Jack London, 1876 - 1916

portrait of Jack London
From Little Pilgrimages (1903)
Jack London signature

Born: 12 January 1876, San Francisco, California
Died: 22 November 1916, Glen Ellen, California

It is assumed that John Griffith had a surname on his birth certificate, but no trace of that document survives. His mother, Flora Wellman, was living with an astrologer, William H. Chaney, at the time of the birth. When she refused to get an abortion, he left, and later told London that he was impotent and couldn't have been the father. When Flora married John London, the infant got the surname and was called Jack to avoid confusion. The family moved frequently in the Bay Area, settling in Oakland when Jack was ten, where he discovered the library. By this time Jack was working regularly, at twelve he was a competent sailor, at fifteen he was known as the "Prince of Oyster Pirates", poaching from oyster beds. The next year he switched sides, becoming a deputy patrolman for the California Fish Patrol. He worked demanding physical jobs, including serving as a seaman on a voyage to Hawaii, and spent some time with the hoboes, among whom he was known as "Frisco Kid". Returning to Oakland he entered high school at nineteen, finishing in a year and a half, and published his first story based on the Hawaii cruise. He headed north to the Yukon for the Klondike Gold Rush, found little gold but came down with scurvy which cost him his front teeth. Over the next few years he wrote some of his best work, based on his life experiences afloat, in Alaska, and riding the rails, but also handled several overseas assignments as a journalist. Known as the "Boy Socialist" as early as 1896, he twice ran as a socialist for mayor of Oakland. In 1905 he bought his thousand-acre Beauty Ranch at Glen Ellen. In 1907 he launched the Snark, a boat he built for a seven-year circumnavigation. After a return to Oakland the next year, he and his second wife got to Sydney, Australia, Jack suffering from several tropical ailments and in need of a double fistula surgery. He continued to take reporting assignments but his writing was, by his own admission, only for money and generally lacked the power of his early work. He devoted time to building and managing the ranch but spent half of most years away, apparently some of his staff didn't take his efforts at management seriously although some ecologically sound agricultural practices were decades ahead of their time. In July of 1916 he returned to the ranch from six months in Hawaii, suffering from rheumatism and uremia which caused him great pain. His years of heavy smoking, drinking, and generally aggressive living caught up with him. It was widely thought that his death was suicide but most current biographers conclude that if a morphine overdose was involved it would have been accidental, he needed it for the pain.

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