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