Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jack London...what he wrote, what he did in just 40 short years

GLEN ELLEN, CALIF -- Sally and I left the posh confines of our resort in Glen Ellen, Calif., to visit the nearby Jack London State Park,  a beautiful acreage funded by London's prolific writing, maintained by the Sate of California, and guided by an exquisite sense of design and visionary sense of sustainable farming practices. London was an astonishingly prolific writer, who stayed up late and rose as early as 5 a.m. to accomplish his goal of 1,000 words a day, six days a week. The result was dozens of books and hundreds of articles, many of which became movies. It's charming to learn that much of his earning his plowed into additions and improvements to his beloved Beauty Ranch and the home that was nearly completed with customized furniture, only to be destroyed in the last months of completion by a fire. He vowed to start over but died at age 40 before any reconstruction could begin.

To visit London's estate, so far from the snowy Alaskan scenes of his most famous works or the distant settings in Japan, the South Pacific and other points around the globe, is to be reminded of the power of personality. He matched his brilliance with a commitment to hard work. By spending every penny he earned, he barely kept ahead of bill collectors for the estate and he remained in constant battles to protect the rights to his work from sleazy Hollywood producers who stole his stories and copycat writers who imitated his style. For all his great talent, what I enjoyed much was his sense of humor. He tied ropes around the bed posts of guest rooms and at night had them yanked as he yelled, "Earthquake." He died young of kidney failure, perhaps brought on by treatment using a mercury-based salve during an ill fated sailing trip around the world.  For all my fellow Hearstians out there, take some solace that the Old Man paid for much of Jack London's writing, though he probably insisted that London use both sides of his note pads.

London was an outspoken socialist. As such, he might have scorned where Sally and I are staying, the resort  Gaige House. but then I might have replied that his own 15,000-square-foot Wolf House, underway for what today would have been $1.9 million upon completion, was hardly a pig shack. But you must admire London's sense of work ethic. His first piece of published writing paid him just 1 cent a word -- a little less that today's freelancers but still impressive. He wrote well to live but to him, always, it was a means to live well.

UPDATE Aug. 16, 2010
Fascinating piece in Slate that strips some of the gauze off Jack London's image today. Like many great figures of literature or history in general, the guy had some odd sides to his personality. Also, a  new book suggests a different theory on his early death.

Slate review of biography of Jack London

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