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Who was Jack London.
Jack had little formal schooling. Initially, he attended school only
through the 8th grade, although he was an avid reader, educating himself
at public libraries, especially the Oakland Public Library under the
tutelage of Ina Coolbrith, who later became the first poet laureate of
California. In later years (mid-1890s), Jack returned to high school in
Oakland and graduated. He eventually gained admittance to U.C. Berkeley,
but stayed only for six months, finding it to be “not alive enough” and
a “passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence”.
Jack’s extensive life experiences included: being a laborer, factory
worker, oyster pirate on the San Francisco Bay, member of the California
Fish Patrol, sailor, railroad hobo, and gold prospector (in the Klondike
from 1897-1898). In his teens, he joined Coxey’s Army in its famous
march on Washington, D.C., and was later arrested for vagrancy in Erie
County, New York. As a journalist, Jack covered the Russo-Japanese War
for the Hearst newspapers in 1904, and in 1914, he covered the Mexican
Revolution for Collier’s.
It was during his cross-country travels that he became acquainted with
socialism, which for many years, became his “holy grail”. He became
known as the “Boy Socialist of Oakland” because of his passionate street
corner oratory. In fact, he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Oakland
several times as the socialist party candidate.
In 1900, Jack married his math tutor and friend, Bess Maddern. It was a
Victorian marriage typical of the time, based on “good breeding”, not
love. With Bess, he had two daughters — Joan and Bess (“Becky”).
Following his separation from Bess in 1903, he married his secretary,
Charmian Kittredge, whom he considered his “Mate Woman” and with whom he
found true love. Together, they played, traveled, wrote and enjoyed
life. Their one child, Joy, only lived for thirty-eight hours.
In 1907, with his second wife, Charmian, Jack sailed the Pacific to the
South Seas in the Snark, which became the basis for his book, The Cruise
of the Snark. With Charmian at his side, he also developed his “Beauty
Ranch” on 1,400 acres of land in Glen Ellen, California.
By his death at age forty on November 22, 1916, Jack had been plagued
for years by a vast number of health problems, including stomach
disturbances, ravaging uremia, and failing kidneys. His death
certificate states that he died of uremic poisoning.
Jack was among the most publicized figures of his day. In his lectures,
he endorsed socialism and women’s suffrage. He was also one of the first
celebrities used to endorse commercial products, such as grape juice and
Young Jack London’s exceptional brightness and his optimistic, buoyant
personality eventually combined to transform his many experiences into a
working philosophy of service and survival. He became the
personification for his readers of many of the virtues and ideals of a
turn-of-the-century Western American man and was the country’s first
successful working class writer.
Jack London . . . The Writer
ck had resolved himself to succeed as an author, his diligent habits and
innate skills catapulted him far beyond most of his literary peers in
both perspective and content. By following a strict writing regimen of
1,000 words a day, he was able to produce a huge quantity of high
quality work over a period of eighteen years.
Jack had become the best-selling, highest paid and most popular American
author of his time. He was prolific: fifty-one of his books and hundreds
of his articles had been published. He had written thousands of letters.
Many additional works have been published posthumously. His most notable
books include The Call of the Wild (originally entitled “The Sleeping
Wolf”) which was published in 1903, The Iron Heel, White Fang, The
Sea-Wolf (originally entitled “Mercy of the Sea”), The People of the
Abyss (a sociological treatise about the slums of London, England), John
Barleycorn, Martin Eden, and The Star Rover. His short story, “To Build
A Fire”, is considered to be an all-time classic. His writings have been
translated in several dozen languages and to this day continue to be
widely read throughout the world.
This American literary genius brilliantly and compassionately portrayed
his life and times, as well as the neverending struggles of man and
nature. Millions of avid readers have been thrilled by his stories of
adventure. Authors and social advocates have been inspired by his
heartfelt prose. Nevertheless, many of his life experiences were more
exciting than his fiction.
Jack London . . . The Sailor
occasionally rented boats with money earned from his many part-time
jobs. At fifteen, with the financial assistance of “Aunt Jenny”
Prentiss, Jack bought a sloop, the Razzle Dazzle, in order to escape the
life of the “work beast”. He became an illegal oyster pirate, and before
long, had earned the title of “Prince of the Oyster Pirates”; he made
more money in one week than he was able to earn in his first full year
as a professional writer. Realizing that the life of an oyster pirate
frequently ended in prison or death, he reformed and became a California
Fish Patrol deputy.
During his lifetime, Jack sailed on a variety of ships including: the
sealing schooner Sophia Sutherland to Japan (on which he served as an
able-bodied seaman); on the steamship SS Umatilla and the City of Topeka
(to Alaska); the RMS Majestic (to England); the SS Siberia (as
correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War); took a sampan to Korea;
bought and sailed the Spray; designed, built, and sailed the Snark
[named after the humoresque Lewis Carroll story] to Hawaii and the South
Seas; returned from Tahiti to San Francisco on the SS Mariposa; sailed
on the ketch Minota near Tahiti; sailed from Australia to Ecuador on the
Tymeric; cruised on the San Francisco Bay and environs in the Roamer;
sailed from Seattle to California on the City of Pueblo; sailed on the
Dirigo from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn; took the US
Army transport Kilpatrick to Mexico (to write about the Mexican
Revolution); sailed on fishing boats; stayed on a houseboat; visited the
hospital ship USS Solace, the repair ship USS Vestal, and the
battleships New York, Arkansas, and Mississippi; returned to Galveston
on the transport Ossabow; sailed to Hawaii on the Matsonia; and returned
to California on the SS Sonoma.
Jack London . . . The Gold Prospector
notorious Chilkoot Pass.
Jack moved into a cabin and staked a claim on Henderson Creek in early
November of 1897, after a month of prospecting. During the long winter
which followed, he became well-known to his fellow prospectors for his
In May 1898, he developed a severe case of scurvy from lack of fresh
fruit and vegetables; he could no longer work his claim. Desperately
needing immediate medical attention, he anxiously awaited the melting of
the ice blocking the Yukon River. He eventually did receive some medical
help but was advised to return home. On June 28, he arrived in St.
Michael, after making his way in a small boat down 1,500 miles of the
Yukon River. From St. Michael, he sailed home.
Jack London gained a tremendous amount of insight and perspective while
in Alaska and the Klondike. Although he had not discovered much gold, he
had uncovered a Mother Lode of experience from which he would draw
material for his future novels and stories.
Upon his return to Oakland, California, he discovered that his
stepfather, John London, had died. At the age of 22, he now shouldered
the responsibility of supporting his mother and his stepnephew. Despite
tackling every job opening possible, he could not find steady work. In
desperation, he sold many of his belongings and dove into writing. He
was talented and prolific, yet at first all of his manuscripts were
rejected. In early December 1898, he sold his first short story, an
Alaskan tale entitled, “To The Man On Trail”. His writing career was
Jack London . . . the Rancher
“I ride over my beautiful ranch. Betwen my legs is a beautiful horse.
The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with
Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing.
The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky.
I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”
ife. After six additional land purchases, Jack London’s “Beauty Ranch”
eventually totaled 1,400 acres and consisted of seven parcels of land
bought between 1905 and 1913.
Jack loved ranch life. At Beauty Ranch, he raised many animals such as
prize bulls, horses, and pigs. He cultivated a wide variety of crops,
including forty acres of wine grapes which were formerly part of the
Kohler-Frohling Winery. By damming a stream that crossed the property,
Jack built a lake for irrigation and recreation. He introduced terracing
and green water mulching. He produced record yields of oat hay on
acreage that had been considered overfarmed. He experimented with
innovative ideas such as growing spineless cactus which was developed by
his friend, the “Plant Wizard”, Luther Burbank (who lived in nearby
Santa Rosa), for use as a cattle feed in arid regions; unfortunately,
the cactus was not completely spineless and could not be used for feed.
He imported thousands of Australian eucalyptus trees hoping the wood
could be used for hardwood lumber and pier pilings, but the wood was
found to be too soft. Jack’s “Pig Palace” was the showplace of the
county. It allowed one man to feed up to two hundred hogs. And, his
ranch’s concrete silos were the first in California.
The ranch was also the building site for the majestic Wolf House.
Constructed completely with native redwood trees, locally-quarried
boulders, volcanic rock and blue slate, Wolf House took more than two
years to build. Only a few days before Jack and Charmian were to move
in, the house tragically burned due to a careless oversight by a
workman; only the walls were left standing.
You can visit and enjoy Jack London’s Beauty Ranch today. It is now a
California State Historic Park which includes the House of Happy Walls
museum, the Pig Palace, Jack London’s grave, the Lake, the Wolf House
ruins, and more.