The World of Jack London

"At the library he found a friend whose influence was to affect him deeply, Ina Coolbrith. She soon gathered Jack under her wing and guided him along a much more orderly literary path. Jack loved her deeply and often called her 'The Noble Lady.' Little did either realize that Miss Coolbrith would become California's first Poet Laureate and that Jack would emerge from a poverty-stricken background to become one of the most popular authors in California."
Kingman, Russ. A Pictorial Life of Jack London (Crown, 1979)

Jack London's Literary Mother

Ina Coolbrith Oakland LibrarianBorn Josephine Donna Smith, oldest daughter of Don Carlos and Agnes Coolbrith Smith, in Nauvoo, Illinois, March 10, 1841, she entered California through the Beckwourth Pass in a covered wagon train in 1852. Her first poems were published in the Los Angeles Times in 1854. After a brief and tragic marriage at 17, and the death of her child, she moved to San Francisco in the 1860's where she worked as a journalist on the Overland Monthly. Later she was librarian of the Mechanics Institute Library and the Bohemian Club library, and was the first librarian of the Oakland Public Library. She lost her San Francisco home and all her possessions in the earthquake and fire of 1906. Through the generosity of the best known California writers of the day, another home was built on Russian Hill, where she lived until the infirmities of age led her to share the home of her niece in Berkeley in 1923 until her death.

Ina Coolbrith received many honors. She was the first person asked to write a Commencement Ode for the University of California, which she did on two occasions. She was the first woman member of San Francisco's Bohemian Club. She held correspondences throughout the nation and the world, including Tennyson, Whittier, Longfellow, Lowell and others. She counted amongst her close friends the likes of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Gertrude Atherton, Joaquin Miller, Charles Warren Stoddard, and William Keith. Jack London called her his "literary mother." Isadora Duncan recalled in her memoirs "the beauty and fire of the poet's eyes."

At the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 she was appointed President of the Congress of Authors and Journalists; in arranging for the Congress she wrote over 4,000 letters to the leading writers and journalists in every country. At the Exposition a formal presentation of a laurel wreath was made to her by Dr. Benjamin Ide Wheeler, President of the University of California, and the Board of Regents, with the title "loved, laurel-crowned poet of California." The title of Poet Laureate was confirmed by the State Legislature.

In 1924 Mills College awarded her the honorary degree of Master of Arts; as a young woman she had attended Mills, known at the time as Benicia College for Women. On the day of her funeral the Legislature adjourned in her memory and soon afterward named a 7,900 foot peak near Beckworth Pass "Mount Ina Coolbrith."

Some of Ina Coolbrith's most powerful poems were written after her 80th birthday. Her published works include "A Perfect Day and Other Poems," "Songs from the Golden Gate," and the posthumously published "Wings of Sunset."

A link to more information and a view of Coolbrith's headstone - authored by Janice Albert

In a letter to Ina Coolbrith written December 13, 1906 Jack says in part:

". . . The old Oakland Library days! Do you know, you were the first one who ever complimented me on my choice of reading matter. Nobody at home bothered their heads over what I read. I was an eager, thirsty, hungry little kid — and one day, at the library, I drew out a volume on Pizzaro in Peru (I was ten years old). You got the book & stamped it for me. And as you handed it to me you praised me for reading books of that nature. Proud! If you only knew how proud your words made me. For I thought a great deal of you. You were a goddess to me. I didn't know you were a poet, or that you'd ever done so wonderful a thing as write a line. I was raw from a ranch, you see. But I stood greatly in awe of you—worshipful awe. In those days I named adjectives. And I named you "Noble." That is what you were to me—noble. That was the feeling I got from you. Oh, yes, I got, also, the feeling of sorrow and suffering, but dominating them, always riding above all, was noble. No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so noble as you.

I have never seen you since those library days, yet the memory picture I retain of you is as vivid as any I possess. When I hear your name mentioned, or think of you, up, at once, flashes that memory picture, and with it, it's connotation, & its connotation is "noble."

Often and often, the mere word, noble, recalls you to my mind.

Do forgive me what you may deem my foolishness. I am all iron these days; but I remember my childhood, I remember you; and I have room in me yet, and softness, too, for memories.

Sincerely yours,
Jack London
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