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Jack London (1876-1915)
by Janice Albert

Reconstruction of Jack London's Canadian cabin from his year as a prospector, now in Jack London Square, Oakland

On January 16, 1899, four days after his twenty-third birthday, Jack London received an offer of employment from the post office. The offer had its attractions. London felt responsible for the care of his mother, now a widow. He had returned from the Klondike with gold dust valued at $4.50, a small sum even in those days. Firing off stories about his Alaskan adventure, he was met with notes from editors saying that interest in Alaska had fallen off. In a year, he had made $40 from writing-about the amount he had spent on postage and paper. The post office job meant financial security. Had he taken it, it's likely we would never have had The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, or "To Build a Fire." Readers around the world would have missed the adventure stories laced with philosophy that they craved. Irving Stone would not have written Sailor on Horseback, the State of California would not include 840 acres of Sonoma County in its public lands, and Gerald Haslam would not have produced his latest book, Jack London's Golden State: Selected California Writings.

Haslam's book, published by Heyday Press (1999), provides a selection of London's writing chosen for the picture they give of California, especially Northern California, one hundred years ago. Romance between men and women, men in conflict, the earthquake of 1906-these are some topics that captured London's interest and focused his narrative ability.

The collection lends itself to literary pilgrimaging in a big way. One could spend a pleasant week visiting the sites, book in hand, to soak up the present atmosphere and appreciate the past. Here's a seven-day guide to the area, with references to Haslam's book:

Day 1- Ferry slip, Jack London Square, Oakland. Many ferries cross San Francisco Bay, in case another ferry is more convenient for you. All that's necessary to appreciate Haslam's excerpt from The Sea Wolf and London's introduction of skipper Wolf Larsen is to be out on the water with the breeze in your face and the sound of waves slapping the side of your craft. This selection, which begins as a ferry ride, includes a capsizing and an unplanned journey onto the high seas, but you no doubt will land safely at the ferry slip on the San Francisco side.

Day 2- Morrison Room, Main Library, University of California, Berkeley. This room is a beautiful spot in which to enjoy London's account of a deadly plague that arrives in the year 2013, and the futile hold-out in the Chemistry building on the Berkeley campus of a few too-highly-bred representatives of our doomed civilization. "The Scarlet Plague" owes something to Poe and the Masque of the Red Death, but the Ebola Virus scare is its literary grandchild.

Day 3- Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, Jack London Square, Oakland. Back to Oakland, this time stay on land and find the Saloon. Settle down with Haslam's excerpt from John Barleycorn, order a ginger ale, and read London's autobiographical account of himself as a drinker and a kid. Here, he mentions his debt to the Oakland Free library, located in his day near the present City Hall, only a few blocks away at 14th and Clay. While you're at Heinold's, take a look at the cabin brought down from Canada, said to be the one London occupied during his mining days. Biographer Alex Kershaw tells us that "mention of Alaska would, for several months, make Jack swear like a disgruntled sourdough."

Day 4- Waterfront, Benicia. "Demetrios Contos" chronicles a rivalry between fishermen of Vallejo and Benicia, two towns on the Carquinez Straits, the waterway that takes the Sacramento River to San Francisco Bay. In Benicia, you will want to find a bench along the water to create the scene for the story you are about to read. Then, go to Main Street and look for The Brewery. Inside, you'll find a mural of San Francisco from long ago, and in the corner, just above the TV set, a seated, smiling Jack London. Another image of the writer is in the sidewalk of Main Street, a ceramic tribute, one of several commemorating writers and events in Benicia.

Day 5- San Quentin, Marin County. The gray eminence of San Quentin is clearly visible from highway 580. Take the off-ramp and find the beach or a parking lot, then settle down to read the short selection from "The Star Rover" in Haslam's book. London's novel was based on the story of a real inmate, and the descriptions of brutality toward prisoners have a strangely contemporary sound.

Day 6- Sonoma Square, Sonoma. This picturesque spot in the midst of the newly prosperous town of Sonoma is Jack's destination with his wife Charmian and the subject of a 1911 story for Sunset Magazine. It's near the final destination, London's home and workplace, Beauty Ranch, now Jack London State Park, on highway 12.

Day 7- Jack London State Park, Glen Ellen. Nearly every other piece in Haslam's book-excerpts from Burning Daylight , The Valley of the Moon, The Little Lady of the Big House- can be appreciated from the cover of broad-leaf evergreens and the grass-lined trails of Jack's ranch, 840 acres now managed by the state's department of Parks and Recreation. There is much to see at the park, but go right, to the old house where he actually lived and wrote, and sit near this modest building to read. This is the entrance to London's dreams, his tales of life on the land, of his relationship with Charmian, the woman he deemed a match for his Superman. That reading finished, go to visit Charmian's house, where she lived as a widow; the remains of Wolf house, where they hoped to live together; and finally his gravesite, a simple boulder near the graves of two pioneer children.

For virtual travelers, there are web sites galore. Searching for Jack London on Alta Vista, I found the Jack London collection of the Berkeley Digital Library SunSite, copyrighted by the UC Regents. Here you can read and compare two versions of "To Build a Fire," the juvenile version published in 1902 and the revised, adult version of 1908.

A chat room at jollyroger.com reveals many students shouting for help: "need a summary of Call of the Wild!" But also, teachers exchanging ideas about study units.

A spectacular site owned by David Hartzell, called London's Homes, gives us photos and text of London's life under the title "The World of Jack London." Hartzell is a friend and colleague of Russ Kingman, an important collector of London material, who died in 1993.

Finally, Nakamura Realty offers an internet photo of the house where London was living when he became a professional writer, the house where he lived with his mother from 1898-1900, 1914 Foothill Blvd., the house that might have become the home of a postal worker but that he chose a different route.

 

Commemoration of Jack London's birthplace at 3rd and Brannan,San Francisco

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