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Frequently Asked Questions

Here find answers regarding: who to contact, writing an essay, First Editions, his racial beliefs, his Credo, his death, and his Scab essay.

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HELP! I have a paper due. I need to find literary criticism on The Call of the Wild (or any of London's writings)?

Your teacher may not realize how difficult it is to find literary criticism at your local library. Large public libraries, junior colleges, and universities have books and journals in this field, but they are often available only to students. Public libraries have noncirculating guides in their reference sections. See, for example, Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. If you cannot find anything, let your teacher know.

Whatever the library you have available, ask the reference librarian for help. They welcome questions, and will know what is readily available to help you. Your library may even have a chat service so you can ask from home.

A thorough source on all stages of essay writing is the Purdue Writing Online lab. They have many helpful guides available to students and teachers who are not members of the university. You can find OWL guides here.

Did London use recreational drugs, like alcohol, opiates like heroin, or marijuana?

It is well-established he drank alcohol, from an early age. Charmian London notes his drinking in her diaries. She also remarks when he stops for a period. He drank more in certain situations, such as when he was in cities or certain social situations. He did have binges, along with abstinence, so he did not use alcohol consistently. He did not consider himself an alcoholic, and wrote about his history of drink and support of Prohibition in John Barleycorn. Some might consider his behavior alcoholic, others not.

With regard to opiates, some writers, such as Irving Stone, Andrew Sinclair and E. L. Doctorow, argued London may have overdosed the night he died, either on purpose as a suicide or from accident. Heroin was not made illegal until 1924. So heroin and related drugs could be found in over-the-counter forms, including in medicines for children. A vial at the JL Historical Park Museum has the label "Terpin Hydrate and Heroin." In 2021, Richard Rocco selected a variety of artfacts, including London's medical kits, to use the latest technology to test for drugs. He found found partially full vials of drugs in the doses normally used at the time for pain. As for the museum vial, he found it was a common cough suppressant, always found as a combination with heroin. Rocco concluded that the medical evidence revealed kits typical of the day. He concluded London was taking heroin and opiates in the manner of anyone then. In other words, proof of abuse was not present given the evidence. See Meg McConahey, "Debunking History: New Testing Technology Disproves Theory That Writer Abused Drugs," The Press Democrat, July 24, 2022, pp. D1, D6.

With regard to marijuana, Charmian London reported on a party in the Solomon Islands where everyone tried the drug. Otherwise there is little evidence of it being used in the London household as a regularity.

I have a Jack London first edition (or original photograph, letter, etc.) What is it worth? If I want to sell it, where should I go?

The key reference book is Jack London First Editions by James E. Sisson and Robert Martens. Star Rover House, 1979.

With regard to First Editions, be aware many of Jack's books went into reprintings. Read the copyright page carefully verify it is the actual first. The most valuable first editions have the original paper book jackets. Macmillan books, with their gilded cover markings, are beautiful examples of the publishing craft. A book's value is affected partly by the number of copies produced. A first of The Call of the Wild will not be as valuable as The Kempton-Wace Letters. Complicating the situation even more, shortly after his death a family member took to 'rubber stamping' London's signature on first edition books to increase their value (at the publishers request). For example, the  edition of The Human Drift (MacMillan) was published after Jack London's death, and 'signed' by him. These stamped signatures do not affect the value of London's posthumous publications.  

If you want to sell your books or private papers and photographs relating to Jack London, consult with a book and manuscript auction house in a major city, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, or San Francisco. There is a strong market for top quality material. If your book is not in prime condition, not a first edition, or a reprint by Grolier's, you may find auction house catalogs useful as well. You can always sell the book yourself, but identify the edition to be fair with the buyer.

Was Jack London racist?

Scholars are puzzled how a man who remained close to his Black nurse throughout childhood and played with her children ignored the condition of American Blacks in his public statements and writings. This was a time when the dominant scientific argument was Scientific Racism, the assertion that non-Whites were inferior genetically. It was a view taught at the leading universities like Stanford and Berkeley. At the same time, within the country the oppression of Blacks became stronger and more public, so London read about lynchings, for example. Yet he wiped out the role of the Prentiss family in his autobiographical accounts, and omitted African Americans from his fiction. In earlier stories, he valorizes the Anglo-Saxon ideal, which excludes Whites who come from Central and Southern Europe. (Hungarians then were described to be "feeble-minded.)

Further confusing the issue, London was proud of his being White and made a point of this fact when relevant. He recognized the destructive behaviors of the race as expressed through colonialism. Despite his belief in the inferiority of other races, he recognized positive qualities. With regard to U.S. issues, he wrote against the lynching that was reviving in the early 1900s.

In California, the animosity directed toward the Chinese immigrants who came over for the Gold Rush and later to build the railroads. California refused citizenship to the Chinese, and for a period refused entry of Chinese women to prevent marriage formation. Authorities little prosecuted attacks on the Chinese. When London wrote about the "Yellow Peril," he foresaw the future rise of China and its competitive role in trade more than war. Accordingly, his journalism from the Russo-Japanese War revealed his admiration for Japanese people of all sectors of the society. His writings warned that close-minded anti-Asian views would imperil the United States.

Similarly, once London became exposed to the treatment of Blacks natives in the South Pacific, he wrote stories critical of colonialism and its ill-treatment of the people. Not all readers agree. A good example is "Mauki." He seems to describe various South Sea native groups by use of stereotypes, but do the plots sympathize or agree with the characterization? Similarly, his boxing journalism, while expecting the White to win, readily allowed when the Black victor deserved the belt.

London's views changed as a result of his living in Hawaii late in his life. Where once he argued against "mongrelization," he gave speeches in praise of the Hawaiian mixed population and its ability to live peacefully. His final unfinished novel, Cherry, concerns such a mixed-race romance. He died an Internationalist, convinced peace required international agreements and cooperation.

Where London was more outspoken was his anti-Semitism. When he was angry with someone identified as Jewish, he invoked common name-calling of the day. So did his second wife, Charmian London, who first adored Irving Stone--until she found out he deceived her.

The answer, then, is complicated. As you read, you may develop a conclusion that differs with this one. Welcome to the complicated world of scholarship.

Where is the poem that says something about "I'd rather be ashes than dust" or something about being a meteor? His Credo?

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.

Did Jack London actually write these words? No extant copy is available in his own handwriting or in any of his publications. The source above comes from a book edited by Irving Shepard, Jack London's Tales of Adventure (New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. vii.) Shepard was London's literary executor following Charmian London's death. He had grown up on the ranch, having been the only son of Jack's stepsister, Eliza London Shepard. A more contemporary source appeared in a news article which may have been Shepard's source. Journalist Ernest J. Hopkins had visited the ranch just weeks before London's death, and reported the following in the San Francisco Bulletin, 2 December 1916:

"'I would rather be ashes than [sic] said Jack London not two months before his death, to a group of friends with whom he was discussing, as he loved to discuss, the eternal problems of life and living.

'I would rather be ashes than dust.' The words, with their strange double significance, are now recalled with emotion by those friends. When he made that striking summary of his personal philosophy, London was marvelously alive.He irradiated vigor. Every breath that he drew was to him a brilliant sensation. Every moment of his time was crammed with events.he was in love with life--an[d] with vitality--ablaze with the joy and the poignancy and the overwhelming interest of "The Game."

Let there be no misunderstanding of his phrase; Jack London did not mean to say that, after death, he would prefer the ashes of cremation to the dust of ordinary burial.Nothing was further from him than the thought that he himself was, as he put it, soon to 'go into the silence.' Of all the ardent group that heard him on that occasion, he was the most alive. Beside him all other men seemed colorless. But he was talking about life, not about death. He was giving his law of conduct, not his preference in funeral customs.

'I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than that it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to LIVE. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.'

'I would rather be ashes than dust. In those words London perfectly expressed himself. Never content to do his thinking by halves, upon that instinct for supreme activity he constructed a philosophy that was consistent, if unusual. Absorbed in today, he could not envisage a hereafter. Enthusiastic over tangible facts and present sensations, he believed that ease was cowardice; that the stronger must over conquer the weaker; that intellectuality divorced from action was wasted an futile that man and the animals were of one nature, man having no quality that was not rudimentarily present in horses and dogs; that after death the human being was 'just meat.'  Amid these tangible ideas there was room for race-memories, but not for superstitions. There was room for violent work, intense play, fierce fighting, mad adventure, thoughtful planning, but not for pretty dreaming, not for dogma, not for detached theorization. His thought was essentially practical...."The question London scholars have is whether these words are all London's and as he expressed them. More than today quotes were unreliable or even sheer inventions. The full passage has many marks of London's style--its directness, its rhythm, its diction--to persuade that it is authentic.

That all was not Hopkins' invention can be found further in one document in London's own handwriting. While visiting Australian suffragette Vida Goldstein in Melbourne, he placed the following in her Autograph Book. (The book is owned by a private collector who provided a photocopy of the page.)

Dear Miss Goldstein:--  
Seven years ago I wrote you that I'd rather be ashes than dust. I still subscribe to that sentiment.  
Sincerely yours,  
Jack London  
Jan. 13, 1909

This is a tantalizing clue that he did compose some statement in the form of the Credo, but it is far from complete.  Until new evidence appears, the only words a scrupulous historian would attribute to Jack London with certainty are "I would rather be ashes than dust."

Did London commit suicide? (Several books and encyclopedia state that he did.)

This claim was made by London's good friend George Sterling, and was published by Irving Stone in Sailor on Horseback in 1938. Consequently, the point was made in enough later books and reference articles that it was accepted as true. In later years, scholars debated the point, and a pharmacologist, Alfred Shivers, wrote an essay disputing Stone's evidence. Most agree that he was mortally ill around the time of his death. Whether he may have taken a dose of morphine or not, and whether he accidentally overdosed, is still under discussion.  
"No Suicide" by Reinhard Wissdorf includes his correspondence with Encarta regarding this point. Read it for a good informal introduction to these points.  
For a more recent view, read this article by Earle Labor.

Where is Jack London's essay on "The Scab," which has been quoted in various labor actions?

This essay is more complex than one would suppose from the title. It was a speech later published in the Atlantic magazine, and in a collection of essays, The War of the Classes. Here he discusses capitalist scabs, and the United States economy as a scab in relation to other nations. You may find that the quote you have is not in this essay, because the late James Sisson III determined that some of the statements regarding scabs attributed to London actually come from other sources.

Despite the opening of the essay, which might lead a reader to think it is critical of scabs, London reveals how scabs and working men on strike shared commonality of social class. The solution to their plight would be in Socialism and class struggle, not in unionism. For a careful discussion of this essay, consult Jay Williams, Author Under Sail, Vol. 2, Ch.2  (University of Nebraska, 2021).

Here are the opening paragraphs:

"In a competitive society, where men struggle with one another for food and shelter, what is more natural than that generosity, when it diminishes the food and shelter of men other than he who is generous, should be held an accursed thing? Wise old saws to the contrary, he who takes from a man's purse takes from his existence. To strike at a man's food and shelter is to strike at his life, and in a society organized on a tooth-and-nail basis, such an act, performed though it may be under the guise of generosity, is none the less menacing and terrible.

It is for this reason that a laborer is so fiercely hostile to another laborer who offers to work for less pay or longer hours. To hold his place (which is to live), he must offset this offer by another equally liberal, which is equivalent to giving away somewhat from the food and shelter he enjoys. To sell his day's work for two dollars instead of two dollars and a half means that he, his wife, and his children will not have so good a roof over their heads, such warm clothes on their backs, such substantial food in their stomachs. Meat will be bought less frequently, and it will be tougher and less nutritious; stout new shoes will go less often on the children's feet; and disease and death will be more imminent in a cheaper house and neighborhood."