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The Man Who Invented Himself
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
Jack London carved himself a special niche in the annals of American literature. Born in poverty in the first month of America’s centennial year, he spent his boyhood suffering the rejection of an unloving mother and much of his young manhood as a careless delinquent, a waterfront roisterer, and a road bum, quite as mindless of his own self-destruction as any modern youth who wastes himself with drugs and hitchhikes the interstates from nowhere to nowhere else.
London pulled himself out of poverty and psychic and physical ruin by writing, and by the time of his death in 1916 was the highest-paid writer of his time. He also was the best-known American writer of his time, for he was, by his own creation, a public figure, a man who put more of his genius into his life than into his work, even though his output as a writer was prodigious. He constructed a myth of himself as a hero battling against the elements, against drink and death, a frail superman always locked in a struggle for survival and success.
He was the prototype of the writer who tries to live out his words to the full—but cannot, except in his writing. His politics were as radical as those of Upton Sinclair; his contempt for the gaseous certitudes of middle-class life as scathing as that of Sinclair Lewis; his flouting of convention in his personal life as startling as that of F. Scott Fitzgerald; his dedication to the masculine ethos as profound as that of Ernest Hemingway; and his instinct for the public eye as shrewd as that of Norman Mailer. He preceded and presaged them all, for in the process of inventing himself, Jack London invented the idea of the American writer as personality quite as much as artist.
The materials out of which Jack London constructed his life were rich—if largely tormenting. He was born out of wedlock in San Francisco on January 12, 1876. His dwarfish, spiritualist mother tried to kill herself when his vagrant, astrologer father deserted her. After Jack’s birth, she married a Civil War veteran and widower, John London, so that her child could bear his name. The little boy was brought up with his two stepsisters like a tumbleweed, moving across the Bay to a succession of frame houses in the poor parts of the new town of Oakland. His mother never touched him with love, and terrified him, yelping at her seances with the voice of an Indian medium called Plume.
John London moved the family out to small farms off the Bay and then into the dry valleys of northern California, but his wife’s schemes for getting rich quickly ruined his agricultural ventures. The boy began to have the nightmares that disturbed his short sleep all his life, as well as the dreams of escaping his pinchpenny world for one of glittering and lavish fantasy. Thrown back into the slums of Oakland, Jack became a delinquent, a rebel with a cause. He wanted to leave his loveless mother, and he bought a skiff to sail the Bay toward the Golden Gate, challenging the rollers made by the side-wheel steamers, beating against the wind to Goat Island, yearning after the clippers that tacked toward the west and the other side of the world. The moment he could leave school, he joined the waterfront gangs, becoming an oyster pirate and a young drunk and a road kid, riding the freights up to the Sierras. He seemed reckless of his life, wasteful of his strong body, his small hands battered from fights.
He might have died young like most of the other victims of the raw port of Oakland, if he had not been bookish and determined. He had always loved reading—his mother had slipped down the social scale from an educated family. To him, the shortest ways out of the slums were the pages of Ouida or Washington Irving or Prescott. He also had the gift of organizing himself-so much time for earning money, so much time for reading, so much time for play. He knew that there must be a better world for him than the dockside saloons or the scrounging gentility of his mother’s pretensions. Also his occasional months of dulling toil in a cannery or a jute factory gave him the resolve never to become an industrial slave.
So, in 1893, at the age of seventeen, Jack signed on as a sailor on a three-masted schooner, bound for the Bering Sea on a sealing expedition. He learned his new life quickly, even taking the wheel in a storm on one occasion. It was his first moment of mastery, of power and conquest. “In my grasp the wildly careering schooner and the lives of twenty-two men,” he wrote many years later. “With my own hands I had done my trick at the wheel and guided a hundred tons of wood and iron through a few million tons of wind and waves.… When I have done some such thing, I am exalted.” It revealed to him his pride in being a man who could pit his own small self against the worst that nature could do to him.