Jack London has had difficulty emerging from the blur of his own heroic lies, his family's whitewash, and the libels of his biographers. All accounts agree, however, that London's was as mythic an American life as anything in Horatio Alger. Raised in grinding poverty, by the age of ten young Jack was up at three in the morning delivering newspapers to support his family. An autodidact, he mainly educated himself with books borrowed by the armful from Oakland Public Library. He left school at 14 to become a freebooting oyster pirate in the shallows off San Francisco. On his 17th birthday, Jack went to sea in a sealing schooner (the original of Wolf Larson's hell-ship, the Ghost). He returned to enlist as one of Jacob S. Coxey's army of unemployed in its protest march on Washington. Still not 20, he hoboed all round North America, spent some time in jail and returned to enrol at Berkeley. He dropped out after a semester to dig for gold in the Yukon. He was back in Oakland a year later, broke, scurvy-ridden and - at 21 - determined to be a writer. Within ten years, he was the highest paid writer in America. By 1910, he owned a thousand-acre ranch in the Sonoma Valley where he died, aged only 40, of what was entered on the death certificate as 'uremia'.
LRB 27 July 1989 | PDF Download