of the best historians of California culture misses in this powerfully written yet error-ridden essay.  Useful for understanding the regional context of London's activities.

Stasz, Clarice. American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London (St. Martin's, 1988; iUniverse, 1999). A dual biography that specifically addresses London's relationships with women, his view of the "New Woman" so common in his stories. Woven within is the life of his adventurous second wife, who became his literary help mate.

Stasz, Clarice. Jack London's Women. (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.) A revisionist biography that corrects many errors from previous works due to misrepresentating or neglecting of London's mother Flora, foster mother Virginia Prentiss, wives Bess Maddern and Charmian London, daughters Joan and Becky, stepsister Eliza, and close friend Anna Strunsky. Focus is on his life, not his writings.

Stone, Irving. Sailor on Horseback: The Biography of Jack London. (Houghton Mifflin, 1938). Once the most widely read and available biography. However, scholars have noted that Stone's work at times incorporated London's fiction as the basis for fact. Recent research also questions some of his conclusions concerning London's ranching achievements, his death, and other details.

Walker, Franklin. Jack London and the Klondike (Huntington, 1966). Scholarly and reliable discussion of London's life in the Yukon. Exemplary history of this very brief episode.

Critical Essays

Etulain, Richard. The Lives of Jack London, Western American Literature (Summer, 1976): 149-64. A well-balanced assessment of biographies written to that date.

Shivers, Alfred. "Jack London: Author in Search of a Biographer." American Book Collector 12 (March 1962): 25-27. Discusses deficiencies in early biographies as well as in London's own autobiographical writings.

_______. "Jack London: Not a Suicide." The Dalhousie Review 49 (Spring 1969): 43-57. An expert in pharmacology, Shivers convincingly undercuts claims that London killed himself with an overdose of morphine.

Stasz, Clarice. The Social Construction of Biography: The Case of Jack London, Modern Fiction Studies (Spring, 1976): 51-71.  Examines persistent myths and biases in biographies concerning London's birth, personality, alcohol consumption, marriage to Charmian, and working-class perspective.

Editor: Clarice Stasz, Emerita Professor of History, Sonoma State University.
Send suggestions, additions, or corrections to: Clarice Stasz.
Document maintained at http://london.sonoma.edu/Essays/londonbio.html.
Last updated May 2016.