Today is the birthday (1876) of John “Jack” Griffith London (born John Griffith Chaney), US journalist, novelist and social activist. London was born in San Francisco to an unwed mother in a working-class neighborhood that was not as impoverished as his later accounts suggested. London’s relationship with the truth was not always cordial. His purported father disowned him and his mother, and for much of his childhood his mother was unable to look after him, and turned over his care to Virginia Prentiss, an African-American former slave.
In 1889, London began working 12 to 18 hours a day at Hickmott’s Cannery. Seeking a way out, he borrowed money from his foster mother, bought the sloop Razzle-Dazzle from an oyster pirate named French Frank, and became an oyster pirate himself. In his memoir, John Barleycorn, he claims also to have taken French Frank’s mistress Mamie. After a few months, his sloop became damaged beyond repair, after which London hired on as a member of the California Fish Patrol.
In 1893, he signed on to the sealing schooner Sophie Sutherland, bound for the coast of Japan. When he returned, the country was in the grip of the panic of ’93 and Oakland was swept by labor unrest. After grueling jobs in a jute mill and a street-railway power plant, London joined Coxey’s Army protest on Washington DC and began life as a tramp. In 1894, he spent 30 days for vagrancy in the Erie County Penitentiary in Buffalo, New York. After many experiences as a hobo and a sailor, he returned to Oakland and attended Oakland High School. He contributed a number of articles to the high school’s magazine, The Aegis. His first published work was “Typhoon off the Coast of Japan”, an account of his sailing experiences.
As a schoolboy, London often studied at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a port-side bar in Oakland. At 17, he confessed to the bar’s owner, John Heinold, his desire to attend university and pursue a career as a writer. Heinold lent London tuition money to attend college. London desperately wanted to attend the University of California, Berkeley. In 1896, after a summer of intense studying to pass certification exams, he was admitted. Financial circumstances forced him to leave in 1897 and he never graduated. No evidence suggests that London wrote for student publications while studying at Berkeley.
While at Berkeley, London continued to study and spend time at Heinold’s saloon, where he was introduced to the sailors and adventurers who would influence his writing. In his autobiographical novel, John Barleycorn, London mentioned the pub’s likeness seventeen times. Heinold’s was the place where London met Alexander McLean, a captain known for his cruelty at sea. London based his protagonist Wolf Larsen, in the novel The Sea-Wolf, on McLean. Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon is now unofficially named Jack London’s Rendezvous in his honor.
On July 12th 1897, London (age 21) and his sister’s husband sailed to join the Klondike Gold Rush. This was the setting for some of his first successful stories. London’s time in the harsh Klondike, however, was detrimental to his health. Like so many other men who were malnourished in the goldfields, London developed scurvy. His gums became swollen, leading to the loss of his four front teeth. A constant gnawing pain affected his hip and leg muscles, and his face was stricken with marks that always reminded him of the struggles he faced in the Klondike. Father William Judge, “The Saint of Dawson”, had a facility in Dawson that provided shelter, food and medicine to London and others. His struggles there inspired his famous short story, “To Build a Fire” (1902, revised in 1908).
London returned to Oakland to become an activist for socialism. He concluded that his only hope of escaping the work “trap” was to get an education and “sell his brains”. He saw his writing as a business, his ticket out of poverty, and, he hoped, a means of beating the wealthy at their own game. On returning to California in 1898, London began working to get published, a struggle described in his novel, Martin Eden (serialized in 1908, published in 1909). His first published story since high school was “To the Man On Trail”, which has frequently been collected in anthologies. When The Overland Monthly offered him only five dollars for it—and was slow paying—London came close to abandoning his writing career. In his words, “literally and literarily I was saved” when The Black Cat accepted his story “A Thousand Deaths”, and paid him $40—the “first money I ever received for a story.”
London began his writing career just as new printing technologies enabled lower-cost production of magazines. This resulted in a boom in popular magazines aimed at a wide public audience and a strong market for short fiction. In 1900, he made $2,500 in writing, (about $75,000 in today’s currency). Among the works he sold to magazines was a short story known as either “Diable” (1902) or “Bâtard” (1904), two editions of the same basic story; London received $141.25 for this story on May 27, 1902. In the text, a cruel French Canadian brutalizes his dog, and the dog retaliates and kills the man. London told some of his critics that a man’s actions are the main cause of the behavior of their animals, and he would show this in another story, The Call of the Wild. In early 1903, London sold The Call of the Wild to The Saturday Evening Post for $750, and the book rights to Macmillan for $2,000. Macmillan’s promotional campaign propelled it to swift success.
While living at his rented villa on Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, London met poet George Sterling; in time they became best friends. In 1902, Sterling helped London find a home closer to his own in nearby Piedmont. In his letters London addressed Sterling as “Greek”, owing to Sterling’s aquiline nose and classical profile, and he signed them as “Wolf”. London was later to depict Sterling as Russ Brissenden in his autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1910) and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon (1913). In later life London indulged his wide-ranging interests by accumulating a personal library of 15,000 volumes. He referred to his books as “the tools of my trade”.
London accepted an assignment of the San Francisco Examiner to cover the Russo-Japanese War in early 1904, arriving in Yokohama on January 25th 1904. He was arrested by Japanese authorities in Shimonoseki, but released through the intervention of American ambassador Lloyd Griscom. After travelling to Korea, he was again arrested by Japanese authorities for straying too close to the border with Manchuria without official permission, and was sent back to Seoul. Released again, London was permitted to travel with the Imperial Japanese Army to the border, and to observe the Battle of the Yalu. London asked William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the San Francisco Examiner, to be allowed to transfer to the Imperial Russian Army, where he felt that restrictions on his reporting and his movements would be less severe. However, before this could be arranged, he was arrested for a third time in four months, this time for assaulting his Japanese assistants, whom he accused of stealing the fodder for his horse. Released through the personal intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt, London departed the front in June 1904.
In 1905, London purchased a 1,000 acre ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, California, on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain, for $26,450. He wrote: “Next to my wife, the ranch is the dearest thing in the world to me.” He desperately wanted the ranch to become a successful business enterprise. Writing, always a commercial enterprise with London, now became even more a means to an end: “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
His biographer, Clarice Stasz, writes that London “had taken fully to heart the vision, expressed in his agrarian fiction, of the land as the closest earthly version of Eden … he educated himself through the study of agricultural manuals and scientific tomes. He conceived of a system of ranching that today would be praised for its ecological wisdom.” He was proud to own the first concrete silo in California, a circular piggery that he designed. He hoped to adapt the wisdom of Asian sustainable agriculture to the United States.
The ranch was an economic failure. Sympathetic observers such as Stasz treat his projects as potentially feasible, and ascribe their failure to bad luck or to being ahead of their time. Unsympathetic historians such as Kevin Starr suggest that he was a bad manager, distracted by other concerns and impaired by his alcoholism. Starr notes that London was absent from his ranch about six months a year between 1910 and 1916 and says, “He liked the show of managerial power, but not grinding attention to detail …. London’s workers laughed at his efforts to play big-time rancher [and considered] the operation a rich man’s hobby.”
London spent $80,000 ($2,230,000 in current value) to build a 15,000-square-foot stone mansion called Wolf House on the property. Just as the mansion was nearing completion, two weeks before he planned to move in, it was destroyed by fire. The ranch (abutting stone remnants of Wolf House) is now a National Historic Landmark and is protected in Jack London State Historic Park.
London witnessed animal cruelty in the training of circus animals, and his subsequent novels Jerry of the Islands and Michael, Brother of Jerry included a foreword entreating the public to become more informed about this practice. In 1918, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Humane Education Society teamed up to create the Jack London Club, which sought to inform the public about cruelty to circus animals and encourage them to protest this establishment. Support from Club members led to a temporary cessation of trained animal acts at Ringling-Barnum and Bailey in 1925.
London died November 22, 1916, in a sleeping porch in a cottage on his ranch. London had been a robust man but had suffered several serious illnesses, including scurvy in the Klondike. Additionally, during travels on the Snark, he had picked up unspecified tropical infections, and diseases, including yaws. At the time of his death, he suffered from dysentery, late-stage alcoholism, and uremia. He was in extreme pain and taking morphine.
London’s ashes were buried on his property not far from the Wolf House. London’s funeral took place on November 26th 1916, attended only by close friends, relatives, and workers on the property. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated and buried next to some pioneer children, under a rock that belonged to the Wolf House.
Geraldine Duncann whose father was a close friend of Jack London has a website that details things he liked to cook, here: http://www.thequestingfeast.com/Article_Jack_London.html This recipe is a good one. I’m a big fan of raw oysters, but I do change things up from time to time with some cooked oysters, and using a wood grill is a worthy enterprise. It is also perfect for Jack London’s lifestyle.
This is another method of serving oysters that my father learned from Jack London. It also uses Anchor Steam Beer as well as a lot of finely chopped garlic.
Fresh live oysters in the shell
Finely minced garlic
Anchor Steam beer
Salt and pepper and favorite hot sauce
Scrub the shells of the oysters with a stiff brush under cold running water. Discard any that are open and do not close when you tap the shell. Place the oysters, on a rack over the glowing coals of a barbecue. Leave until they just begin to open. Using tongs, remove them and with an oyster knife, pry the shells the rest of the way open. Place the oyster in the deep half of the shell. Add a pinch of minced garlic and a bit of beer. Add salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste and return to the barbecue and continue cooking to desired degree of doneness. SPECTACULAR!