In 1874, an unmarried woman, Flora Wellman, was abandoned in San Francisco, where a newspaper described her as a “Discarded Wife”. Wellman made her living as a spiritualist, claiming to commune with the spirits of the late departed, who spoke to her from the other world. At 31, the poor lady was pregnant and left by the man she considered her husband and who she claimed to be the baby’s father, William Chaney.
Desperate, Flora attempted to shoot herself after Cheney insisted she “destroy her unborn babe.” Cheney, an astrologer reading the future from the stars, claimed he was not the father. He insisted her child must be from another man and totally and completely left her life.
Alone, Flora Wellman gave birth to the child on January 12, 1875. She named him John Cheney after the man she claimed to be the father.
A year and a half later, Flora Wellman met and married John London, a widower with two young daughters. London became her son’s stepfather. As the boy grew, he began using as his first name, Jack. When he became a writer, Jack took his stepfather’s last name, London.
And that is how Jack London got his name.
While Flora taught him to read at the age of 4, Jack London grew up with no idea of becoming a writer. He was a rough and tumble adventurer, a hard worker, sometimes a tramp. He left school at the age of 14 to escape poverty and try to make his way in the rough world, including becoming a crewmember on a ship sailing to Japan.
At the age of 17, Jack was back in Oakland, attending Oakland High School. According to his second wife, Charmian London:
“Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan, is the first story ever written by Jack London for publication. The San Francisco Call offered a prize of twenty-five dollars for the best-written descriptive article. Jack’s mother, Flora London, remembering that he had excelled in his school “compositions,” urged him to enter the contest. He commanded first prize. It is notable that the second and third awards went to students at California and Stanford universities.”
When Gold was found in Alaska in 1897, it was another call to adventure for Jack London, who sailed north to Dyea, Alaska and struggled inland over the Chilkoot Pass. He stayed in Alaska for nearly a year. The hard life and cold made Jack ill, but he returned to California with a wealth of adventures and stories to tell. He sold one of these stories, “The Call of the Wild,” to the Saturday Evening Post magazine and then to McMillan book publishers in 1903. It was Jack London’s first major success and established him as a writer.
“The Call of the Wild” has been made into several movies; the latest one just released starring Harrison Ford. The book has never been out of publication.
Three years after this success, London decided to build a 45-foot yacht for the purpose of sailing the world and writing about his adventures. He named his boat “The Snark.” Delayed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Jack, his second wife, Charmian and a small crew left San Francisco Bay on April 23, 1907, bound for the Hawaiian Islands and high adventure. It was more of an adventure than they realized when they discovered no one on board knew navigation. Jack had to learn navigation while on the high seas.
When London didn’t arrive at the Marquesas Islands on time, there was great concern that The Snark had been lost at sea. Happily, London was safe but
off schedule, because he had sailed into the Doldrums, where no wind was available to fill The Snark’s sails. Being caught in the Doldrums without wind could spell doom for a sailing ship, not moving, remaining still, until the food and water ran out. London’s description of sailing through the Doldrums is a memorable chapter of “The Cruise of the Snark,” the book he wrote about
the adventure. London could have avoided the Doldrums altogether if he had just read an important book on the passage. Somehow he just never got around to it.
In “The Cruise of the Snark” London introduced the world to surfing, after he mastered the technique on Waikiki Beach. He rode horseback into the Hawaiian Crater of the Sun. He was one of the few outsiders to visit the leper colony on Molokai. London was almost killed during a native uprising and he met and socialized with the fascinating colonizers and natives of the wild South Pacific, before World Wars changed everything.
Along with millions of others, I am a Jack London fan and I’m delighted that my audiobook of the “The Cruise of the Snark” remains popular with other Jack London fans, who, like me, are glad he made it back alive.
You can watch a preview here: https://listen2read.com/the-cruise-of-the-snark/
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