I’ve decided to travel down the west coast to visit a few more author sites before heading to parts unknown. Back in the day, when I was a very young ‘un, we lived in Pacifica, CA. On occasion, we’d head over to Oakland, but our weekend jaunts were usually confined to the closer and more exciting city of San Francisco. I think many people did this, because Oakland was like San Fran’s red-headed stepchild. The city experienced some major social problems during the latter half of the 20th century. Oakland’s crime and poverty rates were among the worst in the country, and I’ve read that Oakland still struggles with these issues.
The time period in Oakland’s history that I’m interested in occurred way before those tumultuous decades. Oakland in the early 1900’s was well on its way to becoming an established port city, and it was here that John (Jack) London (1876 – 1916) first appeared on the literary scene.
Jack London’s childhood history was quite colorful: he was born out-of-wedlock in San Francisco, and he was raised by a wet nurse until his mother married John London when he was 8 months old. The family moved to and from Oakland several times before settling there permanently in 1886.
Jack’s formal education wasn’t the greatest, but he was a smart boy and read voraciously. His family was poor, so he tried many different jobs before settling on writing as a full-time career. He was an oyster pirate, a sailor (which he adored), a janitor, a harbor patrolman, a gold prospector in the Klondike, and a railroad bum among other things. He even spent a month in jail in New York for vagrancy. During his travels as a tramp, he became acquainted with Socialism and soon became a devout follower of its philosophy. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Oakland as the Socialist Party Candidate several times during his early twenties. He was always the champion of the underdog, and was vociferously adamant in his defense of those less fortunate than himself.
While I was conducting my little smidgeon of research on Jack’s life, I struck by the thought that he was quite extraordinary. He was the Kerouac of his generation, and he was a man’s man and an adventurer to boot, like Hemingway. He was strong, but he was sickly too. He spent a substantial portion of his adult life in pain due to various stomach and kidney ailments and died of kidney failure at the age of 40. If he had lived longer, I’ll bet he could’ve made a big difference in the world, or at least in the United States.
During his writing career, London devoted himself to writing at least 1,000 words a day. Between 1900 and 1916, he wrote over 50 books, several hundred short stories, and scads of articles, essays and poetry. After the publication of The Call of the Wild in 1903, he became the most beloved and highest paid author of that period in history. His fame spread throughout the globe, and he recieved over 10,000 letters a year from friends and fans alike. Being handsome didn’t hurt, either. London was the first celebrity to endorse commercial products, like grape juice and men’s suits.
***A brief aside***
I wonder if, all things considered, Jack London was more popular than J. K. Rowling. Hmm, grape juice for thought.
Now, finally back to Oakland. The city has named a potion of its waterfront “Jack London Square.” This is a touristy place featuring cheap souvenier shops and expensive seafood restaurants, but it does have one remaining authentic Jack London landmark, Heinold’s First and Last Chance Bar.
The bar was established in 1883, and London would read there as a kid and write there as an adult.
During his second marriage, Jack decided to relocate to the Sonoma Valley, which is about 80 miles north of Oakland. He bought 140 acres in a little town called Glen Ellen and built his dream house. It burned down a few days before the London’s were to move in, and he died before the house could be rebuilt. He is buried on the property. A few years after his death, his wife (Charmian) had a house/museum built and later petitioned the state of California to establish an historic site on the property after her death. The state did, and “Jack London State Historic Park” has been in business since 1960.
Here are some pictures of the State Park:
The Dream (aka “Wolf”) House
Jack and Charmian’s grave. He didn’t want a headstone.
My favorite London books are The Call of the Wild and White Fang because they’re about canines, and I can’t pass up a great dog story, even if it makes me weep copious tears at the end. It’s hard to choose a favorite between them, but I guess it must be The Call of the Wild because I love Buck so much. I’m pretty sure that Buck is my favorite canine character, ever. If you’d like to read these or any other Jack London books, you can find them here for free.
That’s it for this installment of Chartroose on the Loose. Stay tuned!