Until Jack London blazed onto the literary scene with a collection of short stories, The Son of the Wolf (1900), the harsh landscape of Yukon Territory had not entered fiction. His voice was unique; his vision, unfamiliar. To London, the natural world is full of wonder and beauty but is also violent, unpredictable, and destructive. The hardships in nature force London’s characters to be flexible and resourceful in order to survive—and sometimes they don’t.
London’s early novels feature some of the most memorable characters in American literature. The heroine of his first novel, A Daughter of the Snows (1902), truly has no literary precedent. Frona Welse is an assertive, strong woman whose Alaskan childhood has taught her “the faith of food and blanket.” Buck, the dog turned wolf (The Call of the Wild, 1903), and White Fang, the wolf turned dog (White Fang, 1906), remain popular today. Both animals suffer under the brutal club of unjust human masters, become leaders of their dogsled teams, and use their imaginations to survive. In The Sea-Wolf (1904), Wolf Larsen—a dreaded seal-hunting captain and literature’s most well-read pirate—captures Humphrey van Weyden and forces him to serve as sailor.
These characters challenge readers to confront their limitations, to enter a world where survival of the fittest is a daily reality. This world often mirrored London’s own biography. The abuses of power that he witnessed and experienced—especially while tramping around North America and living among the homeless in London’s East End—became the basis for socially conscious works such as The People of the Abyss (1903) and The Road (1907). Jack London often said, “I am Martin Eden,” the hero of his partly autobiographical 1909 novel, who fights to rise from working-class poverty to earn a living as a writer. John Barleycorn (1913)—another provocative, semi-autobiographical work—chronicles a man’s struggle with alcohol, what London called his “Long Sickness” and “White Logic.”
In addition to more than fifteen novels, London was a prolific letter and short-story writer, journalist, and essayist, especially about his travels to Asia, South and Central America, the South Pacific, and Hawai’i. His adventures aboard the yacht he built with his second wife, Charmian, are recorded in his The Cruise of the Snark (1911) and her The Log of the Snark (1915). After these globetrotting feats, his two great loves—Charmian and their 1,400-acre California ranch—inspired such later fiction as The Valley of the Moon (1913) and The Little Lady of the Big House (1916). By the time of his death in 1916, Jack London was one of America’s highest-paid writers and enjoyed worldwide popularity.
"Never a night (whether I have gone out or not), but the last several hours are spent in bed with my books. All things interest me—the world is so very good."
in a letter to his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, 1900