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Jack London  

Writer, sailor, ranch owner and socialist, Jack London was a widely read author who led a brief, yet fascinating life.
Last Updated: Apr 1, 2016 URL: http://pccc.libguides.com/content.php?pid=694448 Print Guide RSS Updates

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Jack London ( 1876-1916)

 

PCCC Book

Cover Art
Klondike Tales - Jack London; Gary Kinder (Introduction by)
Call Number: PS 3523.046 A6 2001
ISBN: 9780375756856
Publication Date: 2001-03-13

 

London Horseback Riding in the Sonoma Valley

 

Sonoma Valley

 

Brief Biography

Jack London was born in 1876 in San Francisco, the  son of a distant, troubled woman and a shiftless father, a man who had no desire to be a responsible parent and who quickly abandoned London's mother.   London's mother soon married a Civil War veteran named John London, a kindly man who had children of his own.  The young London was not close to his mother, but established a warm relationship with one of his stepsisters and an African American family who was fond of the child.  In fact young "Jackie" as he was called saw Virginia "Jennie" Prentiss as a substitute mother.  He was close to his kind stepsister and the Prentiss family for the rest of his life.

After moving several times in the San Francisco area, the London family finally settled on Oakland.  Young Jack completed grade school.   He discovered the Oakland Public Library and under the guidance of Ina Coolbrith, the librarian and later California's first poet laureate, began to read through the books in the library.  He discovered the joys of reading and books.  Years later, when he was an established author, he was proud of his library of over 15,000 books.  London was fortunate to have a mentor in Coolbrith who instilled the love of learning in her young pupil.   London did not have an extensive formal education,  He was largely self taught.  He did spend some time in high school and one year at the University of California, Berkeley.   He formed his political and social ideas through experience and his own extensive reading.    In 1889, at the age of 14, he worked many hours a day at a cannery.  He hated the work, and after a time borrowed money to buy a boat. He then became an oyster pirate, a risky and illegal occupation.  He earned good money until rivals burned his boat.   In 1893, he worked on a sealing schooner and hated the bloody and cruel work.  ( later as an adult, he worked to stop the cruel treatment of circus animals).   In 1894, he hit the road and was essentially a tramp.  He was arrested and spent 30 days in the Erie County Penitentiary in Buffalo, New York.   The degradation in the jail among the inmates and guards shocked him--even a person like himself who was not naive about the darker sides of life and human nature.

Always restless and eager to earn money, at the age of 21, he and his brother-in-law joined the many young men on the quest for gold in Alaska.  He never struck it rich with gold, but he became rich in experience.  His time in Alaska led to some of his best short stories and books.  He was fortunate to begin his serious writing career at the time of the growth of popular magazines. He took advantage of this new form of publishing.  After much rejection, his stories began to be published.   "The Call of the Wild" his most famous book was first published in a magazine.  When it came out as a book, it was a great success.   The money he would earn over the years permitted him to build a yacht and buy many acres of land and establish a farm in California's beautiful Sonoma valley

London was married twice.  The first marriage to Bessie Maddern in 1900 produced two daughters but ended in divorce. In 1905 he married Charmian Kittredge.  The marriage was successful.   He and his second wife sailed extensively and they both worked hard on their ranch.  They build a large home on the ranch only to have it burn down two weeks before they planned to move in.

London was a war correspondent in 1904 and 1914.  He pushed himself to write despite his alcoholism.   His many stories and novels attest to his discipline and hard work. However he ignored his doctor's advice to slow down and improve his diet.  His life style ruined his health.  As he approached middle age, his kidneys began to fail and he suffered extreme pain.  He was given morphine for the pain, a common practice at the time.  On November 22, 1916 he died at his ranch from uremic poisoning and possibly an accidental morphine overdose.  It was rumored that he committed suicide but that has been debunked by historians and critics.  His ashes are buried under a large rock on his ranch.  In 1955,Charmian London died and her ashes were placed under the rock beside his.   Their ranch,at least part of it, with its buildings, lovely fields and paths is now a state park, visited by many people every year.   They visit the grave and enjoy the beautiful countryside that the Londons loved.

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