January 12, 2012

Jack London: the reign of primitive law

On January 12, 1876, Flora Wellman gave birth to a son (it is unclear if she was married at the time, or if William Chaney was or was not the boy's father). After injuring herself, she left the baby with a caretaker until after her second marriage, when she took him back and re-named him Jack London.

London's most famous book was certainly The Call of the Wild (1903), a story of Alaskan adventures told through the eyes of a dog named Buck. London originally planned it to be a short story of about 4,000 words but it quickly became a novel. Full of both pathos and violence, the book was a gritty and dark look at the nature of both man and beast:

He was beaten (he knew that), but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his afterlife he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law... The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect, and while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused. (From Chapter 1)

The work was first published by the Saturday Evening Post, which paid the cash-strapped London $750. When printed in book form, Macmillan publishers worried about taking a risk on the relatively unknown writer. Instead of offering royalties, they paid London $2,000 outright. When it became a huge success, London made no additional money.

But when still a teenager, London already had cash problems that and a need for adventure propelled him to sea. On his 17th birthday, January 12, 1893, he acquired a space on board the schooner Sophie Sutherland, bound for Japan to hunt seals. Already known locally as a bit of a ne'er-do-well with a drinking problem, London set sail about a week later. This experience inspired the next novel he published in his own name after The Call of the Wild. He named this one The Sea-Wolf, published in 1904.

*I must acknowledge a debt to James L. Haley, who provided some of the information in this post in his 2010 book Wolf: The Lives of Jack London.


  1. Thanks for sharing this post about one of my favorite 19th Century writers! Seems hard to believe that he wrote such good stuff so long ago and it's still pertinent today. Happy Birthday, Wolf!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! I re-read "The Call of the Wild" for the first time as an adult a few years ago, and was very impressed. One of my new favorites by London is the one I'll be posting about next week... Yes, this is a two-parter! Be sure to check back!

  3. Macmillan's payment to London instead of royalties seems odd. Paying authors royalties after sales is usually a way for a publisher to lower its exposure and risk. But if London needed the money right then, he might have been willing to take it up front and forgo royalties later.

  4. I'm surprised you find this unusual. In the first half of the 19th century, it was more typical for an author to pay a publisher, than for a publisher to pay an author. Even by the late 19th century, royalties were still not cemented as the norm (so far as I can tell, the concept was only invented in the 1840s). Ultimately, what London was paid was cheap (from the publisher's perspective; to London, it was a fortune), and Macmillan had little risk for such a small pay-out. Especially because London was an unknown, he's lucky he got anything.

    Interestingly, the story is the opposite for Louisa May Alcott, who was offered a lump sum for "Little Women," which everyone advised her to take, until her agent pushed for royalties instead. And, well, the rest is history.

  5. Thanks for sharing this information. London has always been one of my all time favorite writers.

  6. I just want to know what the reign of the primitive law is you idiots

    1. I'll ignore your name-calling and recommend you just read the book. The reign of primitive law is a major theme in the story. I assume you're trying to avoid actually doing your homework?


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