Originally created 06/12/06

Jack London: Writer, adventurer... farmer?



GLEN ELLEN, Calif. - You've heard of Jack London, celebrated author of "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang." You may also know him as an intrepid world traveler and socialist crusader.

But chances are you don't know Jack London the sustainable farmer who pioneered environmentally friendly practices on his sprawling ranch in the Northern California wine country.

London, it turns out, was about more than dogs, danger and derring-do, a story state parks officials hope to tell as they meticulously restore the Sonoma County cottage where he spent the last years of an action-packed life.

"This is where he lived, where he wrote, where he died," regional parks superintendent John Crossman says of the cottage, which is expected to be completed by late summer

"That house," says London scholar Jeanne Campbell Reesman, "has so much history to it."

Still, 90 years after his death, London remains a complicated character.

He was a socialist who worked hard at making money, becoming one of the highest-paid writers of his day; an author who broke ground by having nonwhites as protagonists in some books and yet made troubling ethnic references - consistent with the racism prevalent in his day - in others.

He was an adventurer who braved the Klondike, a bookish type who took along Milton's "Paradise Lost."

And although he was famous for the canine-centric "Call" and "Fang," his subjects ran the gamut from love stories to political dystopias (evil societies that are the opposite of utopias) to the supernatural. Astral projection is the subject of "The Star Rover," a hallucinatory tour-de-force that, among other things, attacked inhumane conditions in the California prison system.

"Most people just think he wrote the dog books and he wrote books for boys. Actually, he's one of California's most distinctive writers," says Reesman, a professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio and executive coordinator of the Jack London Society.

The early details of London's life are a bit murky. He was born in 1876 in San Francisco, but it's not entirely clear who his father was.

He tried his hand at a variety of livelihoods, from poaching oysters to being a hobo to hard labor. He dropped out of high school but later went back and finished when he was 21, attended the University of California, Berkeley, briefly, and ran twice, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Oakland as a socialist.

He died young, at 40, something that's easy to forget when you consider his body of work, which includes scores of novels, short stories and essays, all fueled by a diligent 1,000-words-a-day habit.

Scholars differ on the merit of his works, with many preferring his short stories, such as "To Build a Fire," a visceral parable of a rather reckless man versus nature. Nature wins.

London's pastoral period started around 1905 when, already a successful writer and celebrity, he moved to Glen Ellen, about 65 miles north of San Francisco, eventually buying up 1,400 acres that became his Beauty Ranch.

The land was exhausted by poor farming techniques and soon London was throwing his formidable energies into reviving the property, says Greg Hayes, a former park ranger who helped plan the cottage restoration.

London introduced terracing techniques he'd seen as a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. He also promoted using animal waste as fertilizer instead of the new chemical fertilizers that were emerging on the market.

"He was pre-organic, but I think he'd probably sign on if he were around now," says Hayes.

The plan was for London and his second wife, Charmian (an earlier marriage ended in divorce), to stay in the cottage just until their dream home, Wolf House, was built. But it wasn't to be. Wolf House burned to the ground in August 1913, leaving nothing but an intriguing shell.

At the time, the fire was a mystery, prompting whispers of arson, but it's now believed oily rags spontaneously combusted.

Step into London's restored study, a book-lined retreat, and you see the desk - facing away from the windows to avoid the distraction of sweeping green vistas - the safe where he kept his manuscripts, his broad-brimmed hat tossed on a convenient table. All that's missing is the scratch of pen on paper.

A stroll through the living room is equally evocative, stocked with items - real and replica - that Jack and Charmian brought back from the South Pacific during a 1907-1909 cruise on their ketch, the Snark.

Many of the artifacts used in the restoration were donated by London's descendants, who have made a point of preserving his legacy.

"I was raised to protect the stuff," says Milo Shepard, grandson of London's stepsister and ranch manager, Eliza Shepard. Most of the original Beauty Ranch now belongs to the state, some of it donated by the family, and forms what is now Jack London State Historic Park. Shepard, 80, still lives on 180 acres abutting the park and has worked with parks officials on the $1.4 million restoration project.

Once finished, visitors will have a chance to see the rooms as they would have looked in London's time, including the restored kitchen that gives an idea of the meals the Londons' two cooks would turn out for the ranch's frequent guests.

Crossman notes that some overnighters got to see the playful side of London. He is said to have been fond of tying ropes to their beds, then having the ropes jerked in the night while yelling, "Earthquake!"

In fact, London was a big part of the real earthquake of 1906. He saw the "lurid tower" of smoke from Sonoma Mountain and he and Charmian traveled by train and ferry to San Francisco, where London wrote about and photographed the wounded city.

Ten years later, London's death was cause for controversy, sparking rumors of suicide. But he probably died of a stroke brought on by kidney failure, Reesman says.

It's no surprise, she says, that the larger-than-life London inspired "an awful lot of mythology."

The truth is, he was a mythic character.

"He was a very intense, unusual person who truly lived and burned the candle at both ends," says Reesman. "So, a lot of the things people say about him aren't really as remarkable as the things he did."

On the Net:

http://london.sonoma.edu/



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