On this day in 1876 Jack London was born, and on this day in 1893, London's seventeenth birthday, he signed on for an eight-month stint as deck-hand aboard the "Sophie Sutherland," a San Francisco sealer heading for the China Seas. The sealing voyage gave London his first published story, and eventually his second best-seller -- The Sea Wolf, 1904 -- but it is the seventeen years, taken all in all, which stamped him. Even if half of what has been written about London's boyhoood is fiction -- most of that written by London himself, in the grip of the later fame and legend-making -- the earlier years would still make a remarkable first chapter in the story of a remarkable, improbable life.
London's parents seem to step from books themselves. William H. Chaney was orphaned at nine; by sixteen he had run away from seven different New England farmers whose "apprenticeship" struck Chaney as slave labor. As a lawyer in Maine, he was so belligerent that he ran out of clients. As a newspaper editor, he was run out of town for inciting a religious riot in which a Roman Catholic priest had been tarred and feathered. As Professor Chaney of the Eclectic Medical University of New York, he dispensed "astro-botanical" plants to cancer patients, and spent seven months in jail. He kept the astrology, changed coasts, and in San Francisco soon took his fourth "wife," the much younger Flora Wellman. Having run away from her Ohio home at sixteen, her livelihood came from giving piano lessons and conducting Spiritualist séances. In her new capacity as Chaney's helpmeet, she took tickets from those who came to hear the Professor explain the difference between true astro-theologians such as himself and the crackpots reading tealeaves. But this lasted only a year, until Flora announced that she was pregnant -- to Chaney, who was not receptive, and then to the newspapers, who believed that her suicide attempts were genuine and that Chaney, "the flinty-hearted calculator of other people's nativities," was a cad. The Professor was well out of town before the baby arrived; he was still denying paternity twenty-one years later, when Jack himself wrote to ask. But the physical resemblance is clear, say the biographers, and had Chaney lived just a few more months, until The Call of the Wild swept the world, he may have asked for another chance to notice them.
His well-meaning, hard-working replacement could not overcome Flora's personality and poor decisions, and as the London ship foundered young Jack was forced out of school and into work -- iceman's apprentice, junk trader, factory boy, oyster poacher, catcher of oyster poachers. In John Barleycorn, written near the end of his life, London says that "I never had a childhood," but he recounts his hardships and escapades with boyish enthusiasm. His first boat was a skiff bought with pennies hidden from Flora, and as a precious escape from Flora. His second boat was a tall-masted sloop, bought at age fifteen from French Frank in the First and Last Chance Saloon, making Jack "Prince of the Oyster Pirates," and captain of not only the Razzle Dazzle but Maimie, who came with the boat. All his fights were with sea-dogs who had sledgehammer fists, all his drunks were marathons of fun and near-fatal danger. When one of these ended with Jack falling into San Francisco Bay, he drifted on the tide in the dark for hours, wondering whether suicide might not be better than where his life was headed....
His third ship, the Sophie Sutherland, was chosen as self-reform, a time-out and maybe a new start. This happened, not because London gave up the escapades, the drinking or the romantic ambitions, but because he came home and found he could describe them. For one of his voracious appetites was reading -- the books he took aboard the sealer included Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary -- and in two nights he was able to fashion his description of a typhoon in the China Seas into a prize-winner. The seventeen-year-old who had never gone to high school took first place over university students from the University of California and Stanford. And the next boat he bought, the Snark -- the deal also done at the First and Last Chance Saloon -- was for a voyage round the world.