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.–Jack London
Who Was Jack London?
Born in 1876, the year of Custer’s Last Stand at South Dakota’s Little Bighorn, Jack London was many things–adventurer, builder, idealist, yachter, rancher, and writer.
Initially, Jack made his reputation as a journalist. As a war correspondent covering the Russo-Japanese War for the San Francisco Examiner, London arrived in Yokohama on January 25, 1904. He was arrested by Japanese authorities in Shimonoseki, but released through the intervention of American ambassador Lloyd Griscom.
With the success of London’s career as a journalist and the sales of his early novel, Call of the Wild, London was confidant that his adventuresome spirit and strong work ethic would make it possible to live the life he wanted to live. Jack and Charmian, his second wife and the woman for whom he left his childhood sweetheart and two children, spent more than $80,000 in pre-World War I money on their dream house–Wolf House. It was to be 15,000 square feet (1,393 square meters), have custom made furniture and decorations, and feature a reflecting pool stocked with mountain bass.
Wolf House in All Its Grandeur
By the time Jack London built Wolf House, he had many visitors to entertain. The Valley of the Moon and his ranch near Glen Ellyn were sixty miles north of San Francisco. Thus, if visitors came, they would stay for an extended period of time. Jack London’s architect designed a house that would give London the privacy he needed to do his writing and that would also provide a comfortable setting for his many guests. Some were friends. Others were horticulturalists such as Luther Burbank, there to advise him on agricultural practices. And, some were writers, such as his childhood friend, poet George Sterling.
Wolf House Burns to the Ground
On August 22, 1913, while the Londons were away from their ranch, they received word that their new mansion was on fire. Unfortunately, just as the ranch was about to be finished, painters left linseed-oil-laced rags unattended. The house burned to the ground, leaving only the remnants of its massive, rock walls. Jack London and Charmian were forced to continue living in their small, Winery cottage, where they displayed souvenirs from their adventures in the South Pacific aboard London’s sailboat, the Sea Wolf.
How Did London Get His Work Done?
Writers today talk about their struggle with work/life balance. How did Jack London manage to write when he had so many other important aspects of his life?
First, he had a dedicated space in which to write. After the fire and his move to the cottage, he and his wife slept separately. In a lean-to added to the cottage, London had a small desk and notes clothespinned to a cord above his bed.
He woke up at 5 a.m. and wrote until noon, whereupon he ate with his wife and was available to show visitors around the ranch. On the small desk in his room, he composed his 20 novels, as well as short stories and magazine articles.
London’s ranch, which he called Beauty Ranch, had originally been the site of the Kohler & Frohling winery. When the winery went belly up in 1905, London, hoping to become a rancher and try out some of the innovative agricultural practices he had observed in the Far East, purchased the property. Between 1909 and 1911, London bought more land to expand his ranch. Eventually, he acquired 1400 acres.
Jack London’s Death
“I ride out of my beautiful ranch. Between my legs is a beautiful horse. The air is wine. The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”Jack London
The author, who died on November 22, 1916, wanted his ashes buried on a hill where two little boys, sons of the ranch’s prior owners, had been buried. A rock from Wolf House marks his final resting place.
Today, more than 800 acres of London’s Beauty Ranch have been preserved. Due to statewide budget problems, the site is now owned and managed by the nonprofit Valley of the Moon Natural History Association (VMNHA).
- State of California official site for Jack London State Historic Park
- Jack London State Historic Park Website
- Howser, Huell (December 10, 1994). “Jack London – California’s Gold (502)”. California’s Gold. Chapman University Huell Howser Archive.