In search of Jack London
Sifting through legend and myth in pursuit of the real man and the child inside him
Theres's a well-known photo of Jack Londaon sitting astride a magnificent sable horse, gazing over the Sonoma Valley, back when its fields and farmlands seemed to roll on forever.
That image recalls a quote by Jack about air as fragrant as wine and wisps of sea fog and being glad of life. And in his clean, forward prose we can taste the wine and smell the sea and feel the openness of Sonoma sky.
Much has changed since the Sailor on Horseback rode this terrain, but on a blazing fall day Jack London State Park is bathed in gauzy October light, vineyards and eucalyptus as Klimt might have seen them-ornate, embellished, all movement reduced to bronze shimmer and the occasional spindrift of leaves.
Set against the gold foil of turning vineyards, the buildings and ruins throughout the Beauty Ranch reveal an unfulfilled vision and an enduring legend, with so many chapters that the myth no longer needs the man.
Wander through Jack and Charmian's cottage and intimate evidence of the man is everywhere. Here is his typewriter, there a mounted deer head, the old phonograph, the fur pelt-draped bed on the sunporch where he died.
Jack bought this land when he was just 29, but even then his life far surpassed his age, actions overflowing existence as if the channels that attend the flow of time-date and year and calendar-vanished under the flood of his achievements.
The flood started poorly. Jack's mother, Flora, was a spiritualist and music teacher, his biological father an astrologer. The two bohemian bodies collided in San Francisco, parted, and shortly thereafter Jack's mother would shoot herself in an attempted suicide. Mother and child survived, and Jack, it seems, entered the world already a fighter. Later Flora married a disabled Civil War veteran, John London, and the couple moved to Oakland, where they raised Jack and his stepsister, Eliza (whom he remained close to all his life).
By the time Jack found Glen Ellen, he had already played more hands than most people are dealt in a lifetime.
"You can't wait for inspiration," he famously said. "You have to go after it with a club." He went after it as an oyster pirate, a seaman, a laborer in a jute mill, a voracious reader, a gold seeker, a train-hopper and tramp, a newspaper reporter. By 29, he had steered the helm of a schooner in a typhoon off the Japanese coast, barreled across North America on boxcars, served prison time, attended and dropped out of Berkeley, sought gold in the Klondike, floated a thousand miles down the Yukon River, suffered scurvy and lost teeth, become a card-carrying socialist, run (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Oakland, slept homeless on the streets of London and reported from the front lines of the Russo-Japanese War. Precisely because of (and maybe in spite of) his assault on life, Jack amassed a motley gold mine of narratives. He nursed pie-in-the-sky literary aspirations and pursued them under an assiduous writing schedule. After hundreds of rejection slips, he published his first story at age 23 in the Overland Monthly. By 29, Jack enjoyed a standing of international, almost unrivaled literary fame, having penned collections of short stories and such famous wilderness novels as Call of the Wild, along with the somber sociological study, People of the Abyss, which documented life in the slums of London.
Jack came to Glen Ellen with the intention of retreat. It was to be a writer's haven, a counterpoint to his wild and wayfaring whims, and a geographic escape from his previous life, which included an unhappy marriage of convenience to friend Bessie Maddern, with whom he had two young daughters. Over the years Jack had fallen in love with Charmian Kittredge, a dazzling and liberal-minded young secretary whose aunt ran a lodge and summer cabins up in Glen Ellen.
It was a paradoxically quiet place for the hyperactive Jack, whose temperament ran at feverish pace and whose body rarely caught up.
"Every moment energy incarnate, he rushed and crowded as if to preclude thinking of aught except the work or recreation of the moment," wrote Charmian in The Book of Jack London.
On the cusp of their courtship, Charmian entreated Jack to extend one of his visits to Glen Ellen, to think of "the sweetness of the spring and summer he might pass there among the redwoods by the brook that once had soothed, and the work we could accomplish. But the warning unrest leaped into his eyes and voice and he implored...No, no; it doesn't seem that I can. I could not stand the quiet, I tell you. I could not. It would make me mad."
But Glen Ellen's charm worked quiet magic on Jack as Charmian watched a gradual transformation take place. Ultimately, Jack would tell her, "You did it all, my Mate Woman. You've pulled me out. You've rested me so. And rest was what I needed-you were right. Something wonderful has happened to me."
That announcement in a fern-laced Glen Ellen forest heralded a decade-long union in which the two seldom parted. When Jack's divorce was final, he and Charmian wed quietly in November of 1905, and a short time later Jack bought the first parcel of Beauty Ranch land.
"There are 130 acres in the place, and they are 130 acres of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California," Jack wrote. "There are great redwoods on it, some of them thousands of years old.... There are canyons, several streams of water, many springs... I have been riding all over these hills, looking for just such a place, and I must say I have never seen anything like it."
Overnight, the Beauty Ranch vaulted from a pristine backdrop to Jack's life obsession. As he expanded his holdings, buying up adjacent farms, Jack made no pretense about which was more important, his writing or his land.
"I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate."
Jack's paychecks could barely keep up with his lust for land and the innumerable and innovative farming techniques and inventions he was exploring with missionary passion.
"I have just blown myself for 129 acres of land. I will not attempt to describe it-it's beyond me," he gushed to a friend. "I've taken all the money I could get from Macmillian (publishing) to pay for the land, and haven't any now even to build a barn with, much less a house. Haven't started White Fang yet. Am writing some short stories in order to get hold of some immediate cash."
While local farmers considered him an eccentric dilettante, Jack pursued a progressively organic and holistic farming approach unheard of at the time. Awed by ancient agricultural techniques he witnessed in Korea, Jack terraced his hillsides to prevent erosion, planted nitrogen-rich cover crops, converted livestock manure into fertilizer and rotated his crops to keep soil healthy.
"Do you realize I devote two hours a day to writing and ten to farming?" he wrote. Every word from his pen equaled more brick and mortar for his expanding vision: prize-winning horses, round silos, stone barns thick as fortresses, an artificial lake, the castle keep of wood and boulder that was to be the Wolf House.
Jack's circular "pig palace" became the laughing stock of Valley neighbors, who later smarted over his purchase of the Glen Ellen blacksmith, which he relocated to a cooperage on his ranch.
"Good boy Jack! Why not take another trip with your wagon and move the rest of Glen Ellen up to the ranch?" grumped a local newspaper column.
Flush with arcadian ideals and socialist leanings, Jack was headed in that direction. What he ultimately foresaw in the Beauty Ranch was a self-reliant and sustainable community. He paid his men the highest wages around and furnished on-site housing for their families. He even drafted plans for a school and a post office.
"From a utilitarian standpoint," Jack declared his goals were two-fold: "one, to leave the land better for my having been; and two, to enable thirty or forty families to live happily (on previously fallow ground)...."
Idealists are so often misconstrued, and Jack's fair compensation incited local ire, as he retained the cream of the crop and forced other employers to compete.
If Jack was misunderstood by Valley townfolk, he offered scarce opportunity for them to learn otherwise. In the 11 years that Jack occupied his ranch, he was gone the better part of it, traveling the world with Charmian on the legendary Snark and Dirigo, covering the Mexican Revolution, frequenting Hawaii to convalesce and strengthen his constitution.
His beloved stepsister, Eliza, managed the ranch and oversaw most of his affairs while he traveled, and it was Eliza who became personally intertwined in the community.
Today her grandson Milo Shepard sits in a house, overlooking the gold foil vineyards and the long shadows of the Beauty Ranch. The Shepards, who have farmed and tended this land for generations, sold much of their holdings to the state in 1977 and 1979 in order to preserve it. And yet, during a recent visit you could see in Milo's tired, cordial eyes the evidence of an implicit tradeoff, one that forever quieted the fields of his family.
It was for the best, perhaps, but forever can get lonely, and Milo remembers when the Beauty Ranch still bustled with enterprise, horses, life, his own dairy with 150 head of cattle, buildings with people who still lived in them.
"As a kid, we had forty horses here," he said. "This bothers me the most ... Driving out by the stone barns, where the cows used to be, this ranch was a living entity, always something going on. Now I look up there and it feels, sort of, stark."
Milo has been weathering the Jack London gale as long as he can remember, fielding questions, handling research queries into the extensive London library collection, sorting through access privileges and recalling and remembering and fact checking and, frankly, he could probably do without another writer sniffing around for anecdotes. But he doesn't say so. We sit and talk and watch the squirrels and nuthatches flittering beyond the windows.
"He wrote for the common man," says Milo. "He was a good storyteller. He was criticized his whole life... Only since about 1960 have scholars (been taking him seriously)."
Ask him if, at this point, there is anything that people might not know about Jack and he laughs wearily.
"No," he replies. "There is very little people don't know about Jack." Everything has been taken-facts, dates, diary entries, letters, stories, recollections-all picked to the bone and wrangled over by various historians, professors, disciples, and critics. Theory wars still rage and biographies based on biographies based on biographies leave a morass of half-truths. We all project what we're looking for, and so Jack goes on forever, but not in ways he probably ever imagined.
Eventually, and with tenderness, Milo begins to open some old clothbound first-edition novels. Every one contains a note scrawled by Jack to Eliza, and suddenly Jack himself appears just behind the faded ink, the stamp that he really was here. There and gone, like an animal you catch sight of between the tall grasses.
"Dearest Sister Eliza," reads a copy of The Road, "I know I worried you greatly in the days of wandering narrated herein. But anyway, I always came back. And here we are. Your loving brother Jack."
Another, "Dearest Sister Eliza, We know where lies the Valley of the Moon, you and I, and the Valley of the Moon, in our small way, yours and mine, will be a better Valley for our having been. Your loving brother, Jack."
People loved or hated Jack. They loved him because he lived heroically, skirting the edge of death, forging the fiercest extremes of life in war and snow and slums into stories they loved to read. They hated him because he was a socialist, because he divorced Bess, because of rumors of impropriety and drink.
More has been written about Jack than almost any other author on the planet. We speculate, rationalize, deconstruct and manipulate. Was he an alcoholic? A plagiarist? A racist? Did he abandon his girls? Did he commit suicide?
But a greater mystery may be how he plowed on through the darkness that fell on Beauty Ranch. Charmian's miscarriage; the later loss of their first child 38 hours after birth; the incineration of his dream, the Wolf House; the uphill battle with poor health; the financial stress and the ever-increasing request for cash advances to further his pursuits on the ranch.
As a further bruise to his ego, critics and even friends panned the later novels of his career-from the Valley of the Moon to Star Rover. Jack's deep regrets over his tenuous relationship with his living daughters haunted him; he would reach out, only to push them away in his own defensive cloud of hurt.
For all his wisdom, he still seemed childlike. For the strength of his words, he could be weak of will, succumbing to his own demons, anger, and resentment.
This is not to say only storm clouds loomed over the Beauty Ranch. The land was his beacon, reflecting all that was good and pure in his mind's eye.
"Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me. Heavens! I sit up nights over that ranch..." he wrote.
One envisions what must have been long, numinous strands of gold Sonoma days, swimming and riding and farming, reading poetry to Charmian, entertaining a ceaseless parade of the haute monde, the bohemian friends and itinerants.
Jack prodded them all with his merciless humor and trademark pranks. He'd wake his guests in the deep of night shouting "Earthquake!!" while shaking their beds.
But for all his bearskin buccaneering there was deep pain inside, both physical and emotional.
"He could be gregarious and likable," says Milo. "But he was difficult. He was a sick man (especially in his last years) and very temperamental, almost a hypochondriac. He couldn't stand pain too well."
Jack's aches and pains likely stemmed from kidney problems, for which he self-medicated with morphine in his last year. In the days before his death, photos reveal Jack's tired, turgid face, still smiling like a schoolboy as he held his pigs or posed, arm wound around Charmian.
In the space of 16 years, from 1900 to his death in 1916, Jack wrote 198 short stories and 51 books. There was still so much to be done, and built, and dreamed. And then he was gone, first comatose and slumped at his desk, then hours later, dead on the bed in Charmian's sunporch. True to form, controversy surrounds his death, but it has been arguably traced to kidney failure and an accidental overdose of morphine.
It is hard to escape the conclusion he was a kid when he died. Worldly and
weary but still a kid. With no inkling of the wave he sent skimming across the surface of literature and humanity. It grows bigger still, a legend without destination
From the Winter 2008 issue of SONOMA
or crest, no matter how quiet he left his dear Valley.