"Tales of the Fish Patrol," Jack London [California Legacy Project], reprinted 2005. Larger.
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" are appreciated today as fictional portraits of high spirited American youth. West of the Mississippi, however, California had a real life boy hero—16 year old Jack London
In his collection of stories, Tales from the Fish Patrol
, Jack London recalls his days as a young member of the Fish Patrol, searching for oyster pirates on the exhilarating waters of San Francisco Bay
The strong ebb-tide, racing down the Straits in the teeth of the wind, caused an unusually heavy and spiteful sea, which dashed aboard continually. I was dripping wet, and even the sail was wet half-way up the after leech. . . . Conflicting currents tore about in all directions, colliding, forming whirlpools, sucks, and boils, and shooting up spitefully into hollow waves which fell aboard as often from leeward as from windward. And through it all, confused, driven into a madness of motion, thundered the great smoking seas from San Pablo Bay. I was as wildly excited as the water. The boat was behaving splendidly, leaping and lurching through the welter like a race-horse. I could hardly contain myself with the joy of it. The huge sail, the howling wind, the driving seas, the plunging boat—I, a pygmy, a mere speck in the midst of it, was mastering the elemental strife, flying through it and over it, triumphant and victorious.
Coming of age on the vibrant San Francisco Bay gave Jack London a lifelong love of the natural world that inspired other great books, among them The Call of the Wild
, White Fang
, and The Sea Wolf
–Contributed by Lauren Compton.
There's something about California's natural landscapes that leads writers to wonder not just about how we use the land but also about what we unthinkingly do to it.
certainly worried about the effects of human beings on undisturbed terrain. In "All Gold Canyon" he contrasts the destructive effects left behind by a pocket miner
with the quiet and solitude that reigns within a mountain canyon before the hapless miner's arrival.
The motion of all things was a drifting in the heart of the canyon. Sunshine and butterflies drifted in and out among the trees. The hum of the bees and the whisper of the stream were a drifting of sound. And the drifting sound and drifting color seemed to weave together in the making of a delicate and intangible fabric which was the spirit of the place. It was a spirit of peace that was not of death, but of smooth-pulsing life, of quietude that was not silence, of movement that was not action, of repose that was quick with existence without being violent with struggle and travail. The spirit of the place was the spirit of the peace of the living, somnolent with the easement and content of prosperity, and undisturbed by rumors of far wars.
Jack London's short story "All Gold Canyon
" first appeared in Century Magazine
in 1905 and was later collected in Moon Face and Other Stories
"Jack London," photographer unknown, 1900. Larger.
In California—as elsewhere—alcohol abuse is a persistent social ill. For world-famous writer Jack London
, it was a personal demon.
A heavy drinker, London examined the attraction of alcohol in his 1913 work John Barleycorn
, finding that its appeal was both social and anesthetic, even when he was only a boy.
Here was a child, forming its first judgments of the world, finding a saloon a delightful and desirable place. Stores, nor public buildings, nor all the dwellings of men ever opened their doors to me. . . . The saloon's doors were ever open. . . .
Besides, in saloons I saw reporters, editors, lawyers, judges, whose names and faces I knew. They put the seal of social approval on the saloon. There verified my own feeling of fascination in the saloon. They, too, must have found there that something different, that something beyond, which I sensed and groped after. What it was, I did not know; yet there it must be, for there men focused like buzzing flies about a honey pot. I had no sorrows, and the world was very bright, so I could not guess that what these men sought was forgetfulness of jaded toil and stale grief.
Novels like Call of the Wild
and White Fang
made Jack London one of the most celebrated writers of his time. With John Barleycorn
he showed that he could also be one of the most honest.
"Jack London," frontispiece for When God Laughs and Other Stories
, 1911. Larger.
The golden promise of California is justly celebrated in our literature, but many of California's best writers remind us that the promise isn't always kept.
knew all about the grueling lives of the working poor, like a boy he calls Johnny, "a travesty of the human," who finally tells his mother he's just too worn out to keep up with his factory jobs.
I'm plum' tired out. What makes me tired? Moves. I've ben movin' ever since I was born. I'm tired of movin', an' I ain't goin' to move anymore. Remember when I worked in the glass-house? I used to do three hundred down a day. Now I reckon I made about ten different moves to each bottle. That's thirty-six thousan' moves a day. Ten days, three hundred an' sixty thousan' moves a day. One month, one million an' eighty thousan' moves. Chuck out the eighty thousan'. . . chuck out the eighty thousan', that leaves a million moves a month--twelve million moves a year. . . .
Now this week I ain't moved at all. I ain't made one move in hours an' hours. I tell you it was swell, jes' settin' there, hours an' hours, an' doin' nothin'. I ain't never been happy before, I never had any time. I've ben movin' all the time. That ain't no way to be happy. An' I ain't goin' to do it anymore. I'm jes' goin' to set, an' set, an' rest, an' rest, and then rest some more.
Jack London's grim portrait of Johnny, "The Apostate
," was included in the 1911 collection When God Laughs and Other Stories
From Navigating Four Horses North of the Bay, 1911.
||Reader: Kevin Hearle
"Denny's Official Map of the County of Humboldt California," 1911. Larger.
Land sells itself in spectacular California. But even a place with miles of beaches and acres of forests sometimes benefits from a little advertising.
Driving a team of four horses, novelist Jack London
toured California's northernmost counties in 1910. At the time, he was not only overcome by the beauty of the region, he was also overcome by its potential.
These comfortably large counties! They are veritable empires. Take Humboldt, for instance. It is three times as large as Rhode Island, one and one half times as large as Delaware, almost as large as Connecticut, and half as large as Massachusetts. The pioneer has done his work in the north-of-the-bay region, the foundations are laid, and all is ready for the inevitable inrush of population and adequate development of resources which so far have been no more than skimmed, and casually and carlessly skimmed at that. This region of the six counties alone will some day support a population of millions. In the meanwhile, O you homeseekers, you wealth-seekers, and above all, you climate-seekers, now is the time to get in on the ground floor.
Writing for Sunset Magazine
, Jack London showed he was not only a best-selling novelist and one of the finest travel writers of his age, he could also be a consumate California booster.