Born in San Francisco in 1876, John Griffith London was the child of an unmarried mother who had come from a once wealthy family that had fallen on hard times. It is believed that his father was William Chaney, an itinerant journalist and lawyer whose main claim to fame was his role in popularizing the American study of astrology. However, Jack took the name of John London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran his mother married in 1876, the year Jack was born.
Growing up in poverty, London nonetheless had a colorful adolescence filled with adventure and excitement. Before he reached the age of 19, London sailed the Pacific on a whaling boat, hoboed around the countryside, and joined Kelly’s Army of unemployed protestors against American economic inequality. When he was 19, he crammed a four-year high school course into one year of intensive studies and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. He quit college after only one year to join the Klondike gold rush, but remained a voracious reader and student throughout his life.
Although his lasting claim to fame came from his stories of the Alaskan gold frontier, London only spent a brief time in the Klondike in the winter of 1897 searching for his fortune. Like most gold seekers, London’s prospecting efforts failed. However, he returned to California with a trove of stories and tall tales that eventually proved even more valuable. London published his first stories of the Alaskan frontier in 1899, and he eventually produced over 50 volumes of short stories, novels, and political essays. His 1903 novel about a domestic dog who joins an Alaskan wolf pack, The Call of the Wild, brought him lasting fame and reflected his beliefs in Social Darwinism. Interestingly, despite his identification with rugged individualism and fierce competition, London was a committed socialist and supporter of the American labor movement.
Although his writing was lucrative, London spent piles of money on an enormous house and ranching operation in California; to pay for these, he wrote throughout his life. Plagued by illnesses from an early age, London developed a kidney disease of unknown origin and died on November 22, 1916 at only 40 years old. Recent scholarship has discredited claims made by earlier biographers that London was an alcoholic womanizer who took his own life.