Born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco on January 12, 1876, Jack London was the son of a spiritualist (Flora Wellman) and, it is believed, an itinerant astrologer and journalist (William Chaney). Chaney left before the baby was born, and Flora married John London, a Civil War veteran, when young John was eight months old. Not the most auspicious start for what turned out to be an extraordinary career.
Jack London was largely self-educated at the Oakland Public Library, although he did eventually graduate from high school and attended the University of California at Berkeley. He left Berkeley after six months, saying college was “not alive enough.” By the time of his death in 1916, London had crammed more life into his 40 years than most people could fit into three lifetimes.
Among other things, London was a laborer, a factory worker, a coal-shoveller, an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay, a member of the California Fish Patrol, a sailor, a railroad hobo, a gold prospector, a rancher, and a journalist. He reported on the 1904 Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst papers and the 1914 Mexican Revolution for Collier’s. He ran unsuccessfully several times for Mayor of Oakland as a socialist. He lectured widely on socialism and women’s suffrage. He was one of the first celebrities to endorse commercial products, including grape juice and men’s suits.
Writing at least 1000 words every day, London became the best selling, most popular, and highest paid American author of his time. From his first sale in 1898 until his death, he had 51 books and hundreds of articles and stories published. Among his best-known books are The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), White Fang (1906), Martin Eden (1909) and South Sea Tales (1911).
Jack London distilled his humble beginnings, socialism, Klondike prospecting, and years on the sea into tales of adventure and social advocacy that have been translated into dozens of languages. He was America’s first successful working-class author, and his books are popular worldwide to this day.