Thursday, January 10, 2013

London's Secret to Success

Saturday (Jan. 12) is both the birthday of Jack London and Work Harder Day.

London is among my pantheon of heroes and a writer who exemplifies the virtues of working hard to achieve a personal goal. Read his novel "Martin Eden" (published in 1909) and you’ll realize making a name as a writer was as difficult in his time as it is now.

My introduction to London was in his early non-fiction works "Tales of the Fish Patrol" and "South Sea Tales" discovered early on in my father’s library. Later I devoured his most famous novels, though I agree with those critics who claim his true genius was in the short story.

Virtually self-educated, he pulled himself up from poverty working in canneries, mills and a number of maritime tasks which would later provide the inspiration for his stories. He saw his only hope of achieving his goal was to get an education. He managed to get in the University of California, Berkeley, but was able to attend less than a year.

His love of reading and learning was encouraged by a sympathetic librarian, Ina Coolbrith. Later he would attribute his literary success to eight factors, among them: “Vast good luck, good health, good brain, good mental and muscular correlation.”

In my reading of his career I discovered several unexpected connections to my own Pennsylvania roots. His mother, Flora, was the daughter of Pennsylvania canal builder Marshall Wellman. London was a participant in the Coxey’s Army protest march of unemployed workers in 1894, which passed near my home en route to Washington, D.C. (He was actually part of the Western contingent known as Kelly’s Army and related his experiences in the story “Two Thousand Stiffs.”).

In an article titled “Getting Into Print” published in 1903, London wrote: “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.”

Good advice for Work Harder or any other day.


  1. Good advice, John. The moral of the story - if Jack London could do it, we all can. Determination and perseverance!

  2. Interesting. My great uncle, Willam DeRyee, was a friend of Jack London's. And Jack was best man at William's wedding (so my father told me). Will DeRyee was sometime editor of The Overland Monthly and a novelist. I wish I had learned more of him from my father. Perhaps there is enough correspondence surviving for a little article?

  3. Excellent advice, John, will bear it in mind.

  4. Right, Pat. Persevere.
    Dac, here's hoping you find enough correspondence for an article.
    Margaret, thanks for commenting.

  5. London was and is a hero of the writing laborer and the laboring writer. Good for him for standing up for the worker, and good for you, John, for standing up for London. I might add that The Call of the Wild was a spellbinding book for me when I was a young pup.

  6. One of my favorites as a youth, too, John.

  7. When my son lived in Oakland some years ago I used to drive down to Jack London Square, always fascinated by the small Klondike cabin London wrote in and the Heinold First and Last Chance Saloon. It made me feel very writerly just to be there.

  8. Eileen, the first time I went to Oakland I headed straight for the square. The photo above is of young Jack studying in the Heinold.

  9. I love London's quote about inspiration. Writers who wait for "the muse" to strike will never write. I found that if I start the pen moving, the words will come but I must make the effort first.

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