The Short, Frantic, Rags-to-Riches Life of Jack London

2018/1/13 13:55:46

With his thirst for adventure, his rags-to-riches success story, and his progressive political ideas, London’s stories mirrored the passing of the American frontier and the nation’s transformation into an urban-industrial global power.

 


By Kenneth Brandt for SMITHSONIAN.COM 

 

An extremist, radical and searcher, Jack London was never destined to grow old. On November 22, 1916, London, author of The Call of the Wild, died at age 40. His short life was controversial and contradictory.

 

Born in 1876, the year of Little Bighorn and Custer’s Last Stand, the prolific writer would die in the year John T. Thompson invented the submachine gun. London’s life embodied the frenzied modernization of America between the Civil War and World War I. With his thirst for adventure, his rags-to-riches success story, and his progressive political ideas, London’s stories mirrored the passing of the American frontier and the nation’s transformation into an urban-industrial global power. 

 

With a keen eye and an innate sense, London recognized that the country’s growing readership was ready for a different kind of writing. The style needed to be direct and robust and vivid. And he had the ace setting of the “Last Frontier” in Alaska and the Klondike—a strong draw for American readers, who were prone to creative nostalgia. Notably, London’s stories endorsed reciprocation, cooperation, adaptability and grit.

In his fictional universe, lone wolves die and abusive alpha males never win out in the end.

 

The 1,400-acre Jack London State Historic Park lies in the heart of Sonoma Valley wine country, some 60 miles north of San Francisco in Glen Ellen, California. Originally, the land was the site of Jack London’s Beauty Ranch, where the author earnestly pursued his interests in scientific farming and animal husbandry.

 

“I ride out of my beautiful ranch,” London wrote. “Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. 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.”

 

The park’s varied bucolic landscape still exudes this same captivating vibe. The grounds offer 29 miles of trails, redwood groves, meadowlands, wine vineyards, stunning scenery, a museum, London’s restored cottage, ranch exhibits and the austere ruins of the writer’s Wolf House. An idyllic bounty of pristine northern California scenery is on full display. For a traveler in search of a distinctly pastoral escape fortified with a rustic dose of California cultural history, Jack London State Historic Park is pay-dirt. (It also doesn’t hurt that the park is surrounded by a myriad of the world’s premier wineries.)

 

London grew up on the grungier streets of San Francisco and Oakland in a working class household. His mother was a spiritualist, who eked out a living conducting séances and teaching music. His stepfather was a disabled Civil War veteran who scraped by, working variously as a farmer, a grocer and a night watchman. (London’s probable biological father, a traveling astrologer, had abruptly exited the scene prior to the future author’s arrival.)

 

As a child, London labored as a farm hand, hawked newspapers, delivered ice and set up pins in a bowling alley. By the age of 14, he was making ten cents an hour as a factory worker at Hickmott’s Cannery. The scrimping and tedium of the “work-beast” life proved stifling for a tough, but imaginative kid, who had discovered the treasure trove of books in the Oakland Free Library.

 

Works by Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Washington Irving fortified him for the dangerous delights of the Oakland waterfront, where he ventured at the age of 15.

 

Using his small sailboat, the Razzle-Dazzle, to poach oysters and sell them to local restaurants and saloons, he could make more money in a one night than he could working a full month at the cannery. Here on the seedy waterfront among an underworld of vagabonds and delinquents, he quickly fell in with a roguish crew of hard drinking sailors and wastrels. His fellow ne’er-do-wells tagged him as “The Prince of the Oyster Pirates,” and he declared that it was better “to reign among booze fighters, a prince than to toil twelve hours a day at a machine for ten cents an hour.”

 

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithso ... 1200/#cdqi2ajM2EtASpfQ.99

 

 

Printer Friendly Page Send this Story to a Friend Create a PDF from the article
 
Poster Thread