Who was . . .





An Overview

Considered by many to be America’s finest author, Jack London, whose name at birth was John Griffith Chaney, was born “south of the slot”—an area south of Market Street and its cable lines in San Francisco, California, on January 12, 1876. The California Historical Society has placed a plaque, attached to a former Wells Fargo Building at Third and Brannan Streets, at what was formerly 615 Third Street, a home destroyed by the famous April 18, 1906 fire that accompanied the great quake. This plaque states that it “marks the birthplace of the noted author Jack London . . .” The plaque marks the location of the home of the Slocums, friends of Flora, Jack’s mother, where it has been said she was living after her reported suicide attempt and release from Dr. Ruttley’s (which was on Mission Street). Jack’s birth certificate does not indicate where he was born, so although we cannot verify this as the actual birthplace of Jack London, at the time, most children were born at home, so this is feasible.

It is believed that he is the biological son of William Chaney, an itinerant astrologer and journalist, who “married” then deserted Jack’s mother, Flora, a spiritualist, before he was born. Flora married John London, a Civil War veteran who had recently moved to San Francisco, eight months after Jack was born. Jack did not learn the true circumstances of his birth until he was in his early twenties. Much of his youth was spent in Oakland, California, on the waterfront.

Jack had little formal schooling. Initially, he attended school only through the 8th grade, although he was an avid reader, educating himself at public libraries, especially the Oakland Public Library under the tutelage of Ina Coolbrith, who later became the first poet laureate of California. In later years (mid-1890s), Jack returned to high school in Oakland and graduated. He eventually gained admittance to U.C. Berkeley, but stayed only for six months, finding it to be “not alive enough” and a “passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence”.

Jack’s extensive life experiences included: being a laborer, factory worker, oyster pirate on the San Francisco Bay, member of the California Fish Patrol, sailor, able-bodied seaman, railroad hobo, and gold prospector (in the Klondike from 1897-1898). In his teens, he joined Coxey’s Army in its famous march on Washington, D.C., and was later arrested for vagrancy in Erie County, New York. As a journalist, Jack covered the Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspapers in 1904, and in 1914, he covered the Mexican Revolution for Collier’s.

It was during his cross-country travels that he became acquainted with socialism, which for many years, became his “holy grail”. He became known as the “Boy Socialist of Oakland” because of his passionate street corner oratory. In fact, he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Oakland several times as the socialist party candidate.

In 1900, Jack married his math tutor and friend, Bess Maddern. It was a Victorian marriage typical of the time, based on “good breeding”, not love. With Bess, he had two daughters — Joan and Bess (“Becky”). Following his separation from Bess in 1903, he married his secretary, Charmian Kittredge, whom he considered his “Mate Woman” and with whom he found true love. Together, they played, traveled, wrote and enjoyed life. Their one child, Joy, only lived for thirty-eight hours.

In 1907, with his second wife, Charmian, Jack sailed the Pacific to the South Seas in the Snark, which became the basis for his book, The Cruise of the Snark. With Charmian at his side, he also developed his “Beauty Ranch” on 1,400 acres of land in Glen Ellen, California.

By his death at age forty on November 22, 1916, Jack had been plagued for years by a vast number of health problems, including stomach disturbances, ravaging uremia, and failing kidneys. His death certificate states that he died of uremic poisoning.

Jack was among the most publicized figures of his day. In his lectures, he endorsed socialism and women’s suffrage. He was also one of the first celebrities used to endorse commercial products, such as grape juice and men’s suits.

Young Jack London’s exceptional brightness and his optimistic, buoyant personality eventually combined to transform his many experiences into a working philosophy of service and survival. He became the personification for his readers of many of the virtues and ideals of a turn-of-the-century Western American man and was the country’s first successful working class writer.

Jack London . . . The Writer

Once Jack had resolved himself to succeed as an author, his diligent habits and innate skills catapulted him far beyond most of his literary peers in both perspective and content. By following a strict writing regimen of 1,000 words a day, he was able to produce a huge quantity of high quality work over a period of eighteen years.

Jack had become the best-selling, highest paid and most popular American author of his time. He was prolific: fifty-one of his books and hundreds of his articles had been published. He had written thousands of letters. Many additional works have been published posthumously. His most notable books include The Call of the Wild (originally entitled “The Sleeping Wolf”) which was published in 1903, The Iron Heel, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf (originally entitled “Mercy of the Sea”), The People of the Abyss (a sociological treatise about the slums of London, England), John Barleycorn, Martin Eden, and The Star Rover. His short story, “To Build A Fire”, is considered to be an all-time classic. His writings have been translated in several dozen languages and to this day continue to be widely read throughout the world.

This American literary genius brilliantly and compassionately portrayed his life and times, as well as the neverending struggles of man and nature. Millions of avid readers have been thrilled by his stories of adventure. Authors and social advocates have been inspired by his heartfelt prose. Nevertheless, many of his life experiences were more exciting than his fiction.

Jack London . . . The Sailor

No man has ever loved to sail more than Jack London. Even as a very young boy, fishing with his stepfather in small boats, his head would fill with visions of tropical islands and faraway places. As he grew up, he occasionally rented boats with money earned from his many part-time jobs. At fifteen, with the financial assistance of “Aunt Jenny” Prentiss, Jack bought a sloop, the Razzle Dazzle, in order to escape the life of the “work beast”. He became an illegal oyster pirate, and before long, had earned the title of “Prince of the Oyster Pirates”; he made more money in one week than he was able to earn in his first full year as a professional writer. Realizing that the life of an oyster pirate frequently ended in prison or death, he reformed and became a California Fish Patrol deputy.

During his lifetime, Jack sailed on a variety of ships including: the sealing schooner Sophia Sutherland to Japan (on which he served as an able-bodied seaman); on the steamship SS Umatilla and the City of Topeka (to Alaska); the RMS Majestic (to England); the SS Siberia (as correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War); took a sampan to Korea; bought and sailed the Spray; designed, built, and sailed the Snark [named after the humoresque Lewis Carroll story] to Hawaii and the South Seas; returned from Tahiti to San Francisco on the SS Mariposa; sailed on the ketch Minota near Tahiti; sailed from Australia to Ecuador on the Tymeric; cruised on the San Francisco Bay and environs in the Roamer; sailed from Seattle to California on the City of Pueblo; sailed on the Dirigo from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn; took the US Army transport Kilpatrick to Mexico (to write about the Mexican Revolution); sailed on fishing boats; stayed on a houseboat; visited the hospital ship USS Solace, the repair ship USS Vestal, and the battleships New York, Arkansas, and Mississippi; returned to Galveston on the transport Ossabow; sailed to Hawaii on the Matsonia; and returned to California on the SS Sonoma.

Jack London . . . The Gold Prospector

Overcome with “Klondike fever,” Jack departed from San Francisco on the SS Umatilla on July 25, 1897, accompanied and bankrolled by his much older brother-in-law, Captain Shepard, who returned home after only two days on the rugged Alaska trails. With nearly 2,000 pounds of required equipment — including warm garments, food, mining implements, tents, blankets, Klondike stoves, and a copy of Miner Bruce’s Alaska, Jack entered the Yukon Territory by way of the Dyea River and the notorious Chilkoot Pass.

Jack moved into a cabin and staked a claim on Henderson Creek in early November of 1897, after a month of prospecting. During the long winter which followed, he became well-known to his fellow prospectors for his storytelling ability.

In May 1898, he developed a severe case of scurvy from lack of fresh fruit and vegetables; he could no longer work his claim. Desperately needing immediate medical attention, he anxiously awaited the melting of the ice blocking the Yukon River. He eventually did receive some medical help but was advised to return home. On June 28, he arrived in St. Michael, after making his way in a small boat down 1,500 miles of the Yukon River. From St. Michael, he sailed home.

Jack London gained a tremendous amount of insight and perspective while in Alaska and the Klondike [in Canada]. Although he had not discovered much gold, he had uncovered a Mother Lode of experience from which he would draw material for his future novels and stories.

Upon his return to Oakland, California, he discovered that his stepfather, John London, had died. At the age of 22, he now shouldered the responsibility of supporting his mother and his stepnephew. Despite tackling every job opening possible, he could not find steady work. In desperation, he sold many of his belongings and dove into writing. He was talented and prolific, yet at first all of his manuscripts were rejected. In early December 1898, he sold his first short story, an Alaskan tale entitled, “To The Man On Trail”. His writing career was launched.

Jack London . . . the Rancher

“I ride over my beautiful ranch. Betwen my legs is a beautiful horse.
The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame.
Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing.
The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky.
I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”

In 1905, while living with Charmian at Wake Robin Lodge in Glen Ellen, California, Jack London decided to settle permanently in the Valley of the Moon. In June, he purchased his first piece of real estate — the Hill Ranch — 130 beautiful acres of trees, fields, springs, streams, canyons, hills, and abundant wildlife. After six additional land purchases, Jack London’s “Beauty Ranch” eventually totaled 1,400 acres and consisted of seven parcels of land bought between 1905 and 1913.

Jack loved ranch life. At Beauty Ranch, he raised many animals such as prize bulls, horses, and pigs. He cultivated a wide variety of crops, including forty acres of wine grapes which were formerly part of the Kohler-Frohling Winery. By damming a stream that crossed the property, Jack built a lake for irrigation and recreation. He introduced terracing and green water mulching. He produced record yields of oat hay on acreage that had been considered overfarmed. He experimented with innovative ideas such as growing spineless cactus, which was developed by his friend, the “Plant Wizard”, Luther Burbank (who lived in nearby Santa Rosa), for use as a cattle feed in arid regions; unfortunately, the cactus was not completely spineless and could not be used for feed. He imported thousands of Australian eucalyptus trees hoping the wood could be used for hardwood lumber and pier pilings, but the wood was found to be too soft. Jack’s “Pig Palace” was the showplace of the county. It allowed one man to feed up to two hundred hogs; Jack normally employed two men to feed and care for his pigs. And, his ranch’s concrete silos were the very first in California.

The ranch was also the building site for the majestic Wolf House. Constructed completely with native redwood trees, locally-quarried boulders, volcanic rock and blue slate, Wolf House took more than two years to build. Only a few days before Jack and Charmian were to move in, the house tragically burned due to spontaneous combustion caused by a careless oversight by a workman; only the walls were left standing.

You can visit and enjoy Jack London’s Beauty Ranch today. It is now a California State Historic Park which includes the House of Happy Walls museum, the Pig Palace, Jack London’s grave, the Lake, the Wolf House ruins, and more.

To read: A Chronology of Jack London’s Life . . . click here.
It is difficult to include all the events that occurred in Jack London’s life, especially the publication dates of all the books, articles, jokes, essays, and other writings, but we think you’ll find this to be one of the most complete — and accurate — chronologies in existence. It is an excerpt from The Wit and Wisdom of Jack London. Find out more details about this book at our Bookstore.

Text © 1990 and 1999 by WORDSWORTH™. All rights reserved.

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The information about Jack London above is primarily taken from
Jack London Commemorative Color Bookmark Set,
available in our Bookstore.

Jack London’s Klondike Adventure and The Wit and Wisdom of Jack London . . .

Oyster Pirates on San Francisco Bay . . .

Mike Wilson as Jack London . . . Home Page

If you have any questions or comments:

updated: January 2018