By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The American writer Jack London (1876-1916) packed much into his forty years on this planet: he famously became the first author to become a millionaire from his writing, writing some fifty books in just sixteen years.
The illegitimate son of a wandering Irish astrologer (whom he never met), London adopted the surname of his mother’s husband and worked hard to achieve success, having been a heavy drinker, an oyster-poacher, a worker in a canning factory, and a gold prospector – this last attempt to strike it rich informing some of his most celebrated fiction.
But what are Jack London’s best books? As with any prolific author, London’s output was variable in quality and significance, with some of it being written for money rather than with higher artistic aspirations in mind. Below, we select and introduce ten of London’s greatest books (well, technically nine books and one outstanding short story).
1. White Fang.
First published as a serial in Outing magazine in 1906, this is one of Jack London’s best-known books. It was conceived as a kind of companion-piece to his earlier novel The Call of the Wild (of which more below): reversing the plot of that earlier book, White Fang follows the journey towards domestication made by the titular wolf-dog hybrid, White Fang.
This is one of several classic Jack London works inspired by his time in the Yukon in Canada, where he tried to make a living as a gold prospector. Few authors have evoked the cold, harsh environment as powerfully as London.
2. The Iron Heel.
Praised by George Orwell in 1943 for being ‘a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of fascism’, this novel is often regarded as the first properly modern dystopian novel, and was Jack London’s most clearly socialist work.
A group of revolutionists seeks to resist the all-encompassing power and control of the ‘Iron Heel’, a shady cabal which has influence over education, religion, law, and the press.
As well as eerily foreshadowing the rise of fascism in many European countries later in the twentieth century, the novel also predicted the emergence of domestic terrorism and increased government surveillance. No wonder Orwell liked it …
In 2020, as the world responded to the threat of Covid-19, many literary works were cited as fictional precursors to the real-life pandemic.
One of these books was Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, a 1912 novel which is an early example of post-apocalyptic fiction (a genre which Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, may be said to have ‘invented’ with her 1826 novel The Last Man; although it was only in the twentieth century that this genre really came into its own).
Set in 2073, sixty years after the titular plague had swept the world in 2013, London’s novel describes a future world which has declined into barbarism and ignorance following the ravages of the plague. Among other things, London’s book predicted that the population of the planet would be around 8 billion in 2013 – at least, before the ‘scarlet death’ began to kill people …
4. Before Adam.
Jack London was greatly influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, and this book demonstrates his interest in evolution more clearly than any of his other works. Serialised in Everybody’s Magazine in 1906-7, Before Adam is about a modern American man who has a series of visions of primitive man.
Indeed, our modern-day American identifies with ‘Big-Tooth’, a distant male ancestor who was one of the earliest men to walk the earth. Before Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan, Jack London gave us Before Adam.
5. The Sea-Wolf.
Not many adventure novels have literary critics as their protagonists, but Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904) does: the critic Humphrey Van Weyden almost dies at sea before being taken under the wing of Wolf Larsen, the sea captain who rescues him.
Larsen, of course, is the ‘sea-wolf’ of the book’s title, and one of London’s most vivid creations: indeed, he acknowledged that he had modelled much of the character on a real sea captain, Alex Maclean.
Like many prolific authors who are seldom afflicted by writer’s block, London approached much of his writing like a journalist, intent on producing copy and meeting deadlines. And this is his most journalistic work among all of his greatest books.
Thirty years before George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, London published The People of the Abyss (1903), his account of his time spent living among the poor of the East End of London (specifically, Whitechapel). Orwell was directly inspired by London’s book when he disguised himself as a vagrant and lived among the poorest of the poor in London and Paris several decades later.
7. The Star Rover.
This science-fiction novel from 1915 might alternatively be viewed as a collection of short stories: the framing device involves a university professor – who is in prison for life for murdering someone – having a series of visions of past lives when he is being tortured by the prison officials.
This professor – the ‘star rover’ of the book’s title – travels through interstellar space in a series of adventures, many of them drawing on London’s interest in mysticism.
8. Martin Eden.
This 1909 novel is London’s most strongly autobiographical, with the protagonist sharing many qualities with London himself. The working-class Eden – self-taught, as London was – falls for the middle-class Ruth Morse and tries to win her hand in marriage; Ruth was modelled on Mabel Applegarth, the first love of London’s life.
This 1903 novella is Jack London’s most enduring book of all. Set in the Yukon during the 1890s Klondike gold rush, the book is about a domesticated dog, Buck, who hears ‘the call of the wild’ and leaves civilisation behind in favour of the wolf-pack.
Buck’s life is changed forever when he is sold into slavery as a sled dog, and gradually he leaves the civilised world of domestication behind. The book is at once an adventure story – a genre London excelled at – and an animal tale, with its principal characters being dogs (Buck’s arch-rival, a husky named Spitz, is particularly well-drawn).
10. ‘To Build a Fire’.
Jack London was an unlikely literary hero in the early days of the Soviet Union: on his deathbed, Lenin asked his wife to read ‘To Build a Fire’ to him.
This story is the perfect place to end our exploration of Jack London’s best books, because it’s so short that it’s not a ‘book’ as such, but rather a short tale which serves as the perfect gateway to London’s writing.
The tale, which describes a man’s attempts to build a fire in the unforgiving wilderness of the Yukon, exists in two versions: the original 1902 version and a longer version (featuring a dog) written in 1908. The story is a classic example of ‘man versus nature’: a theme which runs throughout much of Jack London’s fiction.