By the age of fifteen, London had turned delinquent. Barely seventeen, he signed aboard the schooner Sophie Sutherland, bound for Japan and the Bering Sea. Returning from the voyage in 1894, London began to be interested in the plight of the underprivileged and working classes, so he joined a group of militant workers who were going to Washington to protest the wretched working conditions in the country, caused by the Depression of 1894. He did not reach Washington, however; he deserted this “Industrial Army” in Hannibal, Missouri, and for a time he traveled around the country as a hobo. At Niagara Falls, he was arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to the Erie County Penitentiary. He was released after thirty days, and he quickly caught the first train heading West, arriving eventually in Oakland.
It was probably soon after his release from the penitentiary that London became seriously interested in politics, and as a result, he joined an Oakland branch of the Socialist Labor Party in April 1896. Then soon afterward, he enrolled as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, where he attempted to further his studies in the most influential scientific and philosophic theories of the late nineteenth century — Darwinism, Social Darwinism, Nietzscheism, and Marxism. He soon became restless, though, and he left the university during his second semester as a student. From California, he went North, to the Klondike to search for gold, and his adventures there became the basis of many stories. In fact, two of his most famous novels, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, are set in the North, and while these two novels are perhaps his most famous in the United States, London is equally well known in places outside of the United States as the author of a number of socialistic works: The Iron Heel (1908), The War of the Classes (1905), Revolution and Other Essays (1910), and The People of the Abyss (1903). London has said that The People of the Abyss was his favorite book; it is a sociological study about the worst areas of poverty in London, England’s East End and is based on London’s first-hand experiences while he lived there.
Early in 1900, London married Bessie Maddern and began his career as a serious writer. He soon finished his first novel, A Daughter of the Snows, which was published in 1902, and in the summer of 1903, London met Charmian Kittredge, whom he promptly fell in love with and abruptly left his wife and two daughters for.
In ill health most of his life, by 1915, London was almost lame. His bowels gave him continual pain, and in order to reduce the pain, London began using opium and morphine, and it was not long before he became addicted to the drugs. As a consequence, his kidneys were also eventually wrecked by his misuse of all of the drugs, and London refused to even quit smoking, although he had cancer of the throat. By November 21,1916, London was in such poor health that he spent the entire day in bed. Then shortly before dawn the next day, he injected himself with what would prove to be an overdose of drugs. That evening, he died; he was forty years old. There is, naturally, some question as to whether his death was an intentional suicide.
It is interesting to note that his novel The Iron Heel (written in 1906 and published in 1908) belies London’s avid interest in science fiction. Considered to be one of his best novels, the novel predicts a Fascist oligarchy in the United States under threat from a proletarian revolution, allegedly pictured in manuscripts discovered by scholars in the socialist twenty-seventh century. “A Thousand Deaths” (1899), London’s first science fiction tale, utilizes some key motifs of the science fiction genre: a solitary, embittered scientist subjects his son to some revivification experiments, but the scientist is soon dematerialized by a fantastical weapon invented by his son. London’s story “The Shadow and the Flash” (1903) has as its concern the quest for invisibility on the part of two scientists. “The Enemy of All the World” (1908) features a “mad scientist” who invents a formidable weapon and terrorizes the world with it. Much of London’s science fiction indicates his belief in the superiority of the white race. In 1904, London visited Japan and other Far Eastern countries, and his correspondences from there disguise his deep racist attitudes toward the Oriental people. For example, at a Socialist rally in Oakland, after his return from the Far East, he publicly declared his hatred of the Oriental races, and in his science fiction story “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910), the West destroys the Chinese with a bacteriological bomb. In London’s posthumous novella The Red One (1918), London pictured a stone-age society which has formed a death cult and worships a strange sphere from outer space.
Plagued with debts throughout his life, London accepted an offer from Macmillan in 1902 for $2,000.00 for The Call of the Wild, which is all of the money that London ever received from what is perhaps his most famous book. In 1904, London decided to compose a “complete antithesis [and] companion piece” to The Call of the Wild. Instead of the devolution or the decivilization of a dog, he said, “I’m going to give the evolution, the civilization of a dog . . . .” The result was White Fang, which appeared two years later, in 1906. In 1913, London published John Barleycorn, a book about his alcoholism, and a book that should be considered as a sincere tract describing the plight of the alcoholic.
While writing for only sixteen years, London produced an amazing body of work: nineteen novels, eighteen volumes of essays and short stories, and numerous other books, both sociological and autobiographical, and London’s popularity has hardly ebbed over the years. The Call of the Wild has been translated into more than thirty languages, and it exists in millions of copies; sales and printing of White Fang are only slightly less in number than The Call of the Wild. Other popular London novels are Martin Eden (1909), The Valley of the Moon (1913), and the book which many critics feel comes closest to being the Great American Novel, The Sea Wolf (1904).