In This Article Jack London

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Correspondence
  • Reception
  • Journals
  • London in Film
  • London and Other Writers
  • Women in London’s Works
  • London’s Socialism and Other Philosophies
  • Race in London’s Works
  • Data Sources

American Literature Jack London
by
Jeanne Campbell Reesman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0027

Introduction

John Griffith Chaney, later Jack London (b. 1876–d. 1916), was born into a turbulent bohemian world in San Francisco, the child of Flora Wellman and, she believed, her common-law husband, William Henry Chaney, an itinerant astrologer who deserted her. However, there is also evidence for the possibility that John London, who married Flora nine months after her child’s birth, was actually his father. On the night of London’s birth, 12 January 1876, Flora was very weak and was not able to nurse her boy, and he was given to a wet nurse, Virginia Prentiss, a former slave from Tennessee who had made her way to Oakland, California; she had lost her baby that night. Flora married John London on 7 September of that year. Jack heard from a family member at age twenty-one that John was not his father. Perhaps in part because of the psychological dualities of his childhood, London frequently attempted to conjoin opposites in his work, such as socialism and individualism, wanderlust and love of home, travel overseas and California ranching, Friedrich Nietzsche versus Karl Marx or Charles Darwin, racism versus brotherhood. He wrote fifty books on extremely diverse subjects, including 198 short stories. His home, the Beauty Ranch, forms Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. He journeyed as a war correspondent and travel writer to dozens of countries, from the East End of London, England, to Korea, Japan, Hawaii, the Marquesas, the Society Islands, Fiji, and the Solomons. London was not just an adventurer who came home and wrote down his activities, however, as he is sometimes characterized, and he did not write only about dogs, though The Call of the Wild made him world famous in 1903. He was a constant reader, one who drew deeply from sources extending from the classics to psychiatric journals, to farming manuals, to the latest works of Darwin or Herbert Spencer or Thomas Henry Huxley alongside the writings of Henry James; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and Joseph Conrad. London’s personal files at the Huntington Library are filled with torn-out articles marked up by him—many the sources of story ideas—from the leading magazines and journals of the day. London married twice, first to Bess Maddern, with whom he had two children and who divorced him in 1905, and then to Charmian Kittredge, who outlived him. London died on 22 November 1916 of kidney failure, probably brought on eight years earlier, when he sailed aboard his yacht, the Snark, with Charmian and a small crew for two years through the South Seas. There he contracted tropical diseases, including yaws or Solomon Island sores, a flesh-eating bacterium. He used the approved treatment of the time, applying corrosive sublimate of mercury to the skin sores. The Snark voyage, his greatest adventure, is ironically what killed him.

General Overviews

There should be more general overviews of London. Surprisingly, given his long critical history, there are not many that are reliable, and this deficit is even more evident with biographies. London was extraordinarily popular in his day and remains so in the United States and around the world. His works have stayed in print in many versions, and all fifty-one of his books are in print in hard copy or as e-books. In 2011 WorldCat listed eighty-one new editions of his works, twenty-one of them in languages other than English. By the beginning of 2012 there were over eighteen million hits on his name on Google, more than any other American writer (Ernest Hemingway was next with fifteen million, but William Faulkner only garnered five million) (Wichlan 2012). Hundreds if not thousands of books about him have been published. Bykov 2004 is a good example of how he is viewed abroad. However, US literary critics, beyond reviews of his books in periodicals, early on tended to see London as not quite worthy of serious literary analysis or inclusion in the canon (see Nuernberg 1995). He seems to have been unnoticed by William Dean Howells, who did so much to promote Mark Twain. For the next generation, London was too popular, too Western, too socialist, too working class, too self-taught to appeal to modernist critics focusing their attention on T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. London studies in the academy continued to be more or less dormant after World War I but became increasingly active after World War II and the Cold War, when his socialism brought renewed discussion if also renewed banishment from the academy. His popularity abroad, particularly in socialist countries, has not wavered. Earle Labor has done more than anyone else to promote the study of London. Labor and Reesman 1994, a revised edition of Labor’s original 1974 biography, is the best overview. Reesman 2009 is a forceful and well-researched perspective but is focused upon a particular dimension of London’s career, race.

  • Bykov, Vil. “In the Steps of Jack London.” Translated by Julia Istomina and Charles Hoffmeister. The World of Jack London. Edited by Susan M. Nuernberg, Earle Labor, Susan Nuernberg, and Hensley Woodbridge. 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1962 in Russian. Bykov, a scholar at Moscow State University, devoted his career to London, traveled to many of his locales, became acquainted with family members, did extensive biographical research, and joined with the Jack London Society and other organizations to promote the study of London in Russia and abroad. His is a socialist interpretation.

  • Labor, Earle. “From ‘All Gold Canyon’ to The Acorn-Planter: Jack London’s Agrarian Vision.” Western American Literature 11.2 (1976): 83–101.

    E-mail Citation »

    An entry in a centennial celebration of London’s career by Western American Literature, Labor’s essay reads London’s agrarian visions as both transcendentalist and naturalist and, the notion of the land as regenerative throughout his work, culminating in the Bohemian Grove play The Acorn-Planter (1916). The most important discussion is of his California novels, especially The Valley of the Moon (1913).

  • Labor, Earle, and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. Twayne’s United States Authors. New York: Twayne, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in 1974. A brief life and career overview demonstrating the usefulness of the Twayne’s United States Authors series. First published by Labor, the world’s leading London expert, the text was expanded and updated by Reesman mainly to include analysis of London’s Pacific and experimental fiction and to explore further his feminist ideas.

  • Nuernberg, Susan M., ed. The Critical Response to Jack London. Critical Responses in Arts and Letters. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Nuernberg begins with a chronology and introduction and then divides the main text into two sections: reviews and criticism of “To Build a Fire,” covering A Daughter of the Snows (1902), The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), The Iron Heel (1907), and The Valley of the Moon (1913); and “General Criticism.” Such a critical survey helps correct the many misconceptions and stereotypes of London.

  • Reesman, Jeanne Campbell. Jack London’s Racial Lives: A Critical Biography. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first book-length study of London’s contradictory attitudes toward race, this text presents chapters on biography, the Klondike fiction, the Russo-Japanese war coverage, the voyage of the Snark, the Jack Johnson fight coverage, Martin Eden (1908), the Mexican War coverage, and On the Makaloa Mat (1919). London’s later career reveals his progressive ideas of diversity within communities and the importance of ancient myths.

  • Wichlan, Daniel J. “2012 Banquet Academic Update.” Jack London Foundation Newsletter 24.2 (April 2012): 8–10.

    E-mail Citation »

    A carefully researched annual summary of publications on Jack London, including recent young adult fiction portraying London fighting werewolves in the Northland as well as critical works by seasoned scholars.

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