The Life of Jack London #8: Success at Last

Success does not come without sacrifice. While some are able to make the most of their opportunities, others struggle for years before realizing success. Take a look at Jack London’s life story and see how he used his skillset to overcome obstacles.

Jack London is an author who wrote many books about survival. He was born in 1876 and died in 1916. His life was full of successes and failures, but he always kept fighting. Read more in detail here: jack london.

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

“There is an euphoria that marks the pinnacle of existence, beyond which it is impossible to aspire.” Yet there is the paradox of living: ecstasy occurs when one is most alive, and it occurs as a total oblivion of one’s own existence. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of life, comes to the artist caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it comes to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and flew swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was returning to the womb of Time, sounding the depths of his nature and the portions of his nature that were deeper than he. He was enslaved by the sheer surge of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each individual muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that wasn’t death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of motionless matter.” –The Call of the Wild, Jack London

Vintage the call of wild illustration.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s most famous book, is about a domesticated dog named Buck who is pushed into the forest. He is forced to learn the harsh laws of a new society, as well as how to mush fearlessly in front of a dogsled, and finally breaks away to become the leader of a wild wolf pack. It’s a narrative about “the dominating primeval beast,” according to Jack, and it’s also his story. Jack, like Buck, would go through a furnace of adversity, learn to flourish and enjoy the discipline, and heed the deep-seated desire to be the finest of the best. Through talent, prowess, and combat, he would outwork everyone else to secure a spot at the front of the pack.

Jack’s battle started almost immediately when he returned from the Klondike. He’d returned home after months of sitting in the “White Silence” of the Great North, thinking what he wanted out of life, determined to either become a writer or die trying.

Creating a Disciplined Life

Jack London quote good brain won't get down and dig.

London sat down at his desk, took out his old typewriter, and resumed the life of iron-clad discipline he had adopted when preparing for his college admission examinations, which had included 5 a.m. wake-up calls and 19 hours of daily toil, if you recall.

Despite having spent the previous year living in the outdoors, Jack was unfazed by the prospect of being cooped up in a room from dawn to dusk. One of London’s friends marveled at his character’s enormous contradiction – how he could convert his unbridled energy, his ferocious thumos, into a strictly controlled, unshakeable desire for achievement at will. Anna Strunksy, one of his friends, expressed it like way:

 

“He had a great quality of living. He, for one, would be content with the power, intellect, and love that come with riches, as well as the great comforts and ease that come with it. He was influenced by Napoleon and Nietzsche… He imagined the concept of enormous achievement and had the drive to attain it thanks to the intensity of his Napoleonic temperament. As sensitive and emotional as he was, he prohibited himself from straying from the path that would bring him to his destination. He made a system out of his existence. Such much power, and yet… He was a rule follower. This energetic, ardent youth’s motto was Law, Order, and Restraint.”

Despite the fact that London was a devout “disciple of daily labor,” he did not come readily to self-mastery. “I am not only irresponsible and erratic, but also depressed,” Jack said. “However,” he said, “I have defeated both.” Establishing a definite aim of producing at least a thousand words every day, six days a week was one method he managed his inclination for irregularity (sometimes on Sundays and holidays too). “I am confident a guy may turn out more and much better in the long run, working this manner, than if he works in fits and starts,” he wrote to a friend. London would continue to write 1,000 words every day for the rest of his life, regardless of his physical or mental state — whether he was fatigued, ill, or hungover, sailing aboard a ship shaking violently in a storm, vacationing in Hawaii, or reporting on a war in Japan. It didn’t matter whether he felt “inspired” on any given day; London considered the concept of creative inspiration was nonsense, and that the lack of it was an excuse for the lazy and cowardly. London claimed that success in writing, or any other job, was all about work and determination – or, as he called it, “digging”:

“Anything is possible with a strong will… There is no such thing as inspiration, and there isn’t much in the way of brilliance. Dig, when given the chance, produces what looks to be the former, and very likely allows for the growth of whatever initial modicum of the latter one may have. Digging is a beautiful thing, and it can move mountains faster than faith ever could. Dig, in fact, should be regarded as the true parent of all self-belief.”

Studying the work of other great authors (particularly Rudyard Kipling) in order to improve his own was an important part of Jack’s digging and polishing process. Aside from building one’s own philosophy of life, Jack saw this kind of research into one’s “mentors” as the second most important factor in achieving success in life. Through his fictitious alter persona, Martin Eden, he detailed his own process:

“He recorded every accomplishment obtained by those who had come, and figured out the methods by which they had been attained — the tricks of narrative, exposition, style, points of view, contrasts, and epigrams; and he prepared lists for study of all of them.” He was not an ape. He was looking for ideals. He built up lists of successful and appealing mannerisms, till he was able to induce the general principle of mannerism from a large number of them, selected from a variety of authors, and, thus armed, to seek for fresh and unique ones of his own, and to balance, measure, and rate them appropriately. In the same way, he compiled lists of powerful words, phrases that bit like acid and burnt like flame, or that shined and were soft and sweet in the middle of the barren desert of everyday speech. He was continuously on the lookout for the underlying concept. He wanted to know how it was done so that he could do it himself later. He was dissatisfied with the fairness of beauty’s face. In his cramped little bedroom laboratory, he dissected beauty…and, having dissected and mastered the anatomy of beauty, he was closer to being able to make beautiful itself.”

 

After London had inundated his mind with the aspects of excellent literature that he liked, he set out to produce his own. Jack wanted to create work that was full of “the fancies and graces of imagination…an emotional realism, pierced through with human desire and faith,” as opposed to the popular fiction of the day. “Life as it was,” he said, “with all its spirit-groping and soul-reaching left in.”

Day after day, London perfected his technique and rummaged through his recollections, recalling the wild waves of the Pacific and the bitter cold of the Klondike. On his rusty typewriter, he scribbled essays, articles, poetry, short tales, and serialized fiction. “He wrote prolifically, fiercely, from dawn until night, and late at night,” save for “breaks” to visit the library. Jack “worked tirelessly in the harness, for the toil had become a thrill to him,” much as Buck learnt to pull sleds in the Klondike. In Martin Eden, he writes, “Life was tuned high.” “He had the delight of creation that the gods are meant to have.”

The Pain of Being Rejected

Unfortunately, the happiness he sent over the globe was not returned. His heart would fill with optimism each time he stuffed a fresh piece into an envelope and sent it off to newspapers, magazines, and journals around the nation. His heart would drop each day as he opened his mailbox to see yet another batch of rejection notes. One editor even went so far as to say that the quality of his work was so poor that he should consider changing careers. Jack would attempt to shake off the rejections by filing the rejection notes and tossing the returned manuscripts into a pile of “retired” work before returning to his keyboard.

Months of rejections, along with his ruthless work schedule, eventually took their toll, leaving him psychologically and physically exhausted. Due to a lack of fresh air and sunshine, his complexion became pale. He had to pawn a lot of his belongings to purchase food, and he was still in debt to the grocer. As he attempted to eat as little as possible, his cheekbones became more prominent and his muscles faded. His vitality and optimism dwindled as he gained weight, and he felt compelled to give up everything — not only writing, but life itself. The fact that he was alone troubled him the most; he had no one to assist him with his writing or even to just provide support. In a letter to a buddy, he wrote:

“No one has ever understood.” Everything has happened on its own. ‘Do not continue; go to work,’ Duty urged. Others agreed, even if they wouldn’t say it to my face. Everyone was staring at me, and even though they didn’t say anything, I could tell what they were thinking. There was not a single word of approval, but plenty of condemnation. If only someone had said, “I understand,” it would have been a lot better. Since my childhood hunger, chilly eyes have stared at me, questioned me, or snickered and scorned. What stung the most was that they were some of my true friends, not just pretenders. My façade has become calloused, and I accept the blows as if they were not; no one knows how much they hurt save my own soul and myself… It will be as it has always been—alone,” for better or worse.

 

Despite all of his failures, London, true to his nature, would stoke the flames of his ambition and find the will to keep pushing. He wrote at the end of the letter, “

“All well, then. The end is still a long way off. If I die, I’m going to die fighting to the last, and hell will have no fitter inhabitant than me.”

White fang illustration white dog fighting black wolf.

It Takes Time for Success to Show Up

Nonetheless, as a precaution against failure and to appease his family and friends, he took the civil service tests and passed with flying colors, despite their advice to abandon his futile writing company and obtain a “real” job. The post office manager phoned to offer Jack a job as a postal carrier. London was torn between two worlds. He’d just turned 23, and his peers were settling down, marrying, and beginning successful careers. A job as a mailman would provide him with good, consistent salary, and his family needed money. He pondered carrying on with his writing, but just as a pastime. Most depressing of all, he had to confront the truth that after five months of trying and sending out over 50 manuscripts, he got just one item published, and it was in a children’s magazine. Surprisingly, his mother urged him to decline the position, allowing him to finally pursue his own ambitions after years of obediently supporting the family. She assured him that they would make it. As a result, he declined the offer. If success did not come fast, London would have no plan B, no back-up day job. He’d thrown all he had into being a writer.

Six months after returning from the Klondike, Jack finally got word that his bet had paid off. London’s “To the Man on Trail” was approved by the Overland Monthly, and later “The White Silence” was accepted as well. Jack’s edgy, macho demeanor started to draw attention. “I would rather have written ‘The White Silence’ than anything that has emerged in fiction in the previous ten years,” The San Francisco Chronicle’s literary critic admitted. Six more of Jack’s pieces were sought by the Overland Monthly. They’d paid just $7.50 a piece for them, but as the West’s finest literary journal – one that was read by many of the publishing industry’s movers and shakers – the deal offered valuable exposure.

The Atlantic Monthly agreed to print “An Odyssey of the North” in November 1899, which gave London its big break. The publishers finally started knocking after this story breached the dam. London inked an agreement with Houghton Mifflin to publish The Son of the Wolf, a collection of his short tales. The excellent reviews were beautiful music to Jack’s ears after so many rejections: “These pieces have realism, without the customary deception of realism,” applauded The New York Times. The San Francisco Chronicle gushed, “You can’t get away from the appeal of these stories.” The audience adored Jack’s snappy, powerful style and felt as though his tales reawakened something inside them that had been asleep for a long time. They felt their own pull to the wild, a strong yearning to have an adventure, as they read about his characters fighting their mettle against the forces of nature.

 

Finally, a Dream Come True

Jack had turned himself into a full-time writer after three years of “studying extensively and passionately,” and more possibilities were coming his way. Cosmopolitan (at the time, a well-regarded family magazine) offered him a plum job as editor and staff writer a month after The Son of the Wolf was published. Without hesitation, London refused. He, like Buck, wants to develop his strength with minimum constraint and complete freedom after gaining strength in the harness discipline. “Of course I will not take it,” he wrote to a buddy. I don’t want to be tied down… I want to be free to write about whatever pleases me, whenever and wherever that may be. I don’t have to go to work; I don’t have to follow a schedule; I don’t have to do this and that. “No guy has power over me.”

The call of the wild first edition book cover by jack London.

Jack slept just five hours a night for the following three years (“There was so much to learn, so much to accomplish…”). I prayed for the guy who developed alarm clocks”), and his reputation grew as he wrote a number of essays, short story collections, and novels. His novels did well, but they weren’t blockbusters. With the release of The Call of the Wild in 1903, he achieved stratospheric success. “It got away from me, and instead of 4,000 words, it ran 32,000 before I could call a stop,” Jack said, “and it got away from me, and instead of 4,000 words, it ran 32,000 before I could call a halt.” The book went on to become an instant classic. Its tale echoed across a society concerned that it had grown too sophisticated, cultured, and domesticated, losing its raw, pioneering character. Such a topic has piqued the interest of each subsequent contemporary generation, and the book has been in print for nearly a century, selling millions of copies and establishing itself as the most widely read of the American classics.

Jack London, at 27 years old, had achieved the summit of the literary world. He had overcome his poor beginnings and climbed head and shoulders above his colleagues by risking more and fearing less, by working longer and harder than anybody else. He had made himself stronger and more powerful than the typical man by mastering his thumos and embracing his identity as the lone wolf. Buck was energized by the same sense of domination that ran through him:

“When the long winter nights arrive and the wolves follow their prey into the lower valleys, he can be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the pack’s song.”

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)

Sources:

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)

 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

How did Jack London become successful?

A: Jack London became successful because he was born in California which is the second most populous state. He graduated from Stanford University and went on to publish The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and other fiction books after graduating from law school.

What is Jack Londons best selling book?

A: Jack Londons best selling book is The Hobbit.

Did Jack London win any awards?

A: Yes, Jack London won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1916.