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WESTPEX's 2016 Theme – 100th Anniversary of the death of Jack London

In our specialized time people either have adventures or they write about them. In Jack London's time (1876 – 1916) he and others did both and proved that fiction writing could bring abundant fame and fortune. Born in Oakland of a suicidal mother and disowned by his father, Jack was largely raised by an African American foster mother. Largely self-educated, Jack started working 12-18 hours a day at the age of 13 at a cannery.


Seeking a way out, he borrowed money from his foster mother to buy a sloop and made a living for a short time as an oyster pirate. When he was 17 he sailed the Pacific as a crew member of a schooner. When he returned to face the panic of '93 and widespread labor unrest he went from one hard job to another. He became a tramp and in 1894 spent 30 days in the penitentiary for vagrancy. He wrote of these experiences in a later book, The Road


After many experiences as hobo and sailor he returned to Oakland and Oakland High School. He wrote his first published piece, Typhoon off the Coast of Japan for the school's magazine.


Jack's study hall was Heinold's Saloon on the waterfront and it was Jack Heinold who lent him the money to attend UC Berkeley. Heinold's was also a source of inspiration where he met many sailors and adventures including the prototype for Wolf Larsen of Sea-Wolf


He discovered the facts of his birth and his mother's suicide attempt when he was 21. He wrote to his father who denied his parentage and defamed Jack's mother. Depressed, Jack left school and sailed with his sister's husband to join the Klondike Gold Rush. More hard experiences followed including the loss of his teeth from scurvy and lifetime pain in his hips and legs from the harshness of the environment. His struggles provided the background of To Build a Fire which many call his best work.


Returning to Oakland he struggled to get published. At the brink of resignation, he finally succeeded with A Thousand Deaths for which The Black Cat magazine paid $40. Magazines using disruptive new printing technologies were the internet of his time. By 1900, he earned $2500 for the year writing, a handsome income for the time. In 1903 he was paid $2750 just for separate book and magazine rights for Call of The Wild.

From then on, generous income from his writing funded a comfortable life of travel and writing in sharp contrast to his socialist leanings. He poured money into a large ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County and a 15,000 sq. ft. mansion, Wolf House, which burned before he could move in.


He always viewed writing as something he did to earn a living and after 1910 his writing was little more than income producing. Pain from youthful injuries and diseases led to alcoholism and morphine addiction. He was 40 when he died of kidney failure in 1916.


London wrote more than 20 novels, scores of short stories, three plays, thee memoirs, dozens of volumes of poetry and many essays and volumes of non-fiction. While generally criticized as of uneven quality, his best work holds up well 100 years after his death.


USPS issued a Jack London stamp in 1988.

WESTPEX 2016 commemorates the 100th Anniversary of his death. with two souvenir sheets, T-shirts and cachets.


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