For eight years one book has called down to me from its place high on the bookshelf. It is "The Call of the Wild." I never intended for it to gather dust there. Reaching up to place it on the shelf, I distinctly remember telling myself that it was only temporary; I was going to begin to read it soon. I had vowed to review what one of America's greatest writers had written. And now, only eight years later - I am getting around to it. On vacation recently I read another book I purchased on the same day, "A pictorial Biography of Jack London," by Russ Kingman. No - I didn't pick it because it had more pictures. It was a large paperback and lighter to carry on the airplane. Okay - it had more pictures. Now its pages are full of sand and guacamole, but I read and I enjoyed it.
Whether you view London as an adventurer, a philosopher, a genius, or an alcoholic chauvinist and bigot may depend on which book you read and the author's views. Kingman obviously admired London and contends that much of the rumored excesses of the man, were just that - rumors. Kingman served as the Executive Director of Jack London Square and had access to family members, mountains of data and photos - some never previously printed.
Jack London was a San Francisco bay area boy. In his time, he was the most popular, widely acclaimed, and highest paid writer in the world. His life began on January 12, 1876,and ended only forty years later on November 22, 1916. In those forty short years, he lived - and lived fully.
"The proper function of man is to live - not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them."
Even the circumstances of his death are debatable and add to London's mystic. Jack's escapades were notorious and, in the newspapers, often. He was young, good looking, extremely talented (well beyond his education) and evoked the adventurous American spirit. He loved sailing, traveling around the globe, exotic and dangerous adventures, and partying. If People Magazine had been around - his face would have been on its cover - and often. Jack was born in San Francisco. You may have recently seen the display of Jack London's photos of the San Francisco earthquake. He was a talented photographer as well. Ironically, it was that same earthquake that destroyed evidence of his biological parents’ marriage, which his father, W.H. Chaney later denied (probably because he hadn't divorced his other three wives). But his mother, Flora, swore they were married, and tried to commit suicide when he left her alone, penniless, and pregnant.
Jack said later, "My fate was sealed from the moment I was conceived."
At the time of Jack's birth, Chaney was a 55-year-old astrologer selling horoscopes in wild and wooly S.F. His mother was a spiritualist who performed séances. She was a cold and indifferent woman that never gave her son affection or love. At birth the baby boy was taken to a wet nurse, (Aunt Jennie) Mrs. Alonso Prentiss, who had lost her baby. All his life, Jack loved his black mother more than his real mother. When Jack was eight months old, Flora married John London who brought his two daughters with him to the marriage. His daughter, Eliza, loved the boy Jack and was a major influence throughout his entire life. Luckily, John London loved Jack as well, and treated him as a son. His mother treated him as a workhorse, and from the age of ten, expected him to contribute money to the family. His new father, provided for the family by running a series of truck farms. He moved the family to Oakland, then Alameda, San Mateo County, Livermore, and back again to several locations in Oakland. It was here that young Jack discovered the Oakland Free Library. The librarian there, Ina Coolbrith (later the first Poet Laureate of California) became his mentor and guided Jack into a world of avid reading. While in grade school, he still continued doing odd jobs.
He was a newsboy - loaded ice wagons - set up pins in a bowling alley - and swept out saloons. He was also known to belly up to the bar at Johnny Heinold's, First and Last Chance Saloon, on the waterfront. (The original bar is at Jack London Square). By the age of twelve, Jack was completely sailing a skiff around the San Francisco Bay. By the age of fourteen he borrowed $300 from Aunt Jennie Prentiss and bought the sloop, Razzle Dazzle. He used the boat to raid privately owned oyster beds. The practice was frowned upon by the law, but highly rewarding. He made more money in one week as the "Prince of the Oyster Pirates" as he was crowned, than he made in a year at hard labor. But after a year, he gave up the oyster-thief life and joined the California Fish Patrol in Benicia. He and his fellow patrolmen drank even heavier when he was on the right side of the law. He was sixteen years old and already an alcoholic. By the age of seventeen he signed on as an able-bodied seaman for a seven-month sailing voyage to Hawaii and Japan. Killing the seals was carnage, but he was now a sea-faring man. London had the writing skills to retell and embellish the stories he had heard the sailors tell. Now, even better he had stories of his own and a wealth of experience. He could tell first hand what it felt like to guide a massive ship of wood and sails pounding through a thousand tons of raging white caps and blinding earth-shattering sea.
On his return he worked for ten cents an hour in a jute mill. But his writing career had begun. He won a $25 prize for a descriptive article, "Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan." The, San Francisco Morning Call, published it. Later, traveling as a tramp on trains crossing America, London gained the moniker, "Frisco Kid." In Buffalo New York, he was arrested for vagrancy and sent to thirty days in the penitentiary without a trial. He never forgot those horrible days spent with the cast-offs and disenfranchised of society. He vowed he would never again use his body for a living but would use his head instead. "The mind does not wear out." Returning to Oakland, he entered Oakland High at the age of nineteen, worked as its janitor, and graduated in eighteen months. He also wrote for the school paper, participated in the debate society, and learned to box and fence. Upon graduation he put all his effort into cramming for college admission. Studying night and day, he gained admittance to U.C. Berkeley, but remained there only six months. Not only was it too expensive - he said it was "a passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence." He was at a dead end again.
When news of gold in Alaska spread like wildfire over San Francisco, Jack was one of the first to join the Klondike Gold Rush to seek his fortune. He DID come back with a fortune - but not in gold. In reality he returned after less a year because of an extreme case of scurvy due to a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. But he again had a wealth of experiences and stories to tell. "Call of the Wild," is still a classic that chronicles of the hardships of surviving in the Klondike. Buck, the dog in the story, is an allegory for man's "survival of the fittest." Jack returned to find his father had died and he was now the head of the household and responsible for supporting his mother and his stepsister's son.
In 1900 Jack married his first wife, Bess and had two daughters. It was not a happy union. He divorced her and married Charmian, his "mate woman." His marriage to Charmian, five years his senior, was happy and she gladly joined him on his adventures around the world. She loved horseback riding and sailing as much as Jack and got him to control his drinking. He encouraged her writing. They began construction on "Wolf House" which was to be the ultimate house, built only of rock and wood from their land. Wolf House burnt almost entirely to the ground, the night before they were to move into it. They never re-built the house. Many speculated about the circumstances of it burning, implying something sinister. But evidence points to spontaneous combustion of oily rags, tossed aside by careless workers. A recent biography of London seems to perpetuate the myths of London as a drinking womanizer that committed suicide, but recent scholarship based on first hand documents challenge this perception. Many of the exotic places that he traveled, seemed to have taken their toll on his health. Unfortunately, it was pre-inoculation days and scurvy, malaria, dysentery and other maladies ravaged his body - not to mention his earlier drinking and smoking excesses. The attending doctor's statements testify that he died of renal failure.
No one can deny the amount and quality of work that he produced. He persevered with no training, fielding rejection after rejection and eventually wrote 51 books and over 1,000 separate published articles. Rain or shine - no matter where he and Charmain were in the world - he wrote 1,000 words every day. His novel "The Sea Wolf" became the basis for the very first full-length American movie. He was also the first celebrity that used his status to endorse commercial products. He was seen in ads for suits and grape juice. London was unique. He began writing during Victorian times when writers wrote of the pleasant side of life and sentimental romanticism. He wrote of savage realism and created a new group of readers. "Nature has no sentiments - no charity - no mercy." Jack knew what it was like to be poor and exploited as a child laborer. He had worked for ten cents an hour while he watched the rich factory owners drive through town in gilded carriages. He resented capitalism and spoke out against child labor and low wages. Most of his life he was an active member of the Socialist party. He also was a literary giant and a true storyteller, who rose above his own difficult circumstances to become considered the greatest writer of his time. Against the standards of today, many find reading some of his material offensive. He was a racist and a chauvinist. But hopefully the reader can put that in the context of the time in which he was writing. It does not diminish his talent.
A trip to The Jack London State Historic Site (his ranch - Happy Ranch.) is well worth the trip. It is located in Glen Ellen, near Napa, in the rolling hills of wine country. Visitors can see London's innovative approach to ranching, plus the burned-out shell of Wolf House. His grave, covered by a huge stone, is on the ranch as well. One fact is certain -Jackwas a talented and interesting man.
In the last issue we stated that Eugene O'Neill won the Nobel Peace Prize...it was the Nobel Prize in Literature.