LONDON, JACK (1876–1916). Born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco in 1876, Jack London was deserted by his father and raised in Oakland
by his mother and his stepfather, whose surname he adopted. London
worked at many jobs as a teenager in order to buy a sloop for oyster pirating
in San Francisco Bay. He switched to the other side of the law when he
joined the fish patrol. London’s youthful exploits provide the basis for two
juvenile works: The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902) and Tales of the Fish Patrol
Although better known for his Klondike fiction, London was a prolific
writer of American seafaring fiction and nonfiction. Like his Northland writings, London’s sea literature is rooted both in broad personal experience as
a sailor and in extensive research on navigation. An avid reader of the seafaring works of James Fenimore Cooper,* Richard Henry Dana Jr.,* Frederick Marryat, Robert Louis Stevenson, Stephen Crane,* and Frank Norris,*
London was most strongly influenced by Herman Melville,* Dana, Joshua Slocum,* and Joseph Conrad. He was reading Typee* (1846) and MobyDick* (1851) at a time when Melville’s writing had fallen from favor. London’s sea writings generally sustain the tradition of his literary antecedents;
however, he incorporates such varied concerns as social Darwinism, imperialism, environmentalism, socialism, naturalism, and gender and racial issues, thus producing a unique blend of seafaring adventure, brisk narrative,
and ideology.
At seventeen, London signed on as a sailor aboard the Sophia Sutherland,
a three-masted sealing schooner headed for Asia and the Bonin Islands.
During this voyage, London plunged into the brutal, but exhilarating, realities of seafaring life. His tenure on the Sophia Sutherland satisfied his
yearnings for travel and adventure as well as providing a basis for later writing. While at sea, London experienced a typhoon that became the subject
of a prizewinning sketch, “Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan”
(1893). This early narrative, published in a San Francisco newspaper, revealed the powerful intermingling of sensory detail and human emotion
typical of London’s later writing.
Unable to find work after returning from this voyage, London tramped
across the country. He was jailed for vagrancy in Buffalo. Once he returned
to California in 1898, he joined other gold-seekers in boarding ship for the
Klondike. Although London found little gold, he gathered substantial raw
material for a successful writing career. Capitalizing on his Klondike experience, London published The Son of the Wolf (1900), The God of His Fathers
(1901), Children of the Frost (1902), A Daughter of the Snows (1902), and
The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906).
Established in early adulthood as a writer of realistic and naturalistic fiction, London returned to seafaring as a subject in 1904 with The Sea-Wolf,*
a novel incorporating the Ghost, a microcosmic ship, an Ahab*-like captain
named Wolf Larsen,* and a brutalized crew. Once again, London drew on
his experiences aboard the Sophia Sutherland, but more influential were senior shipmates’ “yarns” as well as the published accounts of Captain Alexander McLean, London’s model for Larsen.
In The Sea-Wolf, London takes on the mythic Nietzschean Superman in
Larsen, a brilliant, but sadistic, overreacher whose quest for revenge leads
not only to his own alienation and disintegration but also to abuse of his
crew. The arrogantly masculine Larsen contrasts with the novel’s ultimate
survivor, Humphrey Van Weyden, a sissified initiate into shipboard life who
is transformed by hard work and exposure to challenging circumstances.
London’s novel features sharply detailed images of seafaring life as well as
the amoral individualism embraced by both captain and crew of the Ghost.
Van Weyden and Larsen eventually clash over Maud Brewster, a refugee
from a shipwreck. Larsen’s primitive ruthlessness contrasts with Van Weyden’s commitment to love, cooperation, and optimism. Through Van Weyden, London interjects his belief in the socialistic value of collective action as well as a more balanced model of masculinity. The Sea-Wolf, the subject
of several cinematic productions, remains one of London’s most successful
Success with The Sea-Wolf enabled London to devote more energy to
socialist causes. From 1905 to 1909, his short stories, novels, journalism,
and nonfiction recurrently advocated collective action over individualism.
Notable during this phase is Martin Eden* (1909), the story of a meagerly
educated sailor driven to reinvent himself as a professional writer. Disillusioned by his literary success, Martin envisions escape to a South Seas paradise. En route, he succumbs to despair and commits suicide by plunging
into the sea. Although Martin Eden cannot be classified as sea fiction, the
sea plays a role in the hero’s consciousness.
During this phase of his own career, London also returned to the sea,
albeit more optimistically. Between 1906 and 1907, Jack London oversaw
construction of a fifty-five-foot, iron-keeled boat named the Snark, designed
to carry him and his second wife, Charmian (generally considered to be the
model for the fictional Maud Brewster), on a projected voyage around the
world. To fund the $30,000 project, London offered to write a variety of
articles for such major publications as Cosmopolitan and Collier’s. After seven
years of planning, London and his crew set sail on 23 April 1907. As time
permitted, London served as navigator. Throughout the eighteen-month
voyage, the Snark was plagued by severe leakage, mechanical breakdown,
illness, and crew problems; however, London was welcomed at stops in
Hawai’i, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Bora Bora, Penduffryn, and other South
Seas ports. After contracting several tropical diseases, London was forced to
end the voyage.
Despite his disappointment, London discovered that the Snark experience
led to an important shift in his fictional concentration. Once attracted to
the symbolic wilderness of the Northland, London redirected his attention
to the South Seas. A youthful admirer of Melville’s Typee, London visited
Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. Expecting paradise on earth, he was
appalled by the devastating effects of white visitors and commercialism on
the natives’ health and on the environment. Such stories as “Samuel”
(1913), “The Terrible Solomons” (1910), and “The Heathen” (1909) reflect the consequences of white incursions into oceanic culture.
While on the Snark voyage, London was so profoundly affected by the
spread of leprosy among South Seas islanders that he featured the disease
in “Koolau, the Leper” (1909), “The Sheriff of Kona” (1909), and “Goodby, Jack” (1909). Sea writings that draw on the Snark voyage include Adventure (1911), South Seas Tales (1911), The Cruise of the Snark (1911),
The House of Pride and Other Tales of Hawai’i (1912), and A Son of the
Sun (1912). The novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914) draws on London’s 1911 voyage from Baltimore to Seattle on the 3,000-ton, four-masted
bark Dirigo. Overall, these sea-based texts reflect London’s attempt to infuse nautical themes with his concern for human justice and environmental
and cultural preservation.
London’s final years, from 1913 to his death in 1916, were beset by
financial, personal, and health problems as well as disillusionment with
American socialism. However, a 1915 voyage to Hawai’i restored both
health and optimism. During his stay, he read the works of C. G. Jung,
whose archetypal theories inform The Turtles of Tasman (1916) and On the
Makaloa Mat (1919), which includes the notable short story “The Water
Baby.” London also wrote two dog novels, Jerry of the Islands (1917) and
Michael, Brother of Jerry (1917), which draw on his Hawaiian sailing experiences.
London died on 22 November 1916; the exact cause of death is still
debated. Such tropical diseases as yaws and dysentery probably contributed
to the kidney failure, which was exacerbated by self-administered dosages of
morphine, that ended his life at age forty.
FURTHER READING: Bender, Bert. “Jack London in the Tradition of American
Sea Fiction.” Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick
to the Present. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1988, 83–98; Labor, Earle, and
Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Jack London. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1994.