Today in labor history: Jack London, writer, socialist, dies at 40

Jack London, novelist and passionate advocate of labor unions, socialism, and the rights of workers, died at age 40 from kidney failure on Nov. 22, 1916. Best known to U.S. readers as the author of Call of the Wild, London also wrote several powerful works dealing with workers, capitalism and socialism – these include his famous dystopian novel The Iron Heel, his non-fiction critique of capitalism and poverty The People of the Abyss, and an essay collection titled The War of the Classes.

Born in San Francisco in 1876, John Griffith London was the child of an unmarried mother who had come from a once wealthy family that had fallen on hard times. He took the name of John London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran his mother married in 1876, the year Jack was born.

Growing up in poverty, London had a youth filled with hard work and adventure. Before he reached the age of 19, he worked in a cannery, a jute mill, and a streetcar power plant, sailed as a seaman on a sealing boat, hoboed around the country, and joined Kelly’s Army of unemployed protesters against economic inequality in the U.S. At 19, he crammed a four-year high school course into one year and then enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, but quit after a year because of financial hardship. Instead he joined the Klondike gold rush.

London only spent a brief time in the Klondike in the winter of 1897. Like most gold seekers, he suffered extreme physical hardship and his prospecting efforts failed. But he returned to California with a trove of stories that eventually made him wealthy. He published his first stories of the Alaskan frontier in 1899, and eventually produced over 50 volumes of short stories, novels, and political essays. His 1903 novel about a domestic dog who joins an Alaskan wolf pack, The Call of the Wild, brought him lasting fame.

Despite his early identification with rugged individualism and fierce competition, London, through his life experiences, became an outspoken socialist and supporter of the American labor movement. He colorfully described his transformation in a 1903 essay titled How I Became a Socialist.

A commentator describes London’s novel The Iron Heel as “London’s attempt to consolidate his ideas about the struggle between the working class and the looming spectre of capitalism, as epitomised by the shadowy The Oligarchy. It was Marxism for fans of ripping yarns.”

“One message of the novel stands true today: those on the poverty line can only achieve some sort of economic level playing field against the ruthless elite – identified today as that 1% of the planet who own 50% of the wealth – by joining together for common causes.”

Photo: Portrait of young Jack London. UC Berkeley, The Bancroft Library