Jack London


"I would rather be ashes tan dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot. I would tather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in my magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time"


– Jack London (1876-1916)


On Saturday, August 7th, 1897, just one year after gold was discovered in the Klondike, twenty-one year old Jack London stepped off a boat onto the tidal flats at Dyea, Alaska, at the head of the Chilkoot Trail, and saw in the clamor and chaos of the last great Gold Rush his own salvation. In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that London would have found his way north. “Some are born into fortune, and some have fortune thrust upon them. But in my case I was clubbed into fortune, and bitter necessity wielded the club.” So wrote Jack London in John Barleycorn. Nothing in life inspires greatness like necessity, and it was necessity that drew Jack to the Klondike. He needed money, he needed adventure, he needed an escape from the city, and he needed both an identity and inspiration.


Born into the impoverished working class of industrial Oakland, California, Jack learned firsthand the fragility of life. By age 15 he was supplementing his family’s meager income by working hellish hours in a cannery. By age 16 he was drinking heavily while dodging the police and pirating oyster beds in San Francisco Bay. Years later, when Jack returned to the waterfront to look up old friends, he found most of them dead or incarcerated. Jack never knew his biological father (a source of insecurity throughout his life), his elderly stepfather died while Jack was in the North, and the questionable mental health of his loving but erratic mother provided little nurturing; from a young age Jack was on his own.


Jack once wrote to a friend, “…it’s money I want, or rather, the things that money will buy; and I could never possibly have too much.” Much like the protagonist of Love of Life, who avariciously hoards biscuits and hardtack in fear of a second famine, Jack London had been living hand to mouth long enough to covet a better life when word of the Klondike gold strike reached San Francisco in 1897. It couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Jack had given up the outlaw hazards of the waterfront and begun high school at age 19. After passing the entrance examination to the University of California at Berkeley a year later, for the first time Jack was on a career path. He viewed education as the boundary line between himself and professional writers, but his first semester of college was fraught with frustration and disappointment. The faculty seemed stodgy and closed-minded and the students seemed childish and overly concerned with extraneous things. This was not the Mecca that Jack hoped for, but rather a self-indulgent, self-congratulatory bourgeois sham filled with dusty minds that couldn’t comprehend the vitality of Jack’s spirit. Disillusioned and uncertain of his next move, Jack became depressed. He desperately needed money, but there were no jobs to be had. As ever, he longed for adventure, but the empty life of pirating no longer enticed him, and his bitter memories of being jailed while tramping across America reduced the luster of riding the rails. Jack needed something new, something away from both the hopelessness of the working class and the insular arrogance of the wealthy elite, something that would challenge him, something that would enable his future instead of bringing it to an early halt. When four grubby men stepped off the Excelsior in July, 1897, carrying bags full of gold, the answer to Jack’s question of “What next?” was made clear. The decision to drop out of Berkeley and join the Rush was made in an instant.


While his love of travel, learning and adventure would never wane, at age 21 Jack London was looking for more than mere excitement. Fortunately, the Klondike offered everything he needed and more. The immediate lure was obviously the prospect of instant riches, which to Jack meant never again having to work eighty hour weeks shoveling coal at ten cents an hour. But the frozen North also offered a mighty adventure into the unknown and a chance to be part of a larger movement. Jack was already known as the “Boy Socialist” of Oakland, and may have interpreted a potential gold strike as a means of escaping out from under the iron heel of capitalism. Ironically, Jack believed he could more effectively further the socialist cause from a position of wealth and power, the attainment of which necessitated the exploitation of the very capitalist market that he vocally condemned, than from the soapboxes of the slums. The Klondike signaled Freedom in a multitude of ways---freedom from poverty, freedom from the boredom of academia, freedom from the sour air and sullen smokestacks of the city, and freedom from the world to which Jack felt shackled. If he were to survive up North, Jack would have to develop every shred of his innate strength, will, and cunning ingenuity. He would be able to reinvent himself in a wild natural place, form a distinct philosophy of life, and build up a store of first-hand experiences that would imbue his writing with immediacy and vigor.


In a letter written about Jack after his death, Klondike comrade W.B. Hargraves wrote, “No other man has left so indelible an impression upon my memory as Jack London…there was about him that indefinable something that distinguishes genius from mediocrity….he was an idealist who went after the attainable, a dreamer who was a man among strong men; a man who could face death serenely imperturbable.” Jack’s inherent shyness, the embarrassment he suffered growing up poor and uneducated, the long hours spent working alone in laundries and factories, his insatiable curiosity, and his lack of worthy role models all shaped and honed Jack’s interest in and ability to self-examine, to observe the world around him, and to scrutinize the deeper functions and motives of the human animal. While contemporary writers praised etiquette and appearance and Victorian ideals, Jack was fighting the life-or-death struggle of the “people of the abyss,” as he referred to the downtrodden proletariat, and his pointed, unadorned, unpretentious, and utterly affecting prose cemented the foundation of modern realism.


Before his death at age 40 (likely due to kidney failure), London had become the highest paid and most diverse major writer in the world. He gained renown as a sailor, a war correspondent, a utopian agriculturalist, a socialist crusader, a lecturer, and a world-class adventurer. His prodigious literary output included over thirty novels, two hundred short stories, dozens of critical essays and journalistic reports, and thousands of personal correspondences, and covered topics ranging from evolution to colonization to the urban homeless epidemic to astral projection. But it is in his Northland stories that London’s voice is most assured, and by which we best remember him. It is debatable whether London ever even attempted to pan for gold, but the experiences and observations gleaned from his twelve months in Alaska and the Yukon Territory inspired both material wealth and literary immortality for the aspiring sourdough. It is here that he presents raw naked life in all its grandeur and its insignificance, its humor and its solemnity; unadulterated and visceral, unforgiving and unforgettable.