The literature and legacy of Jack London

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"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 function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time." -- Jack London

This month a quiet “call of the world” can be heard for observing the 132nd birth date on January 12 of the man responsible for The Call of the Wild, a novella many consider the greatest dog story every written.

Jack London, the first American author to earn a million dollars in his lifetime, wrote more than 50 books and countless short stories in his brief 40 years on earth. Since then – some speculative, some scholarly – time has produced more than a dozen biographies such as the one by Irving Stone. He chose for his title London’s own self-description, Sailor On Horseback, an appropriate name for a paradoxical man who remains an enigma to this day. London wrote such classics as the short story “To Build A Fire” along with many pot-boilers to pay his constant bills. His imagination produced fiction galore yet he was a thorough journalist and war correspondent during the Russian-Japanese War.

Because of his harsh beginnings marked by illegitimacy and poverty, London embraced socialism yet made his mark as a rich, rugged individualist. Early on he worked as an oyster pirate then switched to being a member of the law’s California Fish Patrol. Often called a racist, he had friends of every race. With incredibly strict discipline he produced 1,000 words almost every day, working with only four or five hours sleep while also becoming famous for drinking bouts, barroom socializing and reckless ways. He had two daughters, one who adored him and one who long despised him. Noted for his handsomeness and vitality, the author nevertheless suffered severely from scurvy and symptoms of what now is thought to have been lupus contracted in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

London escaped his chaotic childhood and youth in Oakland, his hobo days and world travels to eventually settle in the Valley of the Moon, which he wrote about and praised for its magnificent natural landscape. This region spurred his literary output so he could afford to purchase and expand his Glen Ellen, Calif., Beauty Ranch to 1,400-acres. Although far too restless to linger long at his beloved ranch, the author was once quoted as saying: “All I wanted, was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that ‘something’ which we all need, only the most of us don’t know it.”

Today, Beauty Ranch is the heart of the Jack London State Historic Park which includes The House of Happy Walls Museum that the author’s second wife, Charmian, built after his death and where she stayed until her own death in 1955. The cottage, in which the couple lived, before and after tragedy struck, may be visited along with the stately ruins of the baronial 26-room four stories Wolf House that burned just before they were to move in. The cottage now serves as a house museum and is furnished as it was during the London’s occupancy between 1911 and 1916.

Ten miles of trails may be explored, numerous unique buildings and the gravesites of both Jack and Charmain. Park rangers recommend allowing three hours to visit, but for those with limited time, three different one-hour tours of the park are available either for self-guided or docent-led experiences. Those fortunate enough to live near Northern California, or eager enthusiasts planning a trip to the area, will find the Park to be roughly an hour and a half drive from San Francisco or Oakland.

And how those fans do come!

Susan St. Marie, the park’s volunteer coordinator says some 100 volunteers are kept busy year round by the steady stream of annual visitors who some years have numbered as many as 80,000. Tourists come from the many countries where London’s books have been translated, particularly Russia where his popularity remains immense.

Museum guests may purchase London’s books and immerse themselves in his time and place by seeing the many artifacts represented. The displays range from models of his sailing ship, “The Snark,” to the early Dictaphone he used later in his career. Aspiring writers find reassurance from learning about and reading some of the 650 rejection slips that prefaced the author’s first sale, Call of the Wild, to the Saturday Evening Post June 20-July 18, 1903. It appeared in five serialized editions which if found well preserved today, can fetch a price over $2,000. Many first editions are valued close to $5,000 according to Internet reports. The largest collection of London memorabilia is said to be in Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.

This colorful, controversial and world-famous celebrity still captures public interest as time spent on the Internet quickly proves with amazingly vast amounts of information about the man, his life – public and private – his writing and his contribution to agriculture. Visit such sites as www.jacklondons.net/shortbio2.html, www.jacklondons.net/links.html, or Google the names of people and places who were important during his life and note that many of this author’s works may be read on-line

Even if an actual trip to the Jack London State Historic Park isn’t immediately feasible, check www.jacklondonpark.com for detailed information. The phone number for the museum that is open 10 a.m.-5p.m. is 707-938-5116 and the email address is jacklondonshp@gmail.com.

A wealth of fascinating material awaits the actual or armchair travel to explores the world made famous by Jack London.

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Jack London in 1900
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Jack London, a colorful, controversial and world-famous celebrity, still captures public interest.
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The cottage where Jack London died (in the left sleeping porch) on Nov. 22, 1916)
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First edition cover of The Call of the Wild, New York, Macmillan Company, 1903
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Ruins of a barn on the Beauty Ranch following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
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Jack and Charmaine at the beach in Waikiki in 1915

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