The famed writer and adventurer, called ‘America’s first celebrity,’ died at 40 in 1916. His California home marks the anniversary this summer.

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Author Jack London (1876-1916)
Author Jack London (1876-1916)

GLEN ELLEN, Calif. — Why in the name of Putin do so many Russian tourists make a pilgrimage here, to a ranch in quiet redwood-and-oak woods amid fairyland-lovely pockets of Sonoma County vineyard?

They, and many others, are coming to Jack London’s ranch to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of the swashbuckling novelist and journalist who is hailed by some historians as America’s first celebrity.

For many children of the 20th century, London’s best-known novel, “Call of the Wild,” about a pet dog’s transition to the harsh life of a Gold Rush sled dog, introduced them to stories of canines and nature. Full of symbolism, parable and allegory, the 1903 work remains to this day on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels of all time.

While London’s life of hard drinking, heavy smoking and high adventure ended early at age 40, his raw literary style, highly praised by language scholar H.L. Mencken, lived on in iconic American writers from Hemingway to Kerouac.

Socialist streak

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From modest beginnings, London became an influential socialist of his day. That made him one of the few American authors with a stamp of approval to be read in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Thus the Russian fans.

At London’s ranch cottage, where his writing room is preserved with an ancient Remington typewriter at the ready — he doggedly wrote 1,000 words a day — docent Barbara Earl recalls an occasion when she was explaining to visitors why Soviet citizens had been allowed to read London’s works. As she spoke, a Russian woman in the crowd kept elbowing her.

“Finally, she spoke up and told me, ‘Not allowed to read him, we were required to read him!’ ”

That helped make London even more widely read overseas than in the United States — in fact, “the most widely read American writer in the world,” according to author E.L. Doctorow. (More than one historical account says Vladimir Lenin read a Jack London adventure novel on his deathbed.)

By history’s judgment, London was a deeply flawed individual whose writings occasionally reflected ugly racial stereotypes and whose personal beliefs tended toward eugenics. But as a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt, in the hubris-filled days that built the Titanic, he acquired the role of an everyman’s hero, his typewriter a saber of liberation. Learning about this idol of a century ago offers telling insights into today’s U.S.A.

In his short life, London wrote 50 books. He was a huge presence in newspapers and in journals such as the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. He was the first American to earn a million dollars with his writings ($25 million in today’s money). Topics included his own adventures in the Klondike Gold Rush, war correspondence about the Russo-Japanese war, and social issues of the Industrial Age.

Visiting Beauty Ranch

London’s home base, which he aptly dubbed Beauty Ranch, is now the rolling, 1,400-acre Jack London State Historic Park, 1½ hours north of San Francisco. It’s a fascinating diversion for visitors to wine country.

In addition to the writing cottage and 29 miles of hiking trails amid California splendor, the grounds include the ruins of the palatial 26-room home, Wolf House, that this conflicted socialist built of lava rock and unpeeled redwood logs at a cost of about $75,000 ($1.8 million in 2016 dollars). In 1913, shortly before London and his wife, Charmian, were to move in, the house burned, ignited by oily rags left inside by workers. A century later, the rock walls remain standing, probably thanks to the floating-slab foundation London designed after he reported on the devastating 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

The writing desk in author Jack London’s cottage near Glen Ellen, Calif. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
The writing desk in author Jack London’s cottage near Glen Ellen, Calif. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

“He felt like he built a house that would last forever, but he didn’t account for a fire that started inside,” said Susan St. Marie, one of the park directors.

Quirky attractions include a cactus patch that London partnered to grow with buddy Luther Burbank, creating a spineless cactus to use for cattle feed; and what’s known as the Pig Palace, a scientifically designed circular piggery designed to be tended by one worker, reflecting London’s mania for efficiency.

The House of Happy Walls, an impressive stone edifice built by Charmian London after her husband’s death, is now a museum documenting their life together, including many artifacts from a sailing trip across the Pacific.

The House of Happy Walls was built by Charmian London after Jack London’s death. Today it is a museum dedicated to their life together. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
The House of Happy Walls was built by Charmian London after Jack London’s death. Today it is a museum dedicated to their life together. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)

Among displays is his yacht’s medical kit of yesteryear remedies. While his early death has been the subject of speculation, ranging from suicide to morphine overdose, St. Marie said evidence points to kidney failure caused by a mercury compound with which London dosed himself for a tropical illness.

He was an influential American of his day who lived and died by his own hubris with this personal mantra:

“I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.

I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.

I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.

I shall use my time.”

If you go

“Broadway Under the Stars” is a summerlong series of musical revues and concerts at Jack London’s old winery. Other events mark the centennial. Park admission: $10 per car; jacklondonpark.com.

Mute testimony to an active mind, a “laundry line” from which he could hang slips of paper on which he jotted ideas that came to him in the night hangs over a sleeping cot in Jack London’s writing cottage. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)
Mute testimony to an active mind, a “laundry line” from which he could hang slips of paper on which he jotted ideas that came to him in the night hangs over a sleeping cot in Jack London’s writing cottage. (Brian J. Cantwell / The Seattle Times)