Western Trips

Western Trips

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jack London Park

picture of jack london cottageAn enjoyable side trip while exploring the beautiful Sonoma Wine Country during a California vacation is the Jack London State Historic Park.

This is one of the most historic 20th century era California state parks. The park, once a part of London's 1,400 acre Beauty Ranch where he lived for eleven years until his death in 1916, is located on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain about 12 miles northeast of Petaluma and just outside of Glen Ellen.The park is also located a few miles northwest of Sonoma California. A visit to the park is a great companion trip while visiting the Sonoma County wineries.

American Writer Jack London

As many people know, Jack London (Born John Griffith Chaney) was a world renown fiction writer, adventurer and social activist. In fact, today Jack London Square in Oakland California is a tribute to his talents.

The Jack London biography is quite interesting. London attended the University of California Berkeley, spent time as a laborer, a hobo, a sailor, an oyster pirate and a Klondike gold seeker. Many of his books had their roots in London's adventurous life. Everyone is affected to some degree by the era in which they lived and Jack London was no exception.

picture of young jack londonLondon was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area.  His father had left his mother prior to his birth. Having left school in the eighth grade he was basically self educated and spent a great deal of time in libraries. He did return to high school in the 1890's and did graduate. He then was able to get himself accepted at the University of California Berkeley but lost interest and dropped out. 

Jack London came of age during America's industrial revolution. The country was undergoing tremendous change. The Indian wars were fought and won,...railroads were expanding in the west...urbanization was in full swing and the factory became home to the working man. There probably has never been a time of such great socio-economic change as there was in the late 1800's and very early 1900's.

Socialist Political Leanings

Jack London's political leanings were socialistic. He championed the working man and the labor unions. This was an era of great labor unrest. Labor disturbances in Chicago led to the Haymarket Massacre in the 1870's and miners were revolting against their working conditions all over the country. The year 1910 also saw the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in an atmosphere of extreme labor strife. Child labor laws and the eight hour working day were front and center issues and young immigrants were flooding into the country searching for more opportunity.
London's political beliefs were certainly reflected in many of his writings. Often times class struggle was a theme or sub theme. In some ways a bit similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald's writings. By the same token, living on the west coast, he appeared to be quite concerned with Asian immigration. For the most part he was against it. During his time it was referred to as the "Yellow Peril". London's immigration stance appeared to be more conservative than liberal.

Looking back at Jack London's Life

picture of bohemian grove
One could divide Jack London's life into four parts. His childhood and education...his adventure years which included many different occupations..his writing years and his ranching years in Sonoma County.

There seems to have been a fair amount of contradiction in his life. London was made an honorary member of the Bohemian Club which met at Bohemian Grove pictured above

The Bohemian Club's membership was actually a who's who of powerful men and money interests. This club wasn't known as a bastion of socialistic ideas. The club still exists today on 2,700 acres in Monte Rio in western Sonoma County. Some also observed that later in life as a rancher London's socialistic leanings seemed to have waned as if he grew tired of the social class issues of the day.

jack london on his boat
London always enjoyed sailing. At 15 he bought the "Razzle-Dazzle" in which he became an oyster pirate.

In 1903 after financial success with "Call of the Wild", Jack bought a 30 foot sailboat called the "Snark". This boat was sold to purchase a 45 footer called "Spray" in which he and his wife Charmian were to sail around the world. The voyage made it to Hawaii and Tahiti where because of London's illness Jack and Charmian had to return to California.

 In 1910 he bought a 35 foot sloop and named it "Roamer". He supposedly paid $175 for the 40 year old boat and refurbished much of the interior. Pictured at right is London, Charmian and his friend the poet George Sterling aboard the "Roamer". London owned this boat until his death in 1916. Jack and Charmian loved this boat so much they spent months at a time aboard.

Legendary Literary Success

jack londons call of the wild
Jack London's literary success was legendary.  In addition to the Jack London short stories there were some huge successes.

Considered his most read book, "The Call of the Wild", was published in 1903. The plot involved a  domesticated Saint Bernard Shepard dog who ends up as an Alaskan sled dog. Many of it's characters were drawn from London's gold rush experiences in the Klondike during the winter of 1887-1888. There have been several film adaptations of his novel including a 1935 movie starring Clark Gable and Loretta Young. Also a 1972 adaptation starring Charleton Heston. A 2009 3-D adaptation was released with a PG rating but had relatively poor box office draw
In 1906, Jack London published "White Fang". This was a companion book to "The Call of the Wild" where the plot centers on a wild dog in the Yukon who later becomes domesticated. A reverse theme from "The Call of the Wild" where the world is viewed from the eyes of the animal. There are moralistic themes in the book regarding violence in both the animal and human worlds.
jack londons white fang
There was some criticism directed at London after this novel by people who accused certain authors of being "sham naturalists". In other words making up preposterous stories about wild animals. One of his critics was Theodore Roosevelt, an author himself in early life. London generally ignored the criticism and didn't even respond until the controversy died away. There were several adaptations of "White Fang" more recently with a Disney film in 1991.

Jack London passed away on November 22, 1916 at the young age of forty. While there was some differing of opinion among doctors as to the exact cause of death, the overwhelming conclusion was kidney failure. The disagreement centers around whether self administered morphine may have had a role. London was given morphine for pain relief and there is some debate whether he inadvertently gave himself an overdose leading to coma and death.

You may also enjoy our Trips Into History photo article about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his days in St. Paul Minnesota on the link below...

A Visit to St. Paul Academy and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Visit the Jack London State Historic Park

The Jack London State Historic Park offers a wealth of exhibits and information. The park was established in 1960 at his widows request before she passed away in 1955.

There is the House of Happy Walls Museum which was built by his wife Charmian as a memorial to her husband. You can visit "The Cottage" where London wrote many of his works. There remains the walls of Wolf House which was destroyed by fire in the early 1900's just before the Londons were to move in.

The grave sites of both London and his wife are at this location. There are excellent walking trails located in the main part of London's original Beauty Ranch. All in all it's a very tranquil and informative visit in California's beautiful wine country.

The sites below offer additional information on the park and Jack London.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)

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