Jack London

The 12th of January 2007 will be the 131st anniversary of the birth of one of San Francisco’s favorite sons, Jack London.

Jack London Birthplace Plaque. Photo credit Ken Banks.

A plaque marks the location at 615 Third Street near Brannan where he was born, although it notes that the original building burned down in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. Over the next few years his family lived in half a dozen different houses all across the city, South of Market, in Bernal Heights, on Natoma Street and Folsom among others, before finally moving out of the city first to Alameda, then San Mateo and finally to Oakland when Jack, then still called John London, was still a boy.

Oakland was where he would spend his formative years. He discovered the Oakland Public Library as well as the rough life of the Oakland streets, saloons and docks. The combination of these two elements would form the legendary figure of the author-adventurer his name conjures up today.

He was an oyster pirate on the Bay and later an unpaid deputy of the Fish Patrol. He marched with Kelly’s Army during the 1893 labor unrest and spent time riding the rails as a tramp, and still eventually found time to become a published author. He studied at UC Berkeley, although he did not graduate due to financial woes. Instead he plunged intro the Socialist movement in Oakland, even running for Mayor twice. Later, at the height of his fame, he covered the 1906 earthquake and the subsequent fires, writing vivid articles for Colliers and taking incredible photographs that were exhibited to the public for the first time during last year’s Earthquake Centennial by the California Historical Society.

It was after his adventures in the Klondike and his return to the Bay Area in 1898 that his writing career took off and he produced books that are required reading today such as White Fang and The Call of the Wild, as well as many essays and articles on politics and social issues.

But his first ever paid sale was actually a science fiction story titled “A Thousand Deaths” and a great many of his other stories are SF as well, covering genre subjects such as scientific experimentation, dystopia, germ warfare, aliens and invisibility as well as astral projection, ghosts, lost races and prehistoric civilizations. My tastes running toward the post-apocalyptic, however, my favorite is The Scarlet Plague a novella set in a Bay Area whose population has been decimated by a mystery disease. It’s reminiscent of George Stewart’s 1953 classic Earth Abides, and it’s hard not to wonder whether Steward read it and drew inspiration for his own tale from it.

Eventually, after making his fortune, Jack London settled in Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley. Beauty Ranch was to be his masterwork and he taught himself to be a farmer, attempting to implement sustainable farming techniques, raising pigs and growing wine. He had mixed success in this adventure, but continued to work at it until his death in 1916. Now the land is the Jack London State Historic Park, and well worth a visit for the gorgeous landscape that attracted him in the first place: wild vistas of hills and valleys all covered in oak, redwood and fir as far as the eye can see. There’s a London museum built by his wife after his death, but Wolf House, which she and Jack spent the last years of his life dreaming and building, was destroyed by fire even as they planned the move in. Although he planned to rebuild, he never got the chance, and its ruins still stand not far from where London himself was buried at the age of just 40.

The collected science fiction of Jack London is available in a three volume set from Leonaur Press, and The Scarlet Plague can be found at http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/Scarlet

~España Sheriff
SF/SF Issue 37, January 2007