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October 18, 2017

Jack London to the Top, and Over

California in the 1890s was a boom-state, a fast and loose frontier full of dreamers and grifters and get-rich-quickers, and it would have been adventure enough for most, but by the time he was twenty-one, Jack London had worn it out. He had dropped out of school at thirteen to drift around San Francisco Bay, drinking and brawling and stealing and trying-anything-once. He had worked the docks; he had been an oyster pirate (and then a paid informer on his poacher buddies); he had sailed the Bering Sea to Japan on a three-masted sealing schooner; he had train-hopped his way across America. He had good looks and charm and an ability to talk girls or policemen into seeing things his way -- although he'd spent time in the Oakland jailhouse for a few things he'd done, and time in a Buffalo prison for something he hadn't.

To someone with no education, no job, and a taste for daring-do, the Klondike Gold Rush must have sounded like a good idea; London borrowed $500, bought 2000 lb. of gear and, on July 25, 1897, at the age of 21, boarded a steamer for Alaska. Unfortunately, about a quarter million other men did the same thing. The trail to Lake Labarge, and through the Chilcoot pass to Dawson Creek was littered with abandoned packs, dead horses and scurvied, empty-handed miners. Only one out of five managed to stake a claim; only one in two hundred and fifty came back richer than they went.

London was not that one: when he came back to Oakland one year later, he had $4.50 in gold dust in his pocket. But he also had the memories and stories and journals that would, within 5 years, springboard him into literary history and, within 15 years, make him the highest-paid and best-known writer in the world. This didn't happen overnight: in his first two years, he had over 400 rejection slips -- the stack, skewered on a wire in his room, was over 5' high. But then, at the end of 1899, the Atlantic Monthly bought one of his Alaskan stories; the next year, his first collection came out; and by 1905, with The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, and White Fang all selling well, the twenty-nine year-old London was famous.

It is somewhere here, in the early 1900's, that a life already rare and remarkable begins to spin gloriously -- and in the end, fatally -- out of control. In a span of only 16 years, London will write over 50 books and hundreds of short stories. He will be a magazine correspondent in two wars. He will travel the country pitching Socialism and revolution to packed lecture halls He will run for mayor of Oakland three times. He will head off on his custom-built ketch, The Snark, for a 7-year, round-the-world voyage -- only to abandon it after two. He will buy over 1000 acres in California's Sonoma hills and attempt to build a utopian agricultural community -- only to have his pigs and goats die of disease, his experiments with Shire horses and eucalyptus forests fail, and his custom-built mansion -- Wolf House -- burn down the night before he was to move in. He will create a lifestyle and a personality cult not seen before in American literature, a legend so expensive that he will need to make $100,000 a year just to keep it going, and so public that he will have to print a schedule of his daily habits for his revolving door of houseguests and hangers-on.

Not surprisingly, his manic appetite for work and adventure, for booze and wealth and fame, eventually took their toll. A handful of illnesses and injuries, and the increasing bouts of depression that went with them seemed to gang up on him. Some say it was the arsenic cure he was taking, some say it was the pain-killing narcotics, some say it was suicide, but at the age of 40, "Wolf," as London liked to call himself, was dead.

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