Remembering Jack London

Hal Gordon




Jack London, who died 100 years ago on November 22, is the patron saint of struggling writers.


Born to poverty in Oakland, California in 1876, London lived a riotous, two-fisted, hard-drinking life as an oyster pirate, seal-hunting seaman, vagabond, manual laborer, occasional jailbird and unsuccessful prospector in the Alaska Gold Rush. From this gritty raw material, he would fashion the novels and short stories that would make him famous.


Just how did London become a writer?


He had some formal schooling–even a year of college–but for the most part he educated himself by reading on his own. He learned to write, quite simply, by writing. Early on, he set himself a quota of a thousand words a day and stuck to it faithfully for the rest of his life.


I’ve been a fan of London since I was a boy, and I still marvel at how he managed to achieve his goal of becoming writer even when it must have seemed that every circumstance was dead set against him.


Many years ago, I paid a visit to his ranch near Glen Ellen, California, which is now the Jack London State Park.


In the museum there, framed on one wall, is a pitch letter that London wrote to a magazine editor in 1896, when he was twenty, offering to sell a 4000-word article about his adventures in the Gold Rush.


At the bottom of the letter is the editor’s reply, hastily scribbled in pencil: “Interest in Alaska has subsided in an amazing degree. Then again, so much has been written that I do not think it would pay us to buy your story.”


How’s that again? “Interest in Alaska has subsided to an amazing degree”? And, “so much has been written that I do not think it would pay us to buy your story”?


Bear in mind that the editor’s comment was made years before London wrote White Fang, Call of the Wild, “To Build a Fire” or any of the other Alaskan stories that will live as long as the American language. According to a note supplied by the museum, London received over 600 rejections before he sold a word.



He never forgot those rejections. After he became successful, he approached another editor with a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel entitled Martin Eden. The editor read the manuscript and dismissed it. The main character was unbelievable, he said. No real human being could possibly have persevered in the face so much adversity. London, who was built like a prize fighter, flew into a rage and nearly decked him. “I was Martin Eden!” he roared back. “This was my life!”


Small wonder that London had no patience for writer wannabes who had to feel “inspired” before they could put pen to paper. He wrote his thousand words a day whether he felt the presence of the Muse or not. “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration,” he would say. “Light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”


London’s output was prodigious. Between 1900 and 1916, he wrote more than 50 fiction and non-fiction books, along with hundreds of short stories and numerous articles. He even tried his hand at writing poetry and plays.


We know him today primarily for the novels and stories inspired by his time as a prospector in Alaska, and also for The Sea Wolf, which sprang from his experiences aboard a sealing schooner. Yet London was no mere crafter of “Boy’s Own” adventures. He was an ardent socialist, who explored life in the London slums in his sociological study, The People of the Abyss. He also wrote a chilling novel called The Iron Heel, in which he predicted that unrestrained capitalism would end in dictatorship for America.


He wrote an imaginary account of evolution in Before Adam, and an even more intriguing work about astral projection called The Star Rover. In this latter story, a prisoner kept in close confinement is able to escape from his body and live out other lives through his mind. London even wrote an alcoholic memoir called John Barleycorn, about his life-long struggle with the bottle.


Given that he turned out so much in so little time, the quality of London’s work is uneven. He spread himself too thin and he knew it. One reason that he kept relentlessly grinding out one book after another was that because after the deprivations of his youth, he enjoyed living well. So he wrote to maintain his flashy lifestyle.


His attempt to escape the treadmill he had constructed for himself only chained him to it the more securely. Beginning in 1905, London began acquiring the properties around Glen Ellen that would become his Beauty Ranch. London fondly supposed that once he became self-sufficient as a rancher, he would have the leisure he needed to devote himself to more serious literary work. Instead, the ranch failed and became a further drain on his finances.


Then he committed the folly common to many popular writers—the dream house. As Walter Scott had been devoured by his Abbotsford, and Balzac by Les Jardies, London would lavish over 2 million dollars in today’s money on a 15,000-square-foot mansion that he called the Wolf House. He bragged that he had built himself “the finest house in the country,” but he would never live in it. Shortly before he and his wife were to take up residence, the house was destroyed by a fire. Anyone who surveys the blackened stone ruins that still stand can only feel a deep sense of pity for Jack London.


London had hopes of rebuilding his cherished home, but he never lived to realize them. He died just a few years later—worn out at the age of forty.


A waste? London would not have thought so. He lived his life as he saw fit and was willing to take the consequences. As he himself is reported to have said:


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


London was as good as his word. A hundred years later, his best work lives on.


Author Bio:                                                                                                                            


Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site:



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