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Wolf House Burning
Dale L. Walker
he trail begins at an elegant fieldstone house, headquarters of the Jack London State Historic Park, fifty miles north of San Francisco and just a mile or two west of the village of Glen Ellen. The hike from this "House of Happy Walls," once the home of London's widow Charmian Kittredge, is a deceptive half-mile downhill that seems twice as long climbing back up. In August, a hinges-of-hell month in this place early-day Indians called the Valley of the Moon, there is scarcely a breeze. Nearby, the celebrated Sonoma County vineyards thrive. On either side of the dirt roadway, where golden specks of pollen hang in the still air, are old oaks, California buckeyes, Douglas firs, redwoods, and madrones, their peeling bark like shaved chocolate. Behind the trees, the ferns and manzanita shrubs, in the leaf-covered, mulchy soil, are some bright spots of buttercup and poppy, Indian warrior, and hound's tongue.
This is an eerie, primitive place, dead quiet except for bird songs, the buzz of bees and the rustling of small forest creatures scurrying through the leaves.
About three-quarters of the way downtrail is a turnoff path to the east that opens into a small clearing at the center of which is a weathered picket fence surrounding an immense native rock, burgundy-colored and greened with moss. Under it, in a copper urn, are Jack London's ashes.
The trail ends in a bigger clearing, one with picnic benches where the visitor can rest before starting back. Dominating this shady place are the tumbled, fire-blackened native stone walls, chimneys, and cobblestone rubble of Wolf House, so called by London's closest friend, the poet George Sterling.
The grave and the ruins lie in close, some say symbolic, proximity. Wolf House burned in 1913, London died in 1916, and each of the two events has its mysteries.
In 1913, the year Wolf House burned, Jack London, at age thirty-seven, had already finished what every boy of his era dreamed of doing and what every man wished he had done. He had risen in genuine Horatio Alger style, by strength of character, daring, a wondrous work ethic, and a consuming ambition, to become America's favorite author, the creator of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, Martin Eden, and all those stories of exotic places, from the wolf-haunted white silence of the Yukon to the sultry islands of the South Seas. Everybody knew his name, knew he had been to the places he wrote about, knew at least some of his adventuresome, at times contentious, history.
He was born John Griffith Chaney in San Francisco on January 12, 1876, the American Centennial year in which Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone in Philadelphia and George Armstrong Custer and two hundred of his cavalrymen were massacred by Indians above an obscure river in Montana. Griffith derived from a nephew of the baby's mother, Flora Wellman of Massillon, Ohio, an unstable woman who made a marginal living as a spiritualist, conducting séances and astrological readings. Age thirty-three when her son was born, Flora had lived the year prior to the birth with "Professor" William H. Chaney of Maine, a wandering astrologer, in his fifties at the time he met Flora. Chaney deserted his common-law wife about six months before his son was born.
In September, 1876, Flora married a Pennsylvanian, John London, a widower and impecunious Civil War veteran in chronic ill health who earned a subsistence living as farmer, grocer, storekeeper and sewing machine salesman. He was a gentle, kindly man with children of his own and was much loved by Flora's son, to whom he gave his name.
Young Jack described his youth as that of a "work beast" and wrote of "becoming a man very early in life" in such autobiographical works as Martin Eden, John Barleycorn, and "The Apostate." In the latter story, published in 1906, a boy works dawn to dusk in a jute mill, "toiling centuries long in a single night at tying an endless succession of weaver's knots," breathing lung-clogging lint amid the deafening roar and crash of the looms, and prays,
Now I wake me up to work;
Jack had been a bobbin boy in a jute mill, also a cannery worker, and a coal-heaver in a power plant, in grammar school days. In his teens he learned to sail a boat and raided oyster beds on San Francisco Bay then put his sailor skills to work as an able seaman on a sealing schooner in the Bering Sea. As "Skysail Jack" and "the Kid," he hobo'd with other vagabonds in the western detachment of "Coxey's Army," was arrested for vagrancy in Buffalo, New York, and spent a month in the Erie County Penitentiary.
Before his twentieth birthday he joined the American Socialist Labor Party; at age twenty-one he followed the Klondike gold rush into Canada's Yukon Territory; at twenty-three he saw his first professional story published; and in 1900, the year his first book was published, he stood on the brink of the fame he dreamed of and hungered for from his childhood.
Jack London had sixteen years to live and lived them as furiously as he had the previous twenty-four.
He lived six weeks as a "denizen" of the East End ghetto of London, England, in the summer of 1902 and wrote a stinging book-length exposé, The People of the Abyss, on the poverty and hopelessness he observed there at the time of the sumptuous coronation of King Edward VII.
In 1903, the year he separated from his wife and left behind two baby daughters, The Call of the Wild, his most enduring book, was published, selling ten thousand copies on the day of its release.
In the first half of 1904, London served as a war correspondent for the Hearst newspapers in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War, managing to report from the battle front while the other correspondents, including the venerated Richard Harding Davis, luxuriated in a Tokyo hotel. The Sea-Wolf, among his finest novels, appeared during his absence.
In 1905 and the year following he lectured on socialism in New York's Carnegie Hall, at Yale and at the University of Chicago, began building a ranch in the Valley of the Moon, and for Collier's wrote one of the finest of all eye-witness accounts of the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
In April, 1907, with his second wife, Charmian Kittredge, and a small crew, he sailed from the Oakland wharf in his own ketch-rigged yacht, the Snark, to Hawaii, the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, the Solomons, Samoa, Fiji, the New Hebrides, and Australia. During the two-year voyage, London contracted malaria, pellagra, and painful skin abscesses that introduced him to morphine, a drug he would depend upon in years to come. But even in the midst of the miseries of the voyage he kept up his daily work "stint" of a thousand words a day and wrote such books as The Road, on his days as a cross-country tramp, and The Iron Heel, a fiery novel of socialist revolution,. The voyage also produced the unforgettable "To Build a Fire," his most popular and anthologized story, a tale of a man freezing to death in the Canadian wilderness, written in Hawaii while the Snark was undergoing repairs.
There were other adventures as well: the Londons made a horse-drawn wagon trip to Oregon and back in 1911, voyaged from Baltimore to Seattle via Cape Horn on the four-masted barque Dirigo in 1912, and sailed his sloop Roamer on San Francisco Bay and up the Sacramento River.
His adventures, misadventures, his occasionally scandalous behavior and personal life attracted national press coverage, giving him the uncomfortable distinction of being the first American writer-as-celebrity, a star in a time of a single news medium.
He also became the richest socialist in the country, the first American author to earn a million dollars from his work.
The Jack London credo, written in about 1902, before he could look back with confidence that he had lived up to it, ends:
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.
No man of his time, and few of any other time, did more with the years allotted to him.
© 2004 by Dale L. Walker. From The Calamity Papers: Western Myths and Cold Cases (New York: Forge Books, Dec. 2004).