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1916 Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

Literary Vagabond

When Jack London committed suicide on November 22, the author’s years of drinking and tireless work and his experiments with arsenic as a cure for several exotic diseases had already ravaged him. After determining a fatal dosage on a writing pad, he swallowed two vials of morphine sleeping pills. He was dead two months before his forty-first birthday.

For years afterward London’s myth resisted the true facts about his death. Some accounts still insist he died from uremie poisoning and was not a suicide. But his final scene could not have been acted out more clearly even in his own novel Martin Eden , in which a depleted American writer kills himself.

London was not the son of a frontier scout, as the writer Carl Van Doren reported in the twenties, but was born in San Francisco to a poor, unmarried couple, W. H. Chaney and Flora Wellman. The birth of his son caused Chaney, a seldom employed astrologer and linguist, to flee. Jack’s mother, who had come West from Ohio, supported the family by performing seances in the voice, she said, of an Indian named Plume. When Chaney left, she attempted suicide. Jack soon gained a new name when Flora married John London. The new couple worked in and out of poverty, raising chickens and running a small store and moving often around the poor neighborhoods of Oakland. Jack grew up like other Oakland street toughs—he chewed tobacco, got howling drunk and fought with members of waterfront gangs, and sailed his own skiff as an oyster pirate—but he also craved books. He read every adventure story in the Oakland library, then left school to live out his own. He worked on a sealer, then drifted around the country until a thirty-day stint of hard labor for vagrancy propelled him back to high school as a serious nineteen-year-old. He tried college, lived briefly at home, and then joined the general trek to Alaska in 1897 for gold. He found none, but returned full of stories. Jack threw himself into writing and, by 1899, had a collection published.

Things sped up. London established himself as a writer of primal tales, like his hero Kipling but portraying a rawer world of nature. He became a socialist with a sense of inexorable combat between the classes. In 1905 he was the Socialist candidate for mayor of Oakland. After losing the election, he toured the country lecturing on revolution. Meanwhile, his The Call of the Wild brought huge sales, and The Sea Wolf sold forty thousand advance copies.

“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration,” London wrote to a friend. “Light out after it with a club.” He claimed to have little imagination and said his writing depended almost completely on new experiences. When not adventuring in search of stories, London tried to write a thousand words a day on any subject, rarely turning down a paying assignment. Like Kipling, he did not always rise above the attitudes of his day, especially on race. He resembled his hero in another way too, for Kipling, as George Orwell observed, “had travelled very widely while he was still a young man … and some streak in him that may have been partly neurotic led him to prefer the active man to the sensitive man.”

By the time he wrote his drinking confessional, John Barleycorn , in 1913, Jack London had pushed himself too hard for too long. “It is a terrible ordeal,” he wrote, “for a man to stand upright on his two legs unswaying, and decide that in all the universe he finds for himself but one freedom, namely, the anticipating of the day of his death.”

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