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Jack London: Work-Life Balance

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.

Jack London in Japan
London not only wrote about the war. He photographed it. His camera is on display at the Jack London Museum.

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 was built from redwood trees
The reflecting pool was also designed to function as a fish pond.
Within days of the house being ready for its occupants, it burnt to the ground. London had no fire insurance.
The reflecting pool was never used.

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.

Although the Cottage was a small when compared to Wolf House, the Londons still had a full docket of visitors and an adjoining guest house.
The Winery Cottage at Jack London's ranch
Objects displayed in the cottage included masks, baskets, and tapestries collected on the Londons’ travels. London was devastated after the fire burnt down Wolf House. This put him in debt and forced him to literally work to death, as he tried to earn enough money to run his ranch, never as profitable as he might have liked.

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.

jack London used a Dictaphone to handle his correspondence. In a business office adjacent to his “sanctuary,” two women, one of whom was Charmiane, his wife, typed letters and manuscripts.

Sustainable Agriculture

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.

When he was in the Far East covering the war, London had been fascinated by the farming practices he’d seen in China. As he developed his agricultural practices at Beauty Ranch, he terraced the hillsides to prevent erosion, a practice unheard of in America.
An early practitioner of sustainable farming, London devised the “Pig Palace,” a circular pig pen that was modeled on the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The pigs could be looked after by a single farmhand with an office in the middle. The pig waste was then collected and used as fertilizer.
Jack and Charmain London on the porch of the Winery house
Beauty Ranch is a 1,400 acre ranch situated on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, and among its wonders are this magnificent live oak.

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.

Jack London's camera
Memorabilia from Jack London’s remarkable life can be seen at The House of Happy Walls Museum, located on the grounds of the Jack London State Historic Park.

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).

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