in: Character, Featured, Manly Lessons

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #6: Back to School

Young jack London sitting credo text ashes dust.

This article is part of a series that studies the life of Jack London, and especially his display of the Ancient Greek concept of thumos.

The students of Oakland High School did not know what to make of their new peer. He was older than them, nineteen, and wholly unlike anyone else who walked the halls. With a handsome, bronzed face, disheveled curly hair, a mouth full of chewing tobacco, a salty vocabulary, and a series of adventures under his belt of the kind they had only read about, students were either repulsed or magnetically attracted to him – often both.

It had been five years since Jack London had been in enrolled in school, and his life in the intervening time had created a gulf between him and his fellow students, whom he found naïve and often callow in comparison. It wasn’t just his age and experience that set him apart; while most of the other students came from middle and upper class backgrounds, with nothing to burden them but their studies, Jack became the janitor’s assistant to support his family, cleaning his peers’ toilets after they headed home for the day.

But when it came to sharpness of mind and pure ambition, London had no rival. He was determined to develop his intellectual capacities to their fullest extent and enroll in college – strengthening his mind so that he might make a living with it. He once again became the Oakland library’s most regular patron, checking out armfuls of books at a time. He used what little money he was able to keep for himself to purchase a dictionary, and he made it a goal to learn 20 new words a day. He studied and copied old poetry, and wrote his own as well. He penned articles for the school’s prestigious journal, many of which were accepted for publication (even if his raw tales of skinning seals and clinging to rail cars shocked many of his peers). He joined a local debating society that was largely composed of professionals and university students, and there he made several friends who were drawn to his guileless sincerity. They helped polish his grammar and tutor him in classes.

Jack honed his debating skills by speaking on a soapbox outside Oakland’s city hall to passersby, beseeching them to hear him out on the principles of socialism. His rhetoric and passion drew him larger crowds than any other speaker. But it also landed him in jail when the police decided he had violated a law against conducting public meetings without the mayor’s approval. He asked for a jury trial, served as his own defense, and was acquitted.

Yet, the story of his arrest scandalized parents of pupils at the high school who were already anxious about their children rubbing shoulders with this older, socialistic former hobo. London felt pressure from the administration to leave and decided to drop out.

Now twenty, London was not in the least bit discouraged from his goal of attending college. He enrolled in the University Academy of Alameda, a “cramming” prep school in which students could complete four years of high school in only two. Ever ambitious, Jack received permission to finish all the requirements in just a single semester. He plunged headfirst into the coursework, but was expelled just five weeks later, told by the superintendent that while he was to be commended for how well he was excelling, allowing him to complete two years of coursework in only a few months was creating resentment amongst the other students. It simply wouldn’t do to have a working class tough besting his well-heeled peers.

Jack was devastated, but still undeterred from his path. His college friends, just as indignant about this ill-treatment as he was, rallied around him, promising to tutor him in preparation to take the University of California’s rigorous entrance exams – passage of which was the only requirement for admission.

While Jack London’s wanderlust could run to overflowing on occasion, when it was time to get to work, he was able to channel his thumos into a laser-sharp singularity of purpose. His discipline could be as boundless as his quest for adventure.

In truth, autodidactic-mode was London’s most natural setting – and he eagerly buckled in for what can only be called a superhuman effort. Holed up in a small room at the back of his parents’ house, he sat at a small table with a stack of books and old entrance exams, and studied for nineteen hours straight, seven days a week, for three months. As Jack wrote of his fictional alter ego, Martin Eden, “Never had the spirit of adventure lured him more strongly than on this amazing exploration of the realm of the mind.” Despite his Spartan schedule, Jack relished the journey, and only wished he could squeeze more hours out of the day to study. He had a difficult time closing his notebooks and calling it a night, and would jump out of bed as soon as his alarm went off in the morning, eager for another nineteen-hour bout with the books:

“Though he slept soundly, he awoke instantly, like a cat, and he awoke eagerly, glad that the five hours of unconsciousness were gone. He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live. He grudged every moment of life sleep robbed him of, and before the clock had ceased its clattering he was head and ears in the wash-basin and thrilling to the cold bite of the water.”

English, science, math, and history – Jack downloaded it all into his brain. As he worked through chemical formulas and quadratic equations with only scant rest, “his vitality,” Charmian wrote, “was taxed almost to bursting. His muscles twitched as once before they had nearly twitched into St. Vitus’ dance. Even those dependable sailor-eyes wavered and quivered and saw jumbled spots, but as always through life, he won out.”

The Herculean toil paid off. London passed the three-day entrance exams with distinction and was granted entry to the University of California. From cannery boy, to oyster pirate, to schooner sailor, to Berkeley student: Jack accomplished whatever he put his mind to. Many a man will claim that distinction, but very few can claim it to be utter truth in the way Jack London could.

He borrowed the money for tuition from his old friend Johnny Heinold, and set foot on campus with unbounded enthusiasm – he wanted to take practically every course the school had to offer. A fellow student admired London’s “open frankness that was like a flood of sunshine,” and described him as “radiating light and warmth” as he talked about his plan to tackle as much of the curriculum as possible.

The semester went well, but it would turn out to be London’s one and only. His family’s financial situation had declined, and they again needed Jack to forgo school in order to get a full-time job. For his part, Jack said he left with little regret. College had not lived up to his high hopes – he had found the courses full of superficialities and that he often knew more than the professors. He realized he had, and could, learn more through self-study than by sitting in a classroom.

On His Way to Becoming a Writer

Jack London portrait sitting posing on chair.

With his short stint in formal education behind him, Jack felt it was time to make a full attempt at earning a living with his mind. He had thought about doing something with music, but didn’t feel he had the talent for it, and settled on giving writing another go. He just needed to figure out what he should write – philosophy, poetry, politics, or fiction? He decided there was no better way to find out than to start writing, and to write as much as possible. London vividly describes the mental and even physical strains of his complete immersion into the craft:

“I wrote, I wrote everything—ponderous essays, scientific and sociological, short stories, humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas. On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat.

And then there was the matter of typewriting. My brother-in-law owned a machine which he used in the daytime. In the night I was free to use it. That machine was a wonder. I could weep now as I recollect my wrestlings with it…

How my back used to ache with it! Prior to that experience, my back had been good for every violent strain put upon it in a none too gentle career. But that typewriter proved to me that I had a pipe-stem for a back. Also, it made me doubt my shoulders. They ached as with rheumatism after every bout. The keys of that machine had to be hit so hard that to one outside the house it sounded like distant thunder or someone breaking up the furniture. I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters burst and blistered again. Had it been my machine I’d have operated it with a carpenter’s hammer.

The worst of it was that I was actually typing my manuscripts at the same time I was trying to master that machine. It was a feat of physical endurance and a brain storm combined to type a thousand words, and I was composing thousands of words every day which just had to be typed for the waiting editors.”

Despite the taxing nature of Jack’s disciplined effort, this new kind of “adventure-path” did not lead him to John Barleycorn, even when it became clear that the undertaking would not immediately bear the kind of fruit he had hoped for; his animated, well-harnessed thumos was galloping in command, pulling the dark horse of his appetites into line with its noble stride:

“Oh, between the writing and the typewriting I was well a-weary. I had brain- and nerve-fag, and body-fag as well, and yet the thought of drink never suggested itself. I was living too high to stand in need of an anodyne. All my waking hours, except those with that infernal typewriter, were spent in a creative heaven. And along with this I had no desire for drink, because I still believed in many things—in the love of all men and women in the matter of man and woman love; in fatherhood; in human justice; in art—in the whole host of fond illusions that keep the world turning around.

But the waiting editors elected to keep on waiting. My manuscripts made amazing round-trip records between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It might have been the weirdness of the typewriting that prevented the editors from accepting at least one little offering of mine. I don’t know, and goodness knows the stuff I wrote was as weird as its typing. I sold my hard-bought school books for ridiculous sums to second-hand bookmen. I borrowed small sums of money wherever I could, and suffered my old father to feed me with the meager returns of his failing strength.

It didn’t last long, only a few weeks, when I had to surrender and go to work. Yet I was unaware of any need for the drink-anodyne. I was not disappointed. My career was retarded, that was all. Perhaps I did need further preparation. I had learned enough from the books to realize that I had only touched the hem of knowledge’s garment. I still lived on the heights. My waking hours, and most of the hours I should have used for sleep, were spent with the books.”

Jack’s second short experiment with becoming a writer had ended just like his first: with a pile of rejection notices. But he understood why – that what he was producing was not yet up to par. He had no one to tell him “you are all wrong, herein you err; there is your mistake,” as he groped along alone in his craft. Thus he was discouraged, but true to form, not dismayed; this was not the end but only a delay.

The Cold Reality of Life Strikes Again

What Jack needed was more experience and study to refine his skills. But while the editors were content to wait, his bills were not. He was forced to take a job at a steam laundry, one located, ironically enough, at a prep academy. Each day he sweated away pressing the clothes of students whose only cares were for classes and gossip. At first he was determined to keep up his independent studies once he got home from work, continuing to parcel out just five hours of sleep at night in order to have time to hit the books. But he found himself too exhausted to keep his eyes open, even when he read “lighter” material. Life became the steam laundry and his bed. As he wrote of Martin Eden, he could feel the progress he had made slipping away and the keen muscles of his thumos atrophying:

“He was too dazed to think, though he was aware that he did not like himself. He was self-repelled, as though he had undergone some degradation or was intrinsically foul. All that was god-like in him was blotted out. The spur of ambition was blunted; he had no vitality with which to feel the prod of it. He was dead. His soul seemed dead. He was a beast, a work-beast. He saw no beauty in the sunshine sifting down through the green leaves, nor did the azure vault of the sky whisper as of old and hint of cosmic vastness and secrets trembling to disclosure. Life was intolerably dull and stupid, and its taste was bad in his mouth. A black screen was drawn across his mirror of inner vision, and fancy lay in a darkened sick-room where entered no ray of light.”

Jack was never one to suffer such stagnation for long. What he needed was enough money to provide a distraction-free space in which to write, without the press of bills hanging over his head. When news reached the shores of California of gold discovered in the Great North, it seemed to Jack that such an opportunity, as well as a brand new adventure, had arrived.

Read the Entire Jack London Series:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Boyhood
Part 3: Oyster Pirate
Part 4: Pacific Voyage
Part 5: On the Road
Part 6: Back to School
Part 7: Into the Klondike
Part 8: Success at Last
Part 9: The Long Sickness
Part 10: Ashes
Part 11: Conclusion



Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley 

Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw

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

Complete Works of Jack London (all of London’s works are available free in the public domain, or you can download his hundreds of writings all in one place for $3, which is just plain awesome)

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