Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This Day in Literary History

Thirty-seven-year-old writer Jack London writes letters to H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Winston Churchill, asking how much they are paid for their writing. London, who grew up in extreme poverty in Oakland, California, claimed all his life that his motives for writing were largely financial, but the quality of his literary work made him famous by the time he was 28.

London was born in San Francisco in 1876, the illegitimate son of an astrologer father and a mother who was a spiritualist and music teacher. His father abandoned the family, and Jack, whose last name at birth was Chaney, later assumed his stepfather's surname, London. From an early age, London struggled to make a living, working in a cannery and as a sailor, oyster pirate, and fish patroller. He also spent time as a hobo, riding trains. During the national economic crisis of 1893, he joined a march of unemployed workers and was jailed for vagrancy for a month.

After his prison term, the 17-year-old London resolved to further his education. He completed an entire high school equivalency course in one year and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, where he read voraciously for a year. However, he dropped out to join the 1897 gold rush in Alaska's Klondike.

While in Alaska, London began writing stories about the region and submitting them to magazines with some success. In 1900, his first collection of stories, The Son of the Wolf, was published. Three years later, his story The Call of the Wild made him famous around the country. London continued to write stories of adventure amid the harsh natural elements. During his 17-year career, he wrote 50 fiction and nonfiction books. He settled in Northern California about 1911, having already written most of his best work. London, a heavy drinker, died in 1916; many scholars believe he committed suicide.

Originally published on History.com.

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