John Griffith London

By Dr. Clarice Stasz

John Griffith London (1876-1916) was born in San Francisco of an unmarried mother, Flora Wellman. His father may have been William Chaney, a journalist, lawyer, and major figure in the development of American astrology. Because Flora was ill, Jack was raised through infancy by an ex-slave, Virginia Prentiss, who would remain a major maternal figure while the boy grew up. Late in 1876, Flora married John London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran. The family moved around the Bay area before settling in Oakland, where Jack completed grade school. Though the family was working class, it was not so impoverished as London's later accounts claimed.

As an adolescent, London worked at various hard labor jobs, pirated for oysters on San Francisco Bay, served on a fish patrol to capture poachers, sailed the Pacific to Japan on the Sophia Sutherland, joined Kelly's Army of unemployed working men, hoboed around the country, was imprisoned for vagrancy in the Erie Peniteniary, and returned to attend high school at age 19. In the process, he became acquainted with socialism and was known as the "Boy Socialist of Oakland" for his street corner oratory, and would run unsuccessfully several times on the socialist ticket as mayor. Always a prolific reader, he consciously chose to become a writer to escape from the horrific prospects of a life as a factory worker. He studied other writers and began to submit stories, jokes, and poems to various publications, mostly without success.

Spending the winter of 1897 in the Yukon provided the metaphorical gold for his first stories, which he began publishing in the Overland Monthly in 1899. From that point he was a highly disciplined writer, who would produce over fifty volumes of stories, novels, and political essays. Although The Call of the Wild (1903) brought him lasting fame, many of his short stories deserve to be called classics, as does his critique of capitalism and poverty in The People of the Abyss (1903), and his stark discussion of alcoholism in John Barleycorn (1913). London's long voyage (1907-09) across the Pacific in a small boat provided material for books and stories about Polynesian and Melanesian cultures. He was instrumental in breaking the taboo over leprosy.

London was among the most publicized figures of his day, and he used this pulpit to endorse his support of socialism, women's suffrage, and prohibition. He was among the first writers to work with the movie industry, and saw a number of his novels made into films. He was also one of the first celebrities to use his endorsement for commercial products in advertising.

Because he was an autodidact, London's ideas lacked consistency and precision. For example, he clearly accepted the Social Darwinism and scientific racism prevalent at this time, yet he seem troubled that the "inevitable white man," as he called him, would destroy the rich cultures of various native groups he had encountered over the years. He could write with great empathy for native people or those enslaved in Pacific islands. Although he supported women's suffrage and created some of the most independent and strong female characters in American fiction, he was patriarchal toward his two wives and daughters. His socialism was fervent, but countered by his strong drive toward individualism and capitalist success. These contradictory themes in his life and writing make him a difficult figure to reduce to simple terms.

London's great love became agriculture, and he often stated he wrote to support his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen. He brought to California techniques observed in Japan, such as terracing and manure spreading, and was accomplished in animal husbandry. He was far ahead of his time in conceiving of the ranch as self-sufficient and self-regenerating. His Wolf House, for example, was built of rock and lumber from his property. He was much influenced by the Arts and Crafts philosophy in these regards.

London's first marriage (1900) was to Bess Maddern, with whom he had two daughters, Joan and Bess. In choosing her, he followed the precept in a book he co-wrote with Anna Strunsky, The Kempton-Wace Letters, that mates should be selected for good breeding, not love. Following an affair with "New Woman" Charmian Kittredge, five years his senior, he divorced Bess. In 1905 he married his "Mate Woman," who became the persona for many of his female characters and who avidly joined him on his many travel ventures. He encouraged her own writing career.

Often troubled by physical ailments, during his thirties London developed kidney disease of unknown origin. He died on November 22, 1916 on the ranch of renal failure, and doctors still offer varying reasons for his death. (He did not commit suicide.) His writings became translated in several dozen languages, and he remains more widely read in some countries outside of the United States today than in his home country. He remains a key figure for examining the contradictions in the American character, and key movements and ideas prominent during the Progressive era.

Following London's death, for a number of reasons a biographical myth developed in which he has been portrayed as an alcoholic womanizer who committed suicide. Recent scholarship based upon firsthand documents challenges this caricature. But its persistence has resulted in neglect of his full literary ouevre and his significance as a seminal figure in turn-of-the-century social history.

Copyright © Dr. Clarice Stasz. All rights reserved.
Document maintained at Last update 30 July 2013.