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“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dryrot.
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, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time” –Jack London
Jack London fought his way up from a life of hard, factory labor in Oakland, California, to become the highest paid, most popular author of his time. His writing questioned the meaning of life and death and captured the very essence the natural struggle to survive. Drawing on his own experiences in Alaska, at sea, and as a hobo, he wove his thoughts into adventurous stories, expressing his own struggle in life. The trials and tribulations Jack London faced instilled in his work a sense of truth and realism that appealed to millions of people around the world.
Jack London was born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876. He was the only child of an irritable spiritualist, Flora Wellman, and William Chaney, an itinerant astrologer who abandoned Jack and his mother nine months after Jack s birth. Flora Wellman married John London, a widower and father of two, in September of 1876. John London gave his name to Flora s illegitimate child, and it was not until his college days that Jack learned the truth about his birth.
Flora London, whose own family in Ohio had been wealthy and socially prominent, was pretentious, prejudiced, ambitious, and not very affectionate toward her son (Gale 2). Jack s stepfather, however, was a devoted family man, but he was often unable to work due to injuries he suffered during the Civil War. By the age of fourteen, Jack was working eighteen-hour days at a tuna cannery in Oakland to help support his family. Frustrated by the poor working conditions and the low pay, he borrowed some money and bought a small ship, the Razzle Dazzle, and began pirating the nearby, commercial oyster beds. After being caught by the Coast Guard, he briefly joined the California Fish Patrol. Then, in 1893 he signed on with the Sophia Sutherland, a seal hunting ship, and set sail for Asia. This journey turned out to be quite successful for Jack London. He despised hunting the seals, but after his return, he drew on the experience to write “Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan,” which won him first prize of $25 in a San Francisco newspaper contest (Gale 2).
By 1894, Jack London had become increasingly discouraged with the poor working conditions and terrible treatment of employees. He joined Kelly s army of unemployed men on a march to Washington DC to protest, but his group disbanded in the Midwest prior to reaching the capital. After roaming the country as a hobo for nearly a month, Jack London was for vagrancy arrested in Buffalo, New York. He used his adventures, wandering around the Midwest, to write the novel, The Road, in 1907. By the time his thirty-day sentence was up, he had decided to return to Oakland and complete his education. Jack London s experience in jail permanently altered his perception of the American Government.
London claimed in his autobiographical essay “How I Became a Socialist,” that it proved a turning point in his life and converted him to socialism. Before, he had been “an individualist without knowing it,” confidant that his superior physical ability would allow him to make his way in the world. But on the road and in prison he encountered men who had once had as much physical ability as he but who nevertheless had sunk to the bottom of the Social Pit. (Gale 2)
Jack London studied for a year as a nineteen-year-old high school student, and in 1896, he passed the difficult entrance exam for the University of California and began his studies at Berkeley.
After only one semester he dropped out of college and went to the Klondike in search of gold. While he was up North he went through a personal renaissance, and spent his nights reading philosophy, biology, psychology, theology, sociology, and classic literature of all types. Jack London lived at a time when a dramatic new set of ideas, growing out of the theory of evolution, was changing the course of men s thinking (Unger 462). Although he didn t strike it rich, and ended up getting a case of scurvy, “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″ (Stasz 1).
By 1900, Jack London s stories were being published in national magazines and receiving excellent reviews, and that year he married Bess Maddern, who later gave birth to his two daughters, Joan and Bess. His famous novels, The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf, both sold astoundingly well, earning more money that he had ever seen. During a visit to London s East End, he gathered material about the ravaging effects of industrialism on society and wrote The People Of The Abyss. In 1904, Jack London was commissioned by the Hearst newspapers as a war correspondent and sent to Asia to cover the Russo-Japanese War (Unger 476). After returning to America, he ran for mayor of Oakland in 1905. That same year, Jack London divorced Bess Maddern and married Charmain Kittredge three days later.
Jack London was a prolific writer, authoring over 400 pieces of non-fiction, 200 short stories, and more than fifty books (Stasz 5). Among his later works were The Iron Heel (1907) a novel about a Fascist society, and John Barleycorn, a semi-autobiographical novel about an alcoholic. His final years were marked with various unsuccessful projects of a non-literary nature. Jack London s landholdings had increased over the years to fifteen hundred acres; he employed more than a hundred people with a payroll of $3000 a month. Earning $75,000 a year, he was never less than $25,000 in debt and often $50,000 in debt. (Unger 467) Jack London had acclimated to an expensive way of living; he spent money frivolously and habitually entertained more guests than he could afford. A climax came in 1913 when his magnificent dream castle, called Wolf House, built over four years at a cost of perhaps $100,000 was destroyed by a fire before the Londons could move into it (Unger 467). In July, 1916, he returned to his ranch in California, in poor and deteriorating health. He had become dependent on a variety of painkilling drugs, and on November 22,1916-suffering an agonizing intestinal attack-he took a fatal overdose of morphine. On the death certificate, London s family doctor gave the cause as an acute attack of a “gastro-intestinal type of uremia”-no mention of the drug overdose (Gale 5).
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