Friday, July 13, 2012

From the Trenches: Fortunate Son

One of America's most well-loved writers is also one of the unluckiest. Jack London faced rather miserable circumstances early in life, and before he found fame and fortune he had a mailbox stuffed full of ugly rejection letters. You can still see some of them today, on display at his famous estate. There are almost enough, in fact, to use as wallpaper. 

Jack London was born illegitimately in California to a single mother. As a child, London was raised by an ex-slave and worked in a cannery. As a teen, London worked on fishing and sealing boats before he returned to land to attend high school at 19. 

He loved to read, and as a natural extension of his love of words began to write when he wasn't working in the canning factory. London submitted many early poems, short stories and poems to publications throughout California in his early years of writing, but received rejection in return. His mother committed suicide when he was 21. Devastated by this and by his biological father's subsequent rejection, Jack London decided to quit school and went into the wilds of the Klondike. 

It would change him, and his writing, for ever.

Being Wild

Jack London joined the Gold Rush in 1897, sailing to the Klondike with his sister's husband. When he returned to California a year later, he was motivated to become a successful writer -- and now, he had the perfect setting to give him a good start. Using the backdrop of the Klondike, London began to write his first novel. He was offered 5 dollars for it from The Overland Monthly, and almost decided to give up on writing.

But he didn't. He received much more money for this story "A Thousand Deaths" and began writing more. It was a lucky coincidence that new printing technologies were also available for the first time, creating a magazine boom and a huge need for lots and lots of words. In 1900, London made thousands of dollars from his writing.

He sold his iconic work, The Call of the Wild, to the The Saturday Evening Post and Macmillan in 1903, and it cemented his career. As planned, Jack London became a successful working writer. Jack London was the highest-paid and most popular author and short story writer of his day, drawing on his own exciting experiences out in nature to craft vivid tales the public still devours. His book The Sea-Wolf was used as the basis for the first full-length American movie ever made.

Jack London didn't commit suicide, as urban myth would have readers believe. He developed kidney disease, possibly stemming from his days in the Klondike when his health was quite poor, and died of renal failure. He wanted to be a writer, and he was -- it's a story with a happy ending, not a sad one. 

You can see Jack London's history if you visit the House of Happy Walls, a museum decided to London established shortly after his death. Here, there are almost 600 rejection letters on display that London received from editors and other literary types during his career. Many writers could use that many letters to completely cover their workspace in wall-to-wall rejection. It didn't stop Jack London, who worked in the writing trenches with ambition firing his brain...and proved them all wrong. 

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1 comment:

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