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I have to admit, I never dreamed of having a chance to live on Jack London's ranch. Yet, just imagine! For several years, every fall, I would receive invitations from the Jack London Foundation to participate in an annual banquet held in California in honor of the great writer's birthday. Yet, for various reasons, I always had to decline. As recognition of my published works and many years of research, I was pronounced an honorary board member of the Jack London Foundation (and more recently of the Jack London Society as well), yet still obstacles for travel remained — with visas, time and finances.
In January of 1996, Jack London would turn 120 years old. And again, in the fall prior to that date, I received an invitation. This time, after my retirement and the processes for visa approval becoming simpler, things became more accessible. After all, I had not visited Jack in 10 years! I just had to scrape up some money for an airplane ticket. My wife put a stop to all of my hesitations: "Of course, you have to go! How can you miss such an opportunity? After all, it's your profession! Especially, since you don't have to worry about food and lodging."
The flight was a direct one: Moscow — San Francisco. It flew over the Barents Sea, the Arctic Ocean [Northern Ocean], Spitsbergen Island, Greenland and Canada — almost the route taken by Valery Pavlovich Chkalov (Russian aviator who made the first flight over the North Pole from Moscow to the United States) in 1937. We had to wait an extra hour in the Sheremetyevo international airport outside of Moscow while our plane was de-iced. Then, we stopped for an hour-and-a-half in Seattle. All in all, the flight took about 15 hours. We left at 4:00 pm (Moscow time) and landed at 7:00 pm (of the same day) San Francisco time. From San Francisco, a bus took me to Santa Rosa in 50 minutes. I called Winnie Kingman from the station. She was waiting with Robert Fritchie from the Foundation at the final stop to meet the guests.
Here was the extraordinary air of the Moon Valley, fresh and aromatic, imbued with specific fragrances even in January. It was –11 (C in Moscow; here it was +12 (C. Basically, I planned to be in paradise for over a week, staying in the estate of Jack London's great nephew, I. Milo Shepard. His spacious house surrounded by redwood trees, is located just across from the historical cottage — the writer's abode. The window in my room looked out in the direction of HIS cottage. It would have been seen very clearly on the knoll if it were not for redwood trees and a vineyard right outside the window.
Milo used to live next to the cottage. Yet, after his father, Irving Shepard, had given the cottage and the surrounding land over to the State Historic Park, Milo built himself a house in the redwood grove about 300 meters from the cottage, with the view on the vineyards that beautifully run down the south-eastern slope of the Valley of the Moon. One cannot help but admire these parallel semi-circles of vines — the short bushes, on which, straining through sinewy navel cords, in a strenuous effort to bring out of the earth dark navy bunches of tightly packed and sweetly smelling grapes. I will see those in the fall.
Milo — wearing jeans and a cowboy shirt — is a large, wide-shouldered, round-faced, middle-aged American, a generational farmer. He was born here, grows his grapes, loves his work and does it in an exemplary way. From the fruits of Jack London's land, the Kenwood Winery makes wines — cabernet, pinot noir, sauvignon and other, less expensive ones. Milo makes his own wines. He owns about 200 acres of land. About 1000 acres, maybe a little less, separated from the ranch, now belong to the Jack London State Historic Park. Charmian's cottage, located in the woods, is now a museum; and further, about 10 minutes by foot — Jack London's grave, and, as we know, the Wolf House ruins.
After Milo's father passed away, Milo added publishing duties to his farming obligations. He inherited the literary rights of his great uncle. He is also now one of the organizers of events dedicated to promote London's life and work, as well as a keeper of the writer's good name.
Milo gets up at 6:30 am, drives around the vineyards in his Ford and goes down to the village of Glen Ellen. In the early years after the war, he used to make this trip on a horse. At the time, his father and he bred horses on their land. It used to be a real ranch (an animal farm in Spanish), which started in the times of Jack London. Yet, times have changed — automobiles have replaced even the fastest of horses.
Having checked on the household and left a few instructions, Milo had a cup of coffee in Glen Ellen. He came back home around 8:00 am. We ate breakfast at an oak table in a tastefully furnished dining room. Corn Flakes with milk, aromatic hot tea with toast and pretzels brought by Milo made up our meal. We then headed to Jack London's cottage, which, standing on a hillock, was flooded with light. It was under restoration. The outside, the office, as well as the bedrooms and the veranda have been restored. The floors in the adjacent areas are being re-done. Current management has decided to restore in the house the atmosphere of the author's original surroundings and way of life, bringing here the furniture and belongings from Charmian's private residence. In the garden, a stone fish pond has been restored, the overall area is kept in order. Yet, a centuries'—old oak that used to grow by the office isn't there. Instead, a slender palm tree grows in the front. The oak dried up, explains Milo, so it had to be cut down. Even the stump is gone — uprooted.
In the evening, Milo showed me a picture sent by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who visited the ranch in May of 1976. Alexander Ivanovych was sitting on that exact stump. The photo is signed by my Russian colleague, both in Russian and in English: "To the heirs of Jack London, who were gracious enough to show me the house where the last years and death of the writer were passed — the writer I favored so much in my childhood."
Milo said that in order to gather the money necessary for the restoration of Jack London's residence, the state had started to sell non-alcoholic grape juice with picturesque labels of local landscapes. The thick-walled champagne bottles are sealed with gold and are romantically titled "White Fang" and "Burning Daylight."
I asked more and more questions. The ashes of Charmian, who outlived her husband by 40 years, are buried in the same cement burial vault as Jack. The ashes of Jack's sister, Eliza, are buried nearby. As is told, Russ Kingman's ashes are spread near the grave. Sad memories. During the last four years, death took my dear acquaintances, as if cut with its scythe. Becky has passed away and Bart Abbott has left this life. My scientific advisor in Berkley, James Hart, has died; death also took away the London expert Sol Noto in his prime years.
We visited The Pig Palace, creatively designed by Jack London. We then moved to the dam on a lake, which, as Milo noted, is now unfortunately shallow and unattended. Then, we went to lunch. Afterwards, he showed me the Shepards' archive, his own library that contains autographed books published within the lifetime of both Jack and Charmian. She has written four volumes of documentary essays and memoirs. My kind host gave me packets of family photos to review and invited me to take a look at the office. Here were the bookshelves, there his grand uncle's cups.
Milo and I quickly got along. We found out that we are the same age. Most importantly, though, we have a common interest — both of us can talk about Jack London endlessly and can understand each other from half a sentence. And his grandmothers (London's step-sisters) and I are virtually fellow countrymen. Eliza and Ida were born in Moscow, a city in the state of Iowa.
In the evening, Milo made a fire. It was calm and cozy in his living room. The south side of the room has glass sliding doors, which open to a veranda, equipped with feeders for squirrels and birds. Even from the inside of the room, one can see how these visitors, with friendly chatter, are imperiously managing the feeding.
I brought a few books as a gift for Milo. One of them was the ninth volume of the 10-volume Collected Works by London, Russian edition. I also brought my own books — Jack London and In the Footsteps of Jack London, along with my collections of sport and science fiction works of the writer. Milo looked over the gifts, flipping the pages, looking at the pictures and strange letters. When showing Milo a soft cover edition of London's short stories published in the 1970s, I directed his attention to the circulation numbers — half a million — which delighted him. Indeed, it's a circulation number unheard of in the US. I handed Milo a miniature volume of London's short stories — the first among the ones published in Soviet Russia after the Great October Revolution. I also gave him copies of Moscow weekly magazines where first-translated works of Jack London appeared — Literaturnaya Rossia ("Literary Russia"), Knizhnoye Obozrenie ("Book Review"), Rossiskaya Gazeta ("Russian Newspaper"). I also handed him the January issue of Domashnyee Chtenie ("Home Reading"), with the story "An Odyssey of the North." This issue was delivered to me straight from the press room before my flight departure. The issue, by the way, contains the weekly programming schedule for Russian TV. I underlined the part that announced that on the birthday of our favorite writer, our television viewers will see "The Sea Wolf," "Hearts of Three," and a documentary about this wonderful writer and human being.
In the evenings, Milo liked to rest in his chair next to the crackling fireplace that intermittently shot coals. He liked to go over his mail, to read the latest local magazines and to watch the news on TV. I felt I had enlivened his evenings of solitude.
Have you seen "Dream on Fire"?, asked Milo.
No, is it about Jack London?
Milo put in a videotape of a movie about the fire of Wolf House. This author's biography was built around this tragic event. The tape was filmed with a strong, confident hand. The overall impression was reinforced by the dramatic accompanying music. The second tape was an amateur video made of various shots at the ranch over the course of several years. Both documentaries were powerful in their ingenious authenticity and spontaneity. There were glimpses of Jack London and Charmian, Eliza, Irving and the little ones, among whom I spotted little Milo.
Like his grand uncle, Milo does not care much for big cities. Yet Santa Rosa in Sonoma County is quite a different matter. There, within a 10-15-minute drive, he could get all the necessary items, such as groceries (even the most exotic ones at that), in the shops of Glen Ellen. He rarely visits San Francisco.
On January 12, Milo left on a business trip, while I ran through the vineyards, straight to the cottage. The house was flooded with sunlight. The month of January was warm in California, about +15 (C. It had not snowed yet, and might not snow at all that year. I was drawn to London's house by some unknown force, as if HIS spirit were still alive in the house. It was there that he worked so persistently, every morning. It was there that the Muse visited him. The life-giving rays from outer space came through these wooden walls, and gave his stories and novels the life-infusing energy, which he generously shared with people. It was there that his heart stopped.
I walked around the house, peeked through the windows. Past the forge and the stables, past the clearing — the eucalyptus trees have all been cut down — I headed toward Charmian's cottage. It wasn't far, but it was still possible to get lost. Luckily, I had a map. There were no evident changes in the museum. Unfortunately, there was still no portrait of Anna Strunsky (Russian pronunciation, "Strunskaya") among the portraits of Jack London's close friends. She was, by the way, invited to the grand opening of this park-museum.
I warmly greeted Park Ranger Greg Hayes, and continued on my way. I walked down to the spring that merrily runs down the forested slope. Here, in the hollow, was the piece of land Milo had talked about. It's where a hero of Burning Daylight "found his gold." Elam Harnish filled up the deposit and didn't tell anyone about it. He was afraid that wealth would ruin his family's happiness. Burning Daylight was titled "Time Does Not Wait" in its first translation. The latter title, which was more in the spirit of Jack London, appealed more to me.
I walked up a slight slope and turned. Two young couples walked past me. It was quiet at his grave. I greeted Jack, wishing him a Happy Birthday. Today, he was 120 years old. Through the fence, I placed a branch of red berries on the moss-covered holy stone, right next to the bouquet of field flowers, left by someone else. A few moments of silence . . . Too bad Americans do not have the ceremony of laying the flowers on a grave. There was still a banquet and speeches to come — on the morrow.
In the county's capital, the city of Sonoma, Jack London's birthday was traditionally celebrated with a banquet, speeches and a solid, but not boring report of new findings by London scholars. About 150 fans of the author's talent had come to this pleasant gathering from various states of the country. Two people came from Japan, two from Australia, and one, your humble servant, from Russia. This annual banquet took place for the 26th time. Special awards were given at these banquets for outstanding achievements in the study of the writer's work. This time, the "Woman of the Year" award was given to Susan Nuernberg, a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, who edited an important book The Critical Response to Jack London (1995).
My report about the unwavering fame of the Californian son in Russia and about four of his multi-volumed works, a series of novels and collected works that had come out in the last three years, caused a rumble in the room. I expressed my conviction that, judging by the stability of interest to the writer in Russia during the entire 20th century, Jack London had become an integral part of Russian culture. We listened with great interest to the report by a committee studying one of the mysteries in London's biography — the reason for the fire of the Wolf House. It was known that the writer didn't dismiss the possibility of arson. A professional analysis of the design of the structure, the circumstances of the works being finished and the weather status led this authoritative committee to conclude that the reason was spontaneous ignition of the structure.
The exclusive dinner was well attended and quite animated. Speeches were constantly being filmed, along with the audience, generous on offering applause. Photo cameras flashed. I got to answer a few questions on where one could buy my book, In the Footsteps of Jack London and gave a few autographs. A publication dedicated to Jack, "Wolf," was being distributed, and a lottery was held. I expressed my regret that London's direct descendants were not invited to the banquet. After all, his great granddaughters live in California. Milo was the only close relative in attendance.
Before the banquet, a successful auction of London's autographs and first editions was held. Among the rare items was a wonderful model of the yacht "Snark." The money gathered from the auction furthers research under the aegis of the Foundation.
Exciting celebration events were held on January 12th in Oakland, on the banks of the Lake Merritt — a favorite place of entertainment for teenaged Jack. And he lived not too far from there. In the Yacht Club, the fans of the famous fellow-countryman blew out 12 candles (one for each decade past). They then shared a special cake, with writings honoring London's birthday. Our American friends got us to the beginning of this event on time. Speeches were held, poems were read, and young London's play was performed. Jack was coming to see Mabel on his bicycle. There was a bicycle and a wet-nurse Jenny Prentiss as well, although she was half the age of the real one, since all the actors were young.
In the book, For the Love of Jack London, published in 1991, the authors placed under scrutiny a prevalent impression that Mabel was London's first. They said that Jack's first love interest was Lucy Caldwell, from a Jewish African-American background. The authors presented a portrait of this nice-looking young girl. The book was available for sale in the new museum-shop in the Jack London Village located next to the square bearing his name.
In the harbor, at Barnes & Noble, (former "Sea Wolf") the birthday was celebrated with Champagne. People crowded in the "First and Last Chance Saloon" as well as around the Klondike cabin.
And at the end of Broadway, at the very edge of the water, Jack London's bronze statue had been erected in time for his birthday. The execution chosen by architect Cedric Wentworth was unexpected. The writer's figure stands on a low pedestal, more like a panel, in full size. He addresses you, as if trying to convince you of his rightness, anxiously marking his words with an expressive gesture. Strong was my desire to talk to him — his dynamic figure was asking for discussion.
The crowded square was covered in sunlight and booming with sales of fruits, sweets and other miscellaneous produce. Someone was taking pictures by London's monument. A movie about his life was showing on the neighboring street. A local publication announced the showing of various movies based on London's works in nine movie theaters around Oakland during this celebration. Amazing! It also announced that the city government was reviewing the plans on further renovations to the square, which was becoming a bit too small to accommodate the crowds. It was only two or three decades ago that this space looked rather deserted — there was no cabin, no monument, no "village" nearby, no stores or kiosks, and virtually no people around.
The director of the Museum and Gift Shop made it his goal to show more fully the works of the author of Martin Eden, as well as to tell about his contribution to the city's life. He also wanted to tell about other writers, whose life and works were connected with the history of the Bay Area — about Bret Harte, Frank Norris, Edwin Markham, Joaquin Miller, Mary Austin, Ina Coolbrith and others. There, one will find their books and portraits on display. The important goal was to give the children (and adults, too) a good idea of the cultural heritage of these lands and to encourage interest in reading. The museum, started on good will, did not have government funding and existed on the proceeds from book sales.
I was able to count more than 30 titles of books by Jack London. Most of them were soft-cover editions. For the first time in many decades, The Kempton-Wace Letters were re-published. Virtually all the novels were there, including the one finished by R. Fish, The Assassination Bureau. You could find a book for any taste. There was the War of the Classes and small-formatted books that used to be distributed at the workers' meetings and demonstrations. Among them, there was "The Scab." Behind the glass, foreign editions of London's works and manuscripts about him were on display. A pleasant surprise awaited me — my book about the writer, published over 30 years ago by the Moscow State University Publishing, was there as well.
Of an even greater interest for researchers and fans of Jack London was the store "The World of Jack London" in Glen Ellen. There one got dazzled from the abundance of rarities and all possible art and souvenir products relating to Jack London. Everything my heart desired — from envelopes, stamps and pins with portraits of the writer to films, first editions, research manuscripts and multi-volumed editions.
Russ Kingman was the author of two major works — A Pictorial Biography of Jack London (1979, translated into three languages) and Jack London: A Definitive Chronology (1992). The Kingmans were coordinators of a number of memorable events for London scholars. They were also collectors of Russian heritage and founders of the Jack London Foundation. After the death of Russ, the load of organizational and operational activities fell onto the shoulders of Winnie Kingman.
The Research Center next to the store contained rare books of London, leather-bound with gold-edged pages for wealthy collectors — Call of the Wild, White Fang, Sea-Wolf. There weren't a lot of Collected Works published in the U.S., somehow. Yet, simply laid out collections of short stories and individual novels, not being part of a series, had been published separately, without numbering as belonging to one collection of works. Such was the collection published by Macmillan Company, which I found in "The World of Jack London" store. There, I also found wax drums with recordings of the writer's voice, made on Edison's phonograph. Unfortunately, all one could hear were just fragments of disjointed words above the background static.
After the 1988 publication of the three-volume collection of London's letters, one of the most significant events in London-land was the publication of the three-volume collection of his short stories. Produced in 1993 by Stanford University, it was edited by Earle Labor, R. Leitz and I. Milo Shepard. The collection included all the writer's stories discovered at the time.
It appears that altogether he wrote 197 short stories. Up until the 1960s, only 161 of them were known. Since then, especially in the last few decades, curious researchers found some magazine publications as well as works not previously available to the general readership. Those works include "Up the Slide," "A Klondike Christmas," "The Handsome Cabin Boy," "Who Believes in Ghosts?", "The King of Mazy-May," as well as stories characteristic of young London, such as "Pluck and Pertinacity," "The Test: A Clondyke Wooing" and others which appear in the three-volume edition. The editors filtered out trip journals, articles and some essays that did not fit the short fiction format. The volumes are illustrated with rare photographs from London's albums.
From a wonderfully annotated book by Mark Zamen Standing Room Only: Jack London's Controversial Career as a Public Speaker, I found that Jack began his active lecturing activity after his report on the possibility of a rebirth of capitalism into an oligarchy. He delivered this report in front of Oakland Socialists in 1899. His speeches on various subjects drew large audiences and evoked animated responses from the press. Zamen was able to find over 600 articles and write-ups about his speeches in American newspapers.
Copyright © 2004 by Vil M. Bykov