Jack London
Jack London
Airdate February 2, 2011 (Groundhog Day)
Curriculum English
Social Studies

Jack London launched in BrainPOP English & Social Studies February 2, 2011.



Transcript Edit

Jack London/Transcript

Quiz Edit

Jack London/Quiz

FYI Edit

Trivia Edit

  • The friendly Oakland librarian who helped young Jack London to books that he’d enjoy was Ina Coolbrith. She later became the first poet laureate of the state of California.
  • Due to his socialist politics, London was once the most widely-read American authors in the Soviet Union.
  • London married his first wife, Bess Maddern, not because he loved her, but because the two of them believed that the children that resulted from their union would be strong and healthy.
  • At his ranch in Sonoma County, London experimented with cutting-edge agricultural techniques. One of them was the “pig palace,” a circular structure that enabled one man to feed 200 hogs.
  • London’s novel The Sea-Wolf was adapted into one of the first full-length American movies in 1913. London himself appeared in it as an unnamed sailor.
  • An open-air market and row of restaurants on Oakland’s waterfront is called Jack London Square in honor of the famous author.
  • London designed and built a schooner called the Snark, and used it to sail to Hawaii and the South Pacific in 1907.
  • In 1904, Jack London reported on the Russo-Japanese War from its front lines, in Korea.
  • London was among the first American celebrities to endorse products in print advertisements, shilling for grape juice and men’s suits.

Quotables Edit


Here’s some wit and wisdom from Jack London…

"I do not live for what the world thinks of me, but for what I think of myself."

"I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet."

"The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them."

"Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well."

"Don't loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don't get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it."

"Too much is written by the men who can't write about the men who do write."

"There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive."

In Depth Edit


Jack London believed in a concept called "social Darwinism." This was the misguided idea that Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection could offer solutions to societal problems. Social Darwinists had a crude understanding of Darwin's theory. They boiled it down to "survival of the fittest." In their view, "stronger," more "intelligent" groups of humans have the right to rule over "lesser" groups.

To modern eyes, it may seem strange that London was also a socialist. But concern for the poor alongside racist views wasn't uncommon at the time. London expressed opposing thoughts on the subject. He once wrote that socialism "transcends race prejudice." But at another point he remarked, "I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist."

Certain passages of London's fiction do include offensive language. The first sentence of his 1911 novel, Adventure, contains a description of a "woolly-headed, black-skinned savage." And in the short story "The Unparalleled Invasion," western nations use biological weapons to wipe out China’s growing population. The story reflects a common turn-of-the-century fear in western countries about Asian immigration. Newcomers from China and Japan were viewed as a "yellow peril," intent on destroying the countries where they settled.

On the other hand, London often depicts non-white characters as empathetic, even heroic. His tales from the Yukon are filled with sympathetic portraits of native peoples. And his unfinished novel, Cherry, shows a deep admiration for Japanese customs.

It's fair to say that London's racial views were conflicted, even contradictory. Yet however you interpret them, it raises another issue: how much should an author's personal opinions matter? 

Some say that any work of art must be judged on its own merits. If a painting or novel shows evidence of racism or other ugly ideas, then it's fair game for criticism; if it doesn't, the artist's personal opinions are of no concern to us. Others hold the opposite view. They say that the artist's private views are part of a piece's historical context.

Both approaches are valid. But in judging historical figures, it's wise to consider their time and place. William Shakespeare has been accused of anti-Semitism and racism. Yet compared to the average 17th century Englishman, he was incredibly broad-minded. Similarly, our modern views of race are quite different from those of Americans in the early 20th century.

That doesn't mean Jack London is above judgment. But to accurately judge him, it helps to know the standards of his time.

Did You Know Edit


For a brief period in his early teens, Jack London was known as the “Prince of the Oyster Pirates.” He refers to the practice of oyster piracy in both his memoirs and his short-story collection Tales of the Fish Patrol, and even boasts that he made more money at oyster piracy than he did at any other job in his long career. But what, exactly, was an oyster pirate?

It’s a long story, but it goes something like this. Oysters native to the West Coast weren’t as good as oysters from the East Coast. So a group of businessmen got the bright idea to lease land from the Southern Pacific Railroad and build oyster beds there, where they’d grow only East Coast oysters. But they overcharged the public for their product.

Enter the oyster pirates. In the dead of night, they’d go into these oyster beds, steal the oysters, and then sell them the next morning for a price much lower than what the entrepreneurs charged. Because people didn’t like the Southern Pacific railroad—and they did like cheap oysters—the oyster pirates had lots of public support, and the police were reluctant to take action against them.

But oyster piracy was still a dangerous job—if the police, the California Fish Patrol, or the oyster beds’ security forces found you stealing, there was a chance you’d wind up dead. That’s why London gave up oyster piracy after a short time and went to work on the opposite side of the law—for the Fish Patrol!

Arts And Entertainment Edit


Here’s a look at some of Jack London’s other works…

The Sea-Wolf: One of his most important novels, this work was published in 1904. It features one of London’s most memorable characters: Wolf Larsen, a brutal yet intellectual captain of a sealing vessel. In the novel, a castaway named Humphrey van Weyden is picked up by Larsen and his crew, and witnesses firsthand Larsen’s almost inhuman ability to escape a mutiny and punish those responsible. Things become even more complicated when Larsen reconnects with his brother, whom he considers a mortal enemy.

Martin Eden: This semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1909. It tells the story of a rough, uneducated sailor from a working-class background who strives to educate himself and become a member of the literary elite. After he achieves his goals, however, he is unable to enjoy his success, and eventually kills himself. One major difference between Martin Eden and Jack London is that Eden rejects socialism, instead embracing a type of striving individualism.

”A Piece of Steak:” This short story was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1909. It tells the story of an older boxer who fights one last match against a younger opponent, and loses. He’s weak because he hasn’t eaten properly, being too poor to buy a piece of steak to eat before the fight.

”The Red One:” Another short story, this one was first published in 1918, two years after London’s death. It’s a science fiction story about a British explorer who comes across an alien sphere in the jungles of a South Pacific island. The alien object is worshipped by the natives, who sacrifice hundreds upon hundreds of people to it.

FYI Comic Edit

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