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Jack London’s passion for adventure shaped the author and his novels


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Special Section: Jack London Centennial

From an early age, Jack London’s lust for adventure propelled him through the world. His life and writing were richer for it, and his journeys largely shaped the man he became.

“You’re born with it (the desire to explore and travel), you just can’t help it,” said Karen Buchanan, the tour and education manager at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, where London lived at his Beauty Ranch during the final years of his life.

It’s widely known that London spent months in the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s, the basis for “The Call of the Wild,” his most famous book and the one that made him a best-selling author.

But London traveled far beyond North America. He served as a war correspondent in Asia, attempted to sail around the world on his own boat (the 43-foot-long ketch, the Snark, an ill-fated journey that ended in Australia) and lived in the city of London’s most dehumanizing slums.

The author’s indomitable spirit and optimism helped him overcome early obstacles such as being forced to work at the Oakland docks when he was just 10, Buchanan said.

Though the work was grueling for a child, he was exposed to the lively bustling waterfront and heard sailors “talking about these wild adventures that they’d had in faraway places,” Buchanan said. “I think that fueled his imagination.”

London’s stepfather taught him to sail on the Bay, whetting his desire for nautical explorations.

“Little Jack London at the age of 12, earning 10 cents an hour, saved up enough money to buy a boat, a little skiff, for two dollars,” she said. That was just the beginning of his travels.

“London’s time in the Klondike forged his character as a reporter and as someone who embedded himself in an environment and experienced it,” said Iris Jamahl Dunkle, Sonoma County poet laureate and London scholar.

“London learned the ways of those who had traveled north to seek gold,” she said, and also got to know and shared stories about those whose lives “had been forever changed by this infusion: the native people.”

Breck Parkman, senior state archaeologist for California State Parks, said London had experienced plenty of adventure prior to visiting the Yukon, but it was there that he came face to face with the stark and sometimes harsh realities of the wild.

In “The Call of the Wild” and some of his later works, “Jack returned to the themes of man against nature and the survival of the fittest,” he added. “One only has to imagine Jack crossing the Chilkoot Pass on foot to understand some of his inspiration.”

As a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese war, London defied the Japanese and risked his life to get to the front lines in Korea during the winter of 1904-’05.

“In Korea, he got arrested by the Japanese military for going to the front,” Parkman said. “Other war correspondents were sequestered in Japan. London hired a boat and some Japanese sailors and crossed the Yellow Sea in the midst of a storm just to get to Korea. It almost cost him his life.

“They were really battered, and for a while he wasn’t certain if he was going to make it. He had frostbite when he finally got to the mainland. But that was his spirit,” Parkman said.

Special Section: Jack London Centennial

“He got what he wanted. What he wanted was a story, an adventure, photographs. He had the best photographs from that war, actually the only photographs early on because he was at the front. He didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Seeing the world, particularly during his time in the squalid slums of London’s East End, engendered in the author empathy and a burning desire for social justice.

Working as an undercover investigative journalist, London lived in Britain’s capital for several months, which became the foundation of his book, “The People of the Abyss,” published in 1903.

That book was one of Jack London’s personal favorites, Buchanan said. “He really put his heart and soul into writing that work of nonfiction. And I think it’s one of his best.”

Parkman noted that the author was “surrounded by people staying in flophouses, sleeping on the streets, hungry people … who could not keep clean, who were not well fed, who couldn’t care for their kids. And it moved him socially and politically. He became more of a firebrand.”

Dunkle said that because London traveled “with an open mind and with the idea of obtaining stories and understanding humanity, he saw things that other people generally didn’t see.”

His approach was simple, she said: “Go somewhere and live with people that are different from you. You learn to understand them in a way that you wouldn’t if you were just observing them from afar.”

Though London today is recognized for his books, during his lifetime he was perhaps better known as a reporter and a photographer, said Dunkle, who is working with London scholar Susan Nuernberg on a biography of London’s wife titled, “Charmian Kittredge London is Smiling into Ruins.”

“He took amazing photographs,” Dunkle said. “He called his photographs ‘human documents’ because he wanted to capture who people were. He believed in everyone’s humanity, and you see that in his photographs, you see that in his stories, you see that in his reporting.”

In 1906 when the great quake leveled San Francisco, Jack and Charmian London spent three days in the destroyed city, Dunkle said, “sleeping on doorsteps and recording what was happening to the people who had lost everything.”

Although “he’s traveling not far from his home in the Valley of the Moon, it’s another world at that point,” Dunkle said. Jack and Charmian, who often traveled with him and is often overlooked, wrote with compassion and insight about the suffering of San Franciscans after the quake.

In 1907, Jack London published “The Road” based on his youthful days living as a hobo and hopping freight trains to see the U.S. from coast to coast.

“He ends up getting arrested for vagrancy back East,” Parkman said. “He served 30 days in the Erie County penitentiary and saw things that shocked him about man’s inhumanity and what went on behind bars with the jailers and prisoners.”

Even when the Londons went to places seen as paradise, they sought out those who were less fortunate and tried to see the world through their eyes.

“When he and Charmian got married in Chicago, they immediately took the train down to Florida and went to Jamaica and traveled in a challenging way,” Dunkle said. “When they went to Hawaii, they went to Molokai,” visiting children suffering from leprosy who included little girls missing a limb or two. “Jack and Charmian were completely accepting of them.”

After Jack London visited the South Pacific, “he wrote extensively about how the native peoples of those islands were treated so unfairly, frequently by Europeans,” Buchanan said. “Jack London was more interested in exploring than exploiting, more interested in making friends than making financial gain.”

Ultimately, Dunkle said, when Jack and Charmian traveled, those were “the most productive, creative times of their lives.”

The Londons “loved putting themselves in strange, new and perhaps dangerous or uncomfortable situations, and the challenge for them was to adapt,” Nuernberg said. “I think they just assumed they would figure it out.”

But the intrepid journeys took their toll. Jack London died at 40, in part due to the ravages of his travels — frostbite while sailing in Asia, near-fatal scurvy in the Yukon and yaws, an infectious disease then treated with a mercury compound that slowly poisoned him and probably contributed to the kidney failure that caused his death.

“He did die at 40, but he packed more living into those 40 years than most people do into 80 years, seeing five of the world’s seven continents,” Buchanan said.

London famously said: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”

Said Parkman, “Every time he went, he found inspiration. And every time he found inspiration, he wrote something that inspired generations of people” to get out of their chairs and see the world for themselves.

Michael Shapiro is the author of “A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.