The call of the wild spoke to Jack London.

Jack London as a twenty-one-year-old in the gold fields of Alaska. Photo: True West Magazine
Jack London as a twenty-one-year-old in the gold fields of Alaska. Photo: True West Magazine

JACK LONDON HAD TRAVELED the world, but he knew home when he saw it.  And he said he would forever escape the mantrap of city life in the thick forests and untamed canyons of California’s Sonoma Valley.

He once wrote: “The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountains wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in a drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive. I am filled with dreams and mysteries. I am all sun and air and sparkle. I am vitalized, organic.”

For Jack London, there was no better place on earth.

He should know.

He had seen most of them.

Even as a young boy, Jack London had wanderlust and always had to fight for what he earned. His would not be an easy life. He wrote: “At age fifteen, I was a man among men, and if I had a spare nickel, I spent it on beer instead of candy.”

He joined the oyster pirates off the coast of San Francisco. He worked in the factories and on the waterfront. Jack London wanted to write, but a newspaper could never hold his interest. As he said, he did not want to be chained to a machine.

But who would publish his words?

Who would pay for what he wrote?

He was just a boy, for God’s sake.

In disgust and probably in frustration, London headed for the gold fields of Alaska. He didn’t find gold, but he found his writing voice. In the Klondike, he wrote, “I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your perspective. I got mine.”

London did not strike it rich. An outbreak of scurvy chased him home, and he sailed nineteen hundred miles toward California in an open boat.

He sold one story for five dollars.

Another magazine paid him forty dollars for one his tales.

A spark had been lit. It ignited. London’s experiences in Alaska formed the basis for two of his most famous works: Call of the Wild and White Fang. From 1900 to 1916, he produced fifty books, both fiction and non-fiction, and hundreds of short stories. He wrote passionately on the great questions of life and death and the struggle for survival while maintaining both dignity and integrity.

Jack London was fiery, eloquent, and combative. He was forever on the side of the underdog battling back against oppression and injustice. He became the highest paid and most popular novelist and short story writer of his day.

And he found his home at last in the Sonoma Valley. It was where he and his wife, Charmian, began building their dream home on a place he called Beauty Ranch. In 1913, only weeks before they were to move in, a blaze broke out on a hot August day and burned the house down to its bare stone walls.

London remained undaunted. The fire broke him financially, but he vowed to build from the ashes. He still had his unquenchable thirst for adventure. As he wrote: The proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

London used every minute he had.

He still had his energy.

He didn’t have his health.

A doctor told him to take it easy. London didn’t. A doctor told him to lay off alcohol. London didn’t.

In 1916, he was at the top of his game, the top of the writing world. He had beaten the odds but could not beat the uremic poisoning in his stomach. Jack London was only forty years old.

His ashes were laid to rest near the ruins, the stark bare walls, of his dream home on Beauty Ranch. Only his wife, his work hands, and a friend, George Sterling, were in attendance. Sterling wrote: “Amid the profound silence of the on-lookers, a huge boulder – a great block of red lava, long pitted by time and enmeshed by the moss of uncounted years – was urged by rollers and a crow bar over the sepulcher. Then the party dispersed as quietly as it had gathered, the stillness making it a funeral impressive beyond all memories of those in attendance. No word aside from a brief whisper had been said. The thirteen strong men of the ranch faced the bearers of the remains in silence, and as silently departed.”

Jack London, ever the wordsmith, left us these thoughts on life and writing:

  • You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
  • A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog when you are just as hungry as the dog.
  • Darn the wheel of the world. Why must it continually turn over? Where is the reverse gear?
  • I wrote a thousand words every day.
  • 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.
  • Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but playing a bad hand well.
  • I would rather be ashes than dust I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled to dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

His own words were his lasting eulogy.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Conspiracy of Lies.

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  • ‘Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but playing a bad hand well.’

    You don’t get to choose what you’re dealt. But I don’t understand making the choice to drink so you can’t play the cards. Might as well not get any. I know it isn’t a choice for those who are addicted, but the destruction wreaked is mighty.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Alicia, I never play a hand good regardless of the cards I’m dealt. My only hope is to cheat.

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