John Griffith London, the novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist whose own life proved as dramatic as his fiction, was born in San Francisco on January 12, 1876. He was the illegitimate son of Flora Wellman, a spiritualist and music teacher, and William Henry Chaney, an astrologer and itinerant lecturer. Renamed for his stepfather, Civil War veteran John London, he endured an impoverished childhood on various California farms and a succession of poorhouses in Oakland, where the family moved in 1886. London left school at the age of fourteen to work in a cannery. After a brief, dangerous stint as an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay, he became a deputy for the California Fish Patrol, having adventures he later recalled in The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902) and Tales of the Fish Patrol (1905). In 1893 he boarded a sealing schooner headed for the Bering Sea. The seven-month voyage inspired 'Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan' (1893), which was awarded first prize in a writing contest sponsored by a San Francisco newspaper, and The Sea-Wolf (1904), perhaps his best novel about the struggle of man against nature.
The following year London headed east by rail with other young hobos. He roamed across America as far as Niagara Falls, New York, where he was arrested for vagrancy. 'I have often thought that to this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story writer,' he reflected. 'In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the convincingness and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short story.' The Road (1907), a forerunner of the work of Dos Passos and Kerouac, recounts his experiences as a 'road kid.' Upon returning to California, London resumed his education by studying the works of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He attended Oakland High School for a year and spent one semester at the University of California at Berkeley. During this time he became interested in Marxism and joined the Socialist Labor Party, gaining notoriety as the 'Boy Socialist' of Oakland. The semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909) chronicles his dreams of literary fame that date from this period.
In the summer of 1897, London joined the Klondike gold rush, little realizing the wealth of material it would provide him as a writer. 'It was in the Klondike I found myself,' he later attested. 'There you get your perspective. I got mine.' He sold his first story, 'To the Man on the Trail,' to the Overland Monthly in 1899, and the Atlantic Monthly published 'An Odyssey of the North' in January 1900. London's first book, The Son of the Wolf (1900), was a collection of Klondike tales that proved enormously popular. He quickly capitalized on its success with The God of His Fathers (1901) and Children of the Frost (1902). His other volumes of Klondike stories include The Faith of Men (1904), Love of Life and Other Stories (1907), Lost Face (1910), and Smoke Bellew (1912).
The Call of the Wild brought London international acclaim when it was published in 1903. Viewed by many as his symbolic autobiography, it recounts the story of the dog Buck, who learns to survive in the brutal Yukon wilderness. 'No other popular writer of his time did any better writing than you will find in The Call of the Wild,' noted H. L. Mencken. 'Here, indeed, are all the elements of sound fiction.