Fun interesting facts about Jack London, author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild
1. Jack London’s San Francisco home has a collection of some of the 600 rejections he received before he sold a single story. Born John Griffith Chaney in 1876, Jack London read voraciously as a youth, and amassed a library of some 15,000 volumes which he described as ‘the tools of my trade’. And he was also a prolific – and, it must be said, determined – author who, once he broke into the literary market, would write a wide range of works including dystopian fiction (see below), adventure stories (White Fang and The Call of the Wild, his most enduring books – though the 1904 book The Sea-Wolf is also worth mentioning here), realism (Martin Eden, about a struggling writer), post-apocalyptic fiction (The Scarlet Plague), and several volumes of memoirs (the most biographically illuminating of which is John Barleycorn). In 1906-7 he also wrote a novel, Before Adam, which was serialised in Everybody’s Magazine. The book is about a boy who dreams he is a caveman – living ‘before Adam’ (and Eve); the book examines human evolution through the lens of fictional adventure romance. Darwin was a big influence: The Call of the Wild (1903) was inspired by his adventures in Alaska and Canada, when he had a copy of On the Origin of Species with him.
2. Like many aspiring writers, young Jack London had many other jobs. These included paperboy, journalist, gold-miner, coal-shoveller, and vagrant (not much of an occupation, and it landed him in jail after he went to see Niagara Falls by moonlight).
3. He wrote an early dystopian novel which influenced George Orwell. The 1908 novel The Iron Heel is widely regarded as the first modern dystopian novel, predating We, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by a number of years. (We’ve blogged about this and other early works of dystopian fiction here.) The Iron Heel advocated socialism – though, as London himself maintained, it was ‘the socialism of the caveman’. The dystopian genre would become much more famous in the mid-twentieth century thanks to works like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), but London anticipated the socio-political concerns of those more famous books in his earlier novel. The book is worth reading for the debates in the early section alone, which are entertaining and engaging.
4. He was the first author in the world to become a millionaire from his writing. Perhaps surprisingly given his advocacy for ‘the socialism of the caveman’, London was an enterprising man driven by a desire to amass wealth, as exemplified by his spell in the Klondike during the gold rush. Gold-mining didn’t make him a millionaire, but London’s fiction would prove to be a literary goldmine. By the end of his life he was bringing in over $75,000 a year from his writing.
5. Nobody knows for sure whether he intended to kill himself or not. London died of a morphine overdose on 22 November 1916, aged forty (oddly enough, another author of a classic dystopian novel, Aldous Huxley would die exactly 47 years later, on 22 November 1963 – a date that would become famous for other reasons). Given the numerous references to suicide in his work – some of which glorify the idea – it seems likely that London intended to end his life, but we cannot be absolutely sure. Jack London was an atheist who claimed, ‘I believe that when I am dead, I am dead. I believe that with my death I am just as much obliterated as the last mosquito you and I squashed.’ Quite.
Image: The first picture of himself that Jack London gave to his wife Charmian (from The Book of Jack London by Charmian London), before 1921, Wikimedia Commons.