The Life of Jack London — #5: On the Road

Jack London was a natural survivor and had few friends, but his life as an adventurer changed in the summer of 1902 when he met one man who would become among his closest confidants: Maxime Gorky. The two men shared similar ideas about socialism and revolution, which led to many writing assignments for Gorky’s magazine Mother Earth–though their friendship was short-lived after London left America for Europe.

“The Life of Jack London” is a book written by American author Jack London. It was published in 1903 and has been translated into more than 40 languages. This book tells the story of London’s life from his birth to his death. In “On the Road”, London describes how he became an author, writing about his experiences as a hobo on the road. Read more in detail here: jack london the road pdf.

young Jack London sitting credo text ashes dust.

This article is part of a series on Jack London’s life, particularly his use of the Ancient Greek idea of thumos.

Jack London’s deep sea expedition, and with it his life of adventure, seemed very far away as he toiled more than ten hours a day, seven days a week at a jute mill wrapping thread around bobbins. It was back to being a “Work Beast,” with little time for sailing, reading, or anything else other than sleeping.

When Jack’s mother noticed an advertisement in the local newspaper for a contest for the finest descriptive piece written by a young writer aged 22 and under, she pushed him to apply. She claimed that he spoke about his experience flying the Sophie Sutherland through the hurricane all the time, so why not write it down? At first, London was apprehensive; he hadn’t given much attention to writing at this stage in his life, and working on the essay would require him to sacrifice valuable sleep. Finally, he gave in and remained up two nights in a row to complete the work; by the time it was done, he was virtually crazy. When the contest results were disclosed, it was revealed that Jack, an eighteen-year-old mostly self-educated autodidact, had won first place, beating out students from Berkeley and Stanford. Along with the accolade, he received $25, a sum so enticing that it virtually matched a month’s wages at the mill.

Jack was ecstatic with his achievement, and he quickly wrote out many additional pieces and submitted them to magazines and newspapers. But all he got in return was a slew of rejection letters. Perhaps the moment of achievement had been a fluke, Jack reasoned.

London made the decision to seek a more secure and financially rewarding professional job. He had grown up reading rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger-type success, tales in which a young guy, full of tenacity and courage, begins from the bottom of a corporation and persistently works his way to the top, like many other young men his age. Jack decided it was time for him to begin his own self-made ascension. He was interested in becoming an electrician, so he “bade goodbye to the adventure-path” and contacted the supervisor of an electric train firm. Jack informed him about his goal to climb his way up the corporate ladder and his readiness to start from the bottom. The supervisor complimented Jack on his demeanor and assured him that if he worked hard enough, he could achieve his goals. London worked seven days a week, with one day off every month, shoveling coal in the powerhouse. He was meant to be paid $30 per month for ten hours of labor each day, but he was paid by the quantity of coal shoveled, and he was often given more than twelve hours of coal to plow through each day. But, just as he had done on the Sophie Sutherland, Jack was adamant on proving he was up to the challenge and had what it required to succeed. He shoveled for hours, until his body was drenched in perspiration, his muscles strained, and he had to put on heavy leather splints to support his horribly hurting wrists. His knees would collapse from tiredness as he took the trolley home late at night.


A plant firefighter eventually took pity on the bone-tired young guy and told him the truth about the situation. His position had previously been shared by two mature men, each earning $40 per month, until the supervisor recruited him. “The supervisor, in the interest of cost-cutting, had convinced me to undertake the job of both guys for thirty dollars a month,” Jack remembered angrily. “I believed he was turning me become an electrician.” In reality, he was saving the corporation fifty dollars each month in running expenditures.” Worse, one of the guys who had been displaced by Jack had committed himself because he couldn’t find job to feed his family. The firefighter apologized for not informing Jack sooner, claiming that the supervisor had told everyone not to, and that he was certain Jack would leave on his own after just a day or two of grueling labor.

Jack quit his work because he despised it. He felt used and treated like a scab. He quit the working world totally for life on the road, having become disillusioned with toiling as a wage slave. He headed out to join “Kelly’s Army,” traveling by foot and train. The “army” was a group of demonstrators who were traveling across the nation to join Jacob Coxey’s bigger march in Washington, D.C. Coxey was organizing a campaign protesting the Panic of 1893’s widespread unemployment and pressing the government to establish public works jobs. London, for one, headed out not because he cared about the cause, but because his restlessness was beckoning once again.

Much about this new tramping lifestyle appealed to London’s daring instincts. Seeing sections of the nation he’d never seen before piqued his natural interest and sense of wonder, and he particularly loved learning how to ride the rails without being murdered. It was a daring adult game of hide-and-seek, with the hobos attempting to remain hidden while the conductors and brakemen hunted them down and threw them from the train. Jack would often go undiscovered by hanging on struts underneath the vehicles, mere inches from the rails below. “His quickness in ducking beneath quickly passing autos, which required the smoothest synchronization of nerve and muscle,” Charmian remarked, “always remained a point of pride to him.”

Jack enjoyed meeting new people from all walks of life just as much as they enjoyed meeting new people from all walks of life. When the “army” set up camp in the open fields at night, the men sat around the fire chatting about their lives, whining about their previous employment, and expressing their dissatisfaction with the existing economic system. Jack had never given politics any attention before, and this was his first complete introduction to socialist beliefs — an introduction that would evolve into a lifetime, thumos-fueled devotion. For some individuals, London’s socialism is a preoccupation, and because comprehending him, or the arc of his thumos, is impossible without knowing his ideas on the matter, let us halt here and explain more about it.


Socialist Superman, Jack London

Jack London portrait flat cap overcoat.

Finding a “concept of life,” London felt, was one of the primary secrets to success. He began developing his own philosophical viewpoint as a young man by reading books by Darwin, Nietzsche, and Spencer. London came to see the world in terms of biological evolution as a result of his readings of these philosophers, and he felt that, beneath the thin veneer of civilisation, individuals were still driven by the same basic drives that had motivated their forefathers. The increasingly weak “Call of the Wild” may nevertheless excite modern people, London thought. A man could sometimes sense the misty shadows of his primitive past reaching out to him, filling him with “great unrest and strange desires,” causing him to “feel a vague, sweet gladness,” and bringing to him an awareness “of wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what,” just like the dog Buck in that story. Success was a question of survival of the fittest, just as it was in that “other and barely remembered world.” The strongest and smartest, those with the greatest bravery and struggle, may rise to become pack leaders — Nietzschean Supermen perfected. London’s life’s goal would be to transform himself into such a god-like figure:

 “To be a man meant writing the word man in enormous bold letters on my heart.” To fight like a man, to explore like a man, and to perform a man’s job — these were things that reached straight in and grabbed hold of me like nothing else could. And I looked forward into great expanses of a hazy unending future in which, in what I imagined to be a man’s game, I should continue to travel in perfect health, without accidents, and with ever-vigorous muscles… This future seemed to go on forever. I could only imagine myself blazing uncontrollably through life. Lustfully wandering and conquering by sheer might and supremacy.”

Jack’s survival of the fittest concept, forged in his boyhood, would be his basic conviction throughout his life. His socialism eased it, but not replaced it. His own grueling job experiences had persuaded him that the present system was unjust and harsh before he left to travel across the nation. On the route, Jack saw guys who had previously been as robust and powerful as he was, but had become disabled due to an accident or sickness. They had been cast away by society because they were unfit for labor, and Jack knew that he, too, might face the same destiny – even performing the dreaded industrial job he detested may become impossible. London’s idea that everyone deserved a better chance in life evolved from this sobering insight.

Socialism did not have the same implications at the beginning of the century as it does now, and Jack’s opinions on the issue were nuanced. He fought for topics like child labor rules (his experience working at the pickle cannery loomed large in his memory), more honest and transparent elections, and local control of utilities (so that a young guy wouldn’t be forced shoveling coal for 12 hours a day, for example). “Any guy, in the view of London, is a socialist who works for a better type of government than the one he is living under,” a reporter who listened to Jack’s lectures noted. In his latter years, while campaigning for socialism, he purchased a huge boat, a ranch, and employed a manservant to look after his needs. A few of excerpts from two of London’s biographers may assist to summarize the many strains of his thought as briefly as possible:


“[His] was never the slacker’s socialism. He was not opposed to the better things in life; in fact, he desired them… However, he felt that everyone should have an equal chance at a happy life, which the prevailing system of labor exploitation made clearly impossible. Riches earned via hard work and genius were acceptable; fortunes made by exploiting others’ desperation were not.”

“In his emphasis on equal opportunity and respectful treatment in the workplace, he took a backseat to none, but to him, socialism was not about banning riches; it was about outlawing wealth obtained by exploiting others.”

London did not see his desire to be a Superman and his passionate socialism as being at odds, despite the fact that his competing philosophies may appear to be contradictory (indeed, even his fellow contemporary socialists criticized his enjoyment of the luxuries his literary wealth made possible), London did not see his desire to be a Superman and his passionate socialism as being at odds. He said that he could enjoy the fortune he had accumulated with a clean conscience since he had not acquired it through the exploitation of others. As Charmian stated, it was also a means to an end: “He would climb out of the hole first, so that he may survive to offer a hand to the person who could not rise by himself.” In other words, London worked hard to achieve the good life for himself, not only because he loved it, but because he felt that his success would enable him to assist others as well; he believed that a man should strive for greatness, but not exclusively for himself. Yes, he’d become Superman, but a socialist Superman, one who wouldn’t allow fame and fortune blind him to the plight of others. In other words, he adopted “survival of the fittest” as his private ruling ideology while fighting for socialism as the public sphere’s governing premise. He was “the most innately individualistic” and “unsocialistic of all the Socialists I have known,” according to one buddy.

It makes little difference whether one agrees with London’s socialism or not, at least in the context of this series’ unique theme. Thumos energises a man’s commitment to social, political, and religious issues, although it may call one man one way and another another. It is also thumos that makes man want to quarrel over who got it right and who got it wrong with this power!

Returning home, returning home

The roots of Jack’s socialism had been firmly established, but he fled the march in Missouri, and rode the railways alone to Chicago, and then to New York, because he was hungry and disillusioned with the way the head of Kelly’s Army had been putting on airs. London journeyed by freight train 3,000 miles across the harsh Canadian countryside to Vancouver, then worked on a steamer to earn his ticket back to California after more adventurous tramping (and a month in jail for vagrancy — an incident that angered Jack when he was refused a trial).


London’s time travel had been another rite of passage that had piqued his interest in the globe and given him clarity about what he wanted to achieve with his life. The shattered lives of his fellow hobos had served as a clear warning to Jack, and he realized that a life of physical work was just too dangerous for him. Instead, he would use the power of his intellect to create a livelihood and ascend to greatness. He needed to get that mentality in fighting shape in order to do so. It was time for me to return to school.

Read the Jack London Series in Its Entirety:

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)

1st Section: Introduction Part 3: Oyster Pirate Part 2: Boyhood Pacific Voyage (Part 4) Part 5: Back to School Part 6: On the Road Part 7: Klondike Gold Rush Part 8: Finally, Success Part 9: The Long Illness Ashes (Part 10) Conclusion (Part 11)


James L. Haley’s Wolf: The Lives of Jack London 

Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: A Life

Charmian London’s The Book of Jack London, Volumes 1 & 2 (free in the public domain)

Jack London’s Complete Works (You can download London’s hundreds of papers all in one spot for $3, which is just plain great)




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Jack London was a famous author who wrote about the adventures of his life on the road. He was also an adventurer who loved to travel and see new places. Reference: jack london.

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