Jack London

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London, Jack

(John Griffith London), 1876–1916, American author, b. San Francisco. The illegitimate son of William Chaney, an astrologer, and Flora Wellman, a seamstress and medium, he had a poverty-stricken childhood, and was brought up by his mother and her subsequent husband, John London. At 17 he shipped out as an able seaman to Japan and the Bering Sea. He was at times an oyster poacher, a hobo, a laborer, a gold-seeker in the first Klondike rush, and a newspaper correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War and Mexican Revolution. His stories, romantic adventures with realistic characters and settings, often where life is harsh and hard to sustain, began to appear first in the Overland Monthly and soon after in The Atlantic. In 1900, The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North was published. London's Klondike tales are exciting, vigorous, and brutal. The Call of the Wild (1903), about a tame dog who becomes wild and eventually leads a wolf pack, is one of the best animal stories ever written. Among his other works are The Sea-Wolf (1904), White Fang (1905), and Smoke Bellew (1912). Martin Eden (1909) and Burning Daylight (1910) are partly autobiographical. Although he was a highly paid writer of extremely popular fiction, London, a socialist, considered his social tracts—The People of the Abyss (1903) and The Iron Heel (1907)—as his most important work. The Cruise of the Snark (1911) is a vivid account of his interrupted voyage around the world in a 50-ft (15.2-m) ketch-rigged yacht, and John Barleycorn; or, Alcoholic Memoirs (1913) is autobiographical. Beset in his later years by alcoholism and financial difficulties, London died at the age of 40. There is a museum in Shreveport, La., devoted to London and his works.


See C. London, his second wife, The Log of the Snark (1915), Our Hawaii (1917), and The Book of Jack London (2 vol., 1921); biographies by his daughter, Joan London (1969), and by J. Hedrick (1982), A. Sinclair (1983), C. Stasz (1988), A. Kershaw (1998), and E. Labor (2013); studies by E. Labor (1977) and C. Watson (1982).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

London, Jack


(John Griffith London). Born Jan. 12, 1876, in San Francisco; died Nov. 22, 1916, in Glen Ellen, near San Francisco. American writer. London was the surname of his stepfather, a bankrupt farmer.

In his youth London held many different jobs. In 1893, as a common sailor he went on his first ocean voyage, to the coast of Japan. He joined a march of the unemployed on Washington in 1894 and spent a month in prison for vagrancy. The next year he joined the American Socialist Workers’ Party; from 1901 to 1916 he was a member of the American Socialist Party. After independent study, London passed the entrance examinations of the University of California but left after the third semester for lack of money. Seized by “gold fever,” he spent the winter of 1897-98 in Alaska. In 1899 he began to publish his stories of the far north, subsequently included in the collections The Son of the Wolf (1900), The God of His Fathers (1901), and Children of the Frost (1902). The themes of these stories reappear in the novel A Daughter of the Snows (1902) and in such outstanding animal tales as The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906).

In his stories of the north London contrasts bourgeois civilization with untouched nature. However, his faith in a beneficent, purifying nature is mingled with reverence for the technical and cultural achievements of civilization and with glorification of the Anglo-Saxons, who bring this civilization to “backward” peoples. Attracted to the writings of H. Spencer and F. Nietzsche, London to some extent poeticizes the “right of the strong.” His early stories frequently portray the superiority of the white new-comers to the “redskins.” Only gradually does he come to understand the tragedy of the ruin of Alaska and of the native population of America, the Indians. In contrast to the plunderers, the positive hero of London’s stories of the north is the strong-willed, courageous individual, prepared to come to the aid of a friend and capable of great and genuine love.

The nobility of human nature and the colorful world of exotic characters and adventures also appear in London’s works on sea themes, but these works reflect the unresolved contradictions in the author’s world view. The novel The Sea Wolf (1904, Russian translation, 1911) is a complex, ambiguous work, condemning individualism and the Nietzschean philosophy of the “superman.” He forcefully criticizes the expansionist policies of American imperialism in the collection South Sea Tales (1911).

After reading Gorky’s Foma Gordeev (his review of the novel was published in 1901), defense of the downtrodden became an increasingly important aspect of London’s work. In The People of the Abyss (1903; Russian translation, 1906, under the title Lower Depths) he portrays the terrible fate of the poor in the East End of London, which he had visited a short time before. He was also a skillful reporter and a master of the documentary sketch. Several times he served as a war correspondent. Enthusiastically welcoming the Russian Revolution of 1905-07, London traveled throughout the United States, delivering lectures to worker and student audiences. He published a series of articles on the class struggle in the United States, later collected in The War of the Classes (1905) and Revolution (1910). In the novel The Iron Heel (1908, Russian translation, 1912), London sharply criticized the kings of finance and industry. This Utopian novel depicts the struggle for the social transformation of the world, for which the professional revolutionary Ernest Everhard and his comrades lay down their lives.

London’s novel Martin Eden, in which Gorky’s influence is particularly strong, appeared during the period of waning revolutionary enthusiasm and the onset of reaction in the United States. London defended the right of the writer to depict life’s harsh truths and to involve himself actively in real life. London was the first author in American literature to treat the theme of the destruction of talent. Martin Eden is alone, and his tragedy lies in his inability to find his place in the popular struggle for liberation. In 1919, V. V. Mayakovsky wrote a screenplay based on the novel (Not Born for Money) and starred in the film.

London’s political activity ceased in 1910. Shortly before his death he left the American Socialist Party, saying that he had lost faith in its “fighting spirit.” With certain exceptions, notably the play Theft (1910) and the novella The Mexican (1911), the artistic quality of London’s works between 1911 and 1916 is much below that of his earlier writings; at times they openly pander to philistine tastes. The works of these years—Time Does Not Wait(1910) The Valley of the Moon (1913), The Little Lady of the Big House (1916; Russian translation, 1924), and Hearts of Three (1920)—reflect London’s attempt to find in a “return to nature” the panacea for all social problems. In the final years of his life he suffered from a serious disease.

London, a militant writer and an innovator of themes and forms, strengthened the realistic traditions in contemporary American literature. As one of the pioneers of proletarian literature in the West, London won world-wide recognition. His books have been translated into many languages.


Selected Stories. New York, 1930.
The Assassination Bureau. New York, 1963.
Letters From Jack London. New York, 1965.
In Russian translation:
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1-24. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928-29.
Sobr. soch., vols. 1-14. Moscow, 1961.


Bogoslovskii, V. N. Dzh. London. Moscow, 1964.
Stone, I. Moriak v sedle. Moscow, 1960.
Foner, P. Dzhek Londonamerikanskii buntar’. Moscow, 1966.
Dzhek London: Biobibliograficheskii ukazatel’.. (Compiled by B. M. Parchevskaia) Moscow, 1969.
London, C. The Book of Jack London, vols. 1-2. New York, 1921.
London, Joan. Jack London and His Times. New York, 1939.
Garst, S. Jack London, Magnet for Adventure. New York, 1945.
O’Connor, R. Jack London. London-Boston-Toronto, 1964.
Woodbridge, Hensley C. Jack London: A Bibliography. Georgetown, Calif., 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

London, (John Griffith) Jack

(1876–1916) writer; born in San Francisco. He is said to be the illegitimate son of William Henry Chaney, an astrologer; his mother, a spiritualist, married John London shortly after Jack was born. He had little formal schooling although he was an avid reader, and he spent much of his youth on the Oakland, Calif., waterfront, where he worked at a variety of jobs, some of which—such as oyster pirating—were illegal. In 1893 he worked on a ship that hunted seals from the Arctic to Japan. From 1894–95 he traveled as a hobo and oddjobber throughout Canada and the U.S.A.—at one point joining "Coxey's army" in its march to Washington—and was arrested for vagrancy in New York City. His experiences and reading (including the "Communist Manifesto") convinced him that he was a socialist, and on returning to California he briefly enrolled at the University of California and tried to sell his early writings. Beginning his restless wanderings again, he worked as a goldminer in the Klondike, Yukon Territory (1897–98). Returning to San Francisco, he began to sell stories, novels, and nonfiction, much of it drawing on his experiences in the North; the best known of these are The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea Wolf (1904), and White Fang (1906). In 1902 he visited the slums of London, and this inspired his book The People of the Abyss (1903). In 1904 he covered the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspapers and in 1914 he covered the Mexican Revolution for Collier's. In 1907 he went to the South Pacific in a small sailboat, a trip described in The Cruise of the Snark (1907). His peripatetic life was the major source for his fiction, especially his thinly autobiographical novels, Martin Eden (1908–09) and John Barleycorn (1913). From 1905 on he was based on his large ranch in Glen Ellen, Calif., but he often traveled on the lecture circuit. His work earned him over a million dollars but he never seemed able to deal with his success; he promoted explicit socialist views in both fictional and nonfictional works, even while exalting the life of the primitive and self-sufficient. He was an alcoholic and by 1909 he was plagued by a variety of ailments; dependent on painkillers, he died from a (possibly self-inflicted) overdose of morphine.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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