Mike Wilson as Jack London

Mike Wilson
Jack London
January 24, 2001
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Mike Wilson, publisher, author, and historian, is a renowned expert on the life and work of Jack London.

Since Mike was a teen he has admired the works of the prolific author. Since then he has been studying the life and writings of his idol, while following in his footsteps. Wilson has been on many adventures of his own culminating in his own authorship and gaining expert status when it comes to Jack. Much of Mike's information came from top experts on London. Mike has access to everything the World Jack London Bookstore in Glen Ellen, California, has to offer including access to the work of the late Russ Kingman, world renowned London expert.

He even had the opportunity to visit with Jack's youngest daughter, Becky before she passed away, who said of Wilson, "it was just like listening to Daddy."

Inspired by the "earthy eloquence" of London's work, Wilson has set out to dispel the myths about London's exciting, adventurous life while teaching children and adults around the country more about this inexhaustible writer. Wilson was even consulted by Walt Disney Entertainment for their Jack London CD.

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Since 1987, Mike has been portraying Jack London for educators, students, and historical societies. He is so popular, he was able to turn his "hobby" into his profession. In addition to his appearances, he conducts personal tours of Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, California. It is in these situations that he is able to tell the real story about London.

Mike and his wife Margie, both London scholars, enjoy life in Sonoma County, California where they live happily with a menagerie of animals including their (online) bookstore cat named Harley. Visit their website at www.getyourwordsworth.com and learn more about Mike Wilson and Jack London. Stop in the bookstore and hear Harley purrrrrrr!

Mike will be prepared to discuss London's adventures, experiences, and his works. Don't miss this event; you never know when you'll get to meet Jack London "in the flesh" again!

Transcript

US We're speaking with eminent Jack London expert Mike Wilson. As a young man, Mr. Wilson was inspired by London's writings and since then he has been studying the life and writings of his idol, while following in Jack London's footsteps.

Jack London lived from 1876 to 1916. During his short life he wrote 51 books and is the author of such classic works as The Call of the Wild, White Fang and several short stories including the much anthologized "To Build a Fire."

Jack London lived an incredible life. As a young man he held a succession of fascinating jobs: California fish patrolman, hobo, oyster pirate, and gold prospector. It was during his years as a prospector that he gained the experiences that were to prove fertile for his writing.

Mr. Wilson makes frequent appearances portraying Jack London. In today's guest expert session, which is taking place in the sunny northern California home of Mr. Wilson, he will be in character. We encourage all students and people who are participating in this webcast to submit questions to Jack London directly.

Throughout the interview, we will be presenting photographs of the actual Jack London on our website. The photo you are looking at now is one of Mr. Wilson portraying Jack London.

Please be advised that we are working with a 30-second delay. This means that if you ask a question, I don't get it [sudden improvement of sound quality] until 30 seconds later. I am not ignoring you, and I will get to as many of your questions as I can.

Finally, I'd like to say this session will be archived. Please be sure to visit the archived interview and set a spell with Jack after we're done — as Jack was one of America's most spellbinding authors. Jack, are you there?

London I'm here.
US Welcome.
London Thank you. Thank you very much.
US Just for the sake of convenience then in the interview, may I call you Jack?
London Certainly. That would be just fine.
US Great. To get us started, I was hoping you could give us a little biographical information about yourself.
London I guess I would start with where I was born in San Francisco. I moved to the city of Oakland when I was about four years old, and lived in Oakland until I was about 8 years old. And at 8 years old, we moved down to the San Mateo Coastline where my father had a ranch down there. After a couple of years there we were able to move to Livermore Valley which was a much nicer place, but due to my mother's gambling habits we had to move back to Oakland after we lost the farm there. And then from the age of 10, until I was an adult, Oakland was considered my hometown. Actually, I've always considered Oakland my hometown although I lived in Glen Ellen from 1905 until my demise in 1916.
US Now you had some pretty incredible parents. Your mom was a spiritualist and she raised you on her own for a while until she married your stepfather, but your paternal father was an astrologer, is that right?
London Well, yes. He was what we like to call an "itinerant astrologer." He moved around a lot. Astrology was his profession and women chasing was his dedicated hobby.
US How did it affect you growing up as a young man? What is a spiritualist, actually?
London A spiritualist is a person who claims to talk to the spirits of the dead.
US So were there séances in your house growing up?
London Oh yes, all the time. Matter of fact, there were impromptu séances.
US And who were some of the people your mom might conjure up?
London She always conjured up the same person. This was a retired Iroquois chieftain — retired the hard way, if you know what I mean. And his name was Chief Plume. And she would lapse into his persona and assume a low tone of voice, and sometimes shake and hang her head, and announce that she was Plume.
US Now also there was a woman in your life who helped raise you who was an ex-slave? Is that correct?
London Yes, Mammy Jenny.
US What kind of influence did she have on you or perhaps even your political thought later in life?
London Well, I don't know if she had much influence on me in politics, except that I understood there were a lot of people who had a hard way to go. The main thing that Mammy Jenny gave me, is that she gave me probably the most essential ingredient of success in life.
US Which was?
London That's mother love.
BB I see.
London She was what I call my "second mother."
US Did you remain close to your mother throughout your life?
London In a comradely fashion, yes. She was incapable of love in a way that most people understand it. She was a person who was entirely pinched by selfishness.
US Your given name is John Griffith Chaney. I know your stepfather was named London. Where did you pick up the name Jack?
London That's when I grew up a bit, and got tired of being called Johnny. At the age of about 11, I learned a little bit about boxing, and was able to defend myself. I went from Johnny to Jack.
US I take it you weren't crazy about school?
London Well, school actually beat the alternative, which was being out on the streets, or being a work beast. I didn't mind school, but the main reason some people say that is when I came up to college, I was really disappointed by academia at the collegiate level.
US I understand you felt it was passionless?
London Exactly. To quote some fellow whose name I don't quite remember: "the passionless pursuit of passionless knowledge."
US You went to high school for a time, dropped out, went back, and then you went to Berkeley for about half a year. Is that is correct?
London Not exactly, after graduating the eighth grade, I went through a lot of these adventures that folks know about and then went back to school at the age of 18. There was a 3-year break there — from 15 to 18. And then I actually completed the entire high school curriculum in 18 months.
US Wow, that's impressive.
London Well, that's not nearly as impressive as the fact that I also worked as the school janitor at the same time.
US That's actually the next thing I'd like to talk about. You had a succession of fascinating jobs. You were an oyster pirate, you worked for the California sea patrol, you did some hoboing. Is that right?
London That's right.
US Could you tell us a little bit about each of those?
London They were all about the same thing really when you boil it down to its essence. They were all about trying to make a living. We had grown up pretty hardscrabble. We weren't tragically poor as some people, I understand, are, but we were working-class poor, and in pre-turn-of -the-century America, that meant that you were lucky to put a decent meal on the table. When I came of age after graduating the eighth grade at 14, I started trying to work as a fisherman, because I loved the bay, and I had access to a little sailing skiff. But I was competing with fishermen — Portuguese, Italians, Chinese — people who were very good at fishing, and I wasn't good at it. My father was bumped by a train and injured — not seriously so — but enough to lay him up. He was working as a night watchman in a cannery. The cannery owner, Mr. Higmont, offered me a job working there, and so I went to work at the cannery. After a period of nearly a year working at the cannery, it became apparent to me that the working life just wasn't any fun. So I decided to — believe it or not — commit suicide.
US How old were you?
London I was 15 years old.
US So did you actually try to commit suicide?
London Well I was on my way but I got interrupted. I ran into Mammy Jenny.
US And what did she do?
London Well for one thing, she made me tell her what I was doing. And then she gave me her life savings — 3 hundred dollars.
US Wow! And what did you do with it?
London I used it to buy the fastest sailing skiff in the San Francisco Bay, actually sailing sloop — excuse me — in the San Francisco bay. It was called The Razzle-Dazzle. It was so fast on the water that the fish patrolman didn't even try to catch her.
US Were you doing something illegal that made the patrolman come after you?
London I was planning on it — that's why I bought the boat.
US Does this have something to do with your career as an oyster pirate?
London That's right. It doesn't sound glamorous, but it paid very well.
US Okay. Well, tell us about oyster pirating.
London Well, basically the Southern Pacific Railroad (usurped if you will), took over a great deal of the land in the south San Francisco Bay region and decided to experiment with growing oysters for sell in the marketplace there. Of course, in those days nobody of the working class liked the railroads. Everybody hated the railroads; they were a favorite goat for everyone. So the idea was at first it was kind of a lark, kind of a joke, that you could go down on there on a moonlit night and steal yourself a burlap bag full of oysters, and come back home at dawn and sell them out there on the pier, and make more money than you'd make if you were working all day. Actually sometimes make as much as you'd make if you were working all week.
US How about that? It sounds like a somewhat glamorous life? Yes?
London Well it was for me. Actually, it was wonderful. There were two basic types of oyster pirates. There were young fellows like me, who just wanted to escape the working life, and then there were hardened criminals who had no intention of ever joining the working life. Mostly older fellas.
US Jack I have to tell you, we have a lot of people who are taking part in the guest expert session. Just in the last couple minutes we've had people logging in from California, and from Texas. They have a lot of questions that they have for you. I'm going to be interspersing some of their questions in with mine. A fellow named Alberto, actually, knew that you were called the — what was your name in regards to your socialist beliefs as a young man — "the Boy Socialist of Oakland" I believe?
London The Boy Socialist of Oakland.
US Alberto wants to know what gave rise to your socialist politics. How you ran for mayor at a very young age, and anything you'd like to tell us about that time in your life.
London Well the most important thing was I met Anna Strunsky. See, I was the "Boy Socialist" of Oakland; she was the "Girl Socialist" of San Francisco, and that was marvelous.
US Tell us about her.
London She was brilliant. She was a young Jewish lady from a good family in San Francisco. Her father was a well-respected doctor. And she and I both had a passion for socialism. We were very close, very good friends. A lot of people like to think that we became very intimate later on in life, but nothing to get very excited about. We were just really good friends.
US What led you to these beliefs? Was Oakland a hotbed of socialism at this time? Were conditions for the working man so abhorrent that it lead you to this?
London No, actually Oakland wasn't exactly a hotbed of socialist beliefs. I'd like to be proud of the fact that I'm one of the people who helped fire the town up. Socialism was growing very slowly and actually began its growth in the United States the year I was born in 1876. You had an incident [in 1886] called the Haymarket disaster where there was a demonstration in Chicago and somebody set off a bomb. There was shooting. It was basically a labor demonstration, and labor demonstrations were severely frowned upon in those days. Now, if you can appreciate this, it took about 80 years for the labor movement in the United States to come to fruition. What I mean by that, for the working class to actually come into it's own in American society. I thought it would happen a lot quicker, obviously, because I had threw just about all I had into it, really, threw the flower of my youth, and the better part of my mind, heart, and soul into helping promote socialism. The reason I originally decided to go back to school was to train myself to be able to press the socialist cause. Unfortunately, of course, these things sometimes grind a lot longer than we wish they would, and as a result, of course, I was very disappointed and actually disgusted with the Socialist party when I decided to resign in 1915.
US Jack, we have a question from Belinda, who writes in, "So you become a socialist for love, initially?"
London Oh, no no. I became a socialist because, well, because, how can I best place this? Capitalism dominated the society I was born into. Socialism was a developing new ideal as I came of age, and having seen the effects of capitalism at the working class level, I was more than ready to embrace the lofty ideals and common sense principles of socialism. An interesting reversal occurred, of course, as I became a ranch owner from 1905 to 1916. I had to necessarily employ workers who sometimes didn't live up to my ideal concepts of the socialist laborer.
US We will get to "The Wolf House" and "The Beauty Ranch" in a bit. We got a question from Joey Jo-Jo, who says, "I read that you were part of Coxey's Army. I vaguely remember reading about that in History. Can you remind me of what Coxey's Army was?"
London Oh boy, that's a great one! Thank you Joe. Coxey's Industrial Army was part of a popular movement. Most people don't know that in the 1890s America experienced the most severe depression in its history up to that time. With the failure of American and English banks, the economy literally took a nosedive and most working people were put out in the streets and was very hard pressed to make a living. Men left their homes because they couldn't stand to see their families starve and went looking for work. Some fellow had the idea that if we built good roads across the United States we could provide jobs for a lot of people building those roads, and I mean roads sort of akin to what you have today. Because roads in my day were all mud tracks. The "road" in my day was actually the word we used for the railroad. The people who owned the railroad didn't want people to build good roads. And there was a bill before Congress, called the "Good Roads Bill," to build good roads across America as a network, as a network through all the states and across the country, and it was projected to take 15 to 20 years, and would employ over a million workers. What happened was that Coxey's Industrial Army was one branch of what was called the "Commonweal of Christ," the "Body of Christ," and all of these Christian socialist workers decided to march on Washington. A million workers were planning to march on Washington to push the "Good Roads Bill" through Congress. Unfortunately, most of us didn't make it. I was in the branch, as our good friend Joe knows, Coxey's Industrial Army. What happened of course, as the armies marched toward Washington, the railroad barons — using all the power that they had at their command, which was considerable — began to disrupt the progress of these armies. In our particular case they had pinkertons lined up along the Missouri River with winchesters, and warning farmers ahead that we were burning and pillaging as we went, and so we met with a lot of opposition from the local farmers, and didn't get the support we had had to begin with, and we began to starve, and that's when I abandoned the army and headed off for Chicago.
US Jack, I just want to break in for a second and address some of the new people that came into the room, Debbie and Tiffany. Debbie, I can see all of your questions and we'll get to them. Welcome, Tiffany and Michael. A lot of people have questions about your writing and I will get to them, but before we do, I would love to hear about your Yukon adventure. You went up there in 1897, is that correct?
London That is correct sir.
US Would you tell us how that all happened and what happened when you were there?
London Well, to boil it down to its essence, I had been through high school, college. I dropped out of college disgusted for reasons I explained earlier. It wasn't only that it was the passionless pursuit of passionless knowledge. It was also that most of my fellow students were nincompoops. It bothered me — they were basically middle class and upper-middle class children that were there to play; I was there to learn. So I quit school, and took a sabbatical and went to help support my family working at a laundry in Belmont. Ironically, I ended up then, at the age of 21 years old, making exactly the same wage, 10 cents an hour, that I had made as a cannery worker at 15. Only now I was much better educated. I had a great deal more experience as a worker. But because of the state of the economy, which was still poor in 1897, I could not make a decent wage. As hard as I could work, I probably would earn only 35 to 40 dollars a month and that was working 12 hours a day, 6 to 7 days a week. So I became disgusted with the job, returned home about that time it was announced that gold had been discovered in the Klondike. Now gold had a meaning that is lost on many modern Americans, and that's a good thing because what it meant was that it was an escape from poverty. What it meant was an escape from want, hunger, ragged clothing, watching your family be sick and not being able to afford medicine. So of course, people, not just myself, and others around me in Oakland and San Francisco, but people all over the world that were hard pressed because of the worldwide depression that was being experienced, packed up their stuff and went to the Klondike. "Went ho for the Klondike," we used to say. And of course I was broke at the time so I had to rustle up the money to go to the Klondike. I was desperate. Went to everybody I could think of. Went to newspapers and asked them to hire me to be a correspondent. Went people on the street I didn't even know, and asked everybody I knew and could get no takers until my stepsister told me her husband also had Klondike fever. I went over and sold him on the idea of us going to the Klondike in twain, as partners. He agreed and they mortgaged the house and so we were financed on our trip to the Klondike.
US He mortgaged his house? He mortgaged his property?
London Mortgaged his house, yes so we can go to the Klondike and look for gold.
US How much money, how much equipment, how much money was needed and how much equipment did you take? And I have a follow-up question to that from Angelique, once you got up there, what was your first impression of the Yukon?
London Well the first impression you get of the Yukon is that it's huge. It's absolutely huge. It's a gigantic area. For instance, we traveled up the Inside Passage in a hallowed-out log, a native canoe, paddled by Indians from the area. And every canyon valley you would go by, paddling up that Inside Passage, would look like Yosemite. Everything was astonishing, breathtaking in its size, in its beauty. So it was really quite impressive going up there. The first thing that you notice is the size of the place and it's also rather daunting. When we landed at the beach at Dyea — which is where the trail going over the Chilcoot Pass is — when you land at Dyea you see a peak, that you're supposed to climb over, up above you. It's about one mile in the air, and you're down at sea level. You've got to hike, basically, 17 miles up the trail to the summit of the Pass with, well, 2000 pounds of gear is what was we were carrying with us. You're required to carry about 1,000 pounds of gear by the Canadian authorities.
US What was some of the gear?
London Everything you can think of — of course a lot of foodstuffs. The main problem the Canadians were worried about is that all these folks turning up in the Klondike would turn out to be a giant Donner Party for them. They didn't want anything do with that, so you were required to bring about half of your provisions in weight with food. The other half would be, for instance, we carried stoves, they were plate-metal stoves. You can imagine carrying a pot-bellied stove in pieces in your backpack was going to be heavy. The thing I should say is of course is that you can't carry 1,000 pounds by yourself at one time. So what you have to do is break it into smaller packs of 50 to 100 pounds apiece. You'll carry that pack up the trail a ways and cachet it and come back and get another pack. I should also say that we formed partnerships with other men on the boat coming up toward the Yukon, so it wasn't just myself at the time, of course, I was working with a team of men, there were 5 of us, and we would go back and forth like ants on this trail and push our outfits, as we called them, that was what the entire group of provisions was called — an outfit. And we would bring these outfits up the hill, little by little and it was grueling, tedious work, heartbreaking work, and my partner, Captain Shepherd, quit on the second day. Many men quit. One fellow on the trail committed suicide because he didn't have the sand to go forward and he didn't have the nerve to go home. It was just too much for him.
US Did you have a dog team?
London No, you couldn't get a dog team up that trail, especially in the summer time. It's hard. It's rock and mud and it's just like scrabbling up one of your mountains anywhere you want to talk about that's pretty steep. You can scramble up in the wintertime. You'll notice there's some famous pictures that have come in to your modern time of men going up what is called "the golden staircase." Klondike stairs that were cut in snow in the wintertime. But even then you couldn't do it with a dog team. It's too steep. It would be impossible for the animals.
US I have a couple of real neat questions from Pizza Pizza. "What kind of first-aid provisions did you take with you?"
London Sorry, John. What's that?
US "What kind of first-aid provisions did you take with you?"
London I brought a bottle of whiskey and some bandages.
US Pizza also asks, "Do you think the people have to, or writers in particular, have to live, have to have had great experiences to be great writers?"
London No, not at all. As a matter of fact, most writers are superlative liars. What I mean by that is, if you're writing fiction you're actually telling a big fib. So most writers are possessed with enough ballyhoo to fake their way through the stories they have to tell. The problem you have if you were trying to write literature similar to my own is that it was written for people who have had real experiences, and it was written about real experiences. You couldn't fake it; you had to know what you were talking about.
US I have a question from Bez, who asks, "Did you run into many unsavory characters? Did you ever fear for your life when you were in the Yukon?"
London Oh, consistently.
US Tell us about some of them.
London As a matter of fact, I think all of us were unsavory characters up there. Defense mode.
US Was there a lot of violence during your time there?
London Not as much as you might think, but, it escalated quickly. One of the reasons that there wasn't much violence because if there was violence it was either going to be quick and relatively painless, or not quite as quick and probably deadly.
US Right. I have a question here from Alberto who is interest in knowing, "How did you know where to dig for gold?"
London Well there are only two methods that I know of. The good Lord points to where you're supposed to dig, and he never did that for me, or you are with someone that understands something about the process of prospecting and they tell you where to dig. Luckily I had a member of my team, Mr. Thompson, who was adept in gold mining techniques, and understood geology, and he helped us look for promising sites.
US I've got another question from Pizza Pizza, who asks, "You wrote in "To Build A Fire" that a man's beard can break off from the cold. Is that really true?"
London Absolutely, you don't even need to shave. Just go outside and bust it off.
US Can you describe what it feels like to be in temperatures 70 degrees below zero.
London Well the first thing you notice of course is that your beard and mustache freeze, because of your breath. You have to constantly be scraping the ice away so that you can continue breathing. The other thing is when you spit, it cracks in the air and is frozen solid before it hits the ground.
US Wow. So I take it you didn't find any gold.
London Well I did find some. A little bit less than one ounce of powder. I got out my very own claim, which I'm very proud of. I'm definitely an experienced prospector now.
US How much would that have been worth in 1897 dollars?
London About 21 dollars.
US And what was the buying power of 21 dollars in the Yukon?
London It would probably get you a dinner, a bottle of whiskey, and a cot to sleep in for the night.
US Before we leave the Yukon and come back to California and begin to talk about your writings, I'd like to know, were there any women in the Yukon?
London Oh, yes. There were fewer women than down here in civilization, you can bet on that. But because there were so few women, they were very well entertained.
US Would you care to expand on that?
London There were basically two kinds of women in the Klondike. There were women who came up with their husbands or families and they were the matrons, basically. For instance at the top of Chilcoot Pass, once you go about 10, 12 miles, you come to a place called Lake Linderman. At Lake Linderman there was a wonderful gal whose husband had abandoned her and gone back, and she decide to stay, and she opened up kind of a hostel for mostly men, there were mostly men there. And she would console the broken hearted, feed the hungry, help people get warmed up. We called her the Angel of Lake Linderman. The other type of woman that you would find in the Klondike is what we kindly referred to as variety actresses. They were basically gals who were up there to see what they could make in the Klondike. There were a lot of opportunities for gals that were ready, willing, and able to earn their keep, and of course, the dance halls in Dawson City were wild and raucous 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and there was a lot of wildness that went on. There was also a place across the Klondike River from Dawson which was called Lousetown and that's where mostly the native women, the Indian women, and women who couldn't really qualify as variety actresses in Dawson City would ply their trade. And it was called Lousetown for a good reason.
US Yes? Okay. Well, I think we can all use our imaginations.
London Absolutely. Absolutely. But the women were very important to fellas like me for instance. The comradeship of a woman, just to have someone to talk to ,and to be able to understand there's a brighter side of life is immeasurable and very important.
US Right. I'd just like to welcome some of the people who just entered the session. We have Travis, Pippa and Cio and Mia. Again, I'd like to remind everyone, please ask questions for Jack. Jack, what made you leave the Yukon?
London I didn't want to die. As the spring thaw was coming, in the spring of 1898, most of us, most of the men in the Klondike were suffering from scurvy. In those days, we didn't really understand as is understood now, the cause of the scurvy especially the lack of Vitamin C-bearing vegetables and fruits. Many of us were severely sick with scurvy, I myself included. Your hands and arms puff up to the point where you can poke a hole in your arms and watch it sit there in your puffed up arm for a couple of minutes before it fills up again. It's a very frightening situation. My gums were swollen and my teeth were falling out of my head. I sat at the banks of the Yukon River and contemplated my death many an afternoon, waiting for the river to thaw so that we can get back to Dawson where there was a priest actually who ran a hospital.
US So you returned to California and you used your Klondike experiences, Yukon experiences, as the basis of your writing, is that correct?
London Well not at first. I tried to, but I was told by many editors that they had plenty of that material and they didn't really want any more so I tried writing stories about anything I could imagine. I tried writing jokes. I tried writing poetry. But the thing that consistently happened was that people that I knew, that I met in the streets, or where I was working, would ask me about the Klondike and be fascinated by our experiences. So I kept coming back to writing stories about experiences that I had myself or that I knew about in the Klondike.
US I see. Was it difficult in turn of the turn-of-the-century, turn of 19th century America — turn of the 20th century America — to make a living as a writer?
London As a matter of fact, yes. How could I best put this? It was impossible. And lots of people, a lot of folks who have ever tried to make a living as a writer or in the arts, let's say, anybody who tries to make a living in the arts, be it performing arts, writing, painting, they're going to experience, even today, what we experienced. Although I think that possibly in my day it could have been worse. There were many fine writers available and there was never enough work to support all of us. The vast majority of writers made a living by writing whatever they could that would sell, myself included of course. I wrote what could sell, but I also understood the vast difference between being a journalist, or a hack, and being a writer of your own original material. My particular success as a writer was due to my ability to communicate using my natural storytelling ability through my writing in a way that brought these stories to life, especially for my working-class readers. It's important to know that the vast majority of my books, especially in the early part of my career, were sold to working-class readers, people like me who could emphasize with and understand the characters and the situations that I portrayed in my stories.
US You are largely autodidactic, and for our younger students, that means Jack was self-taught. Who were you reading at this time? Who were some of your literary influences?
London Well first and foremost I would have to mention Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book and so many other fine stories. I so much admired Kipling, young writers, your young students, they might be interested in a technique I used to train myself, because as a writer I had no mentor but myself. So a technique I invented was called "shadow writing." Boxers learn to box with their shadow against the wall, a lamp behind them. What I did is, I would read a passage of Rudyard's and set it aside and try to imitate it as closely as possible and then compare my work to his. So at first, you can see some vast similarities between my writing work and Mr. Kipling's. I considered him the finest writer of my time, by the way. Rudyard Kipling will remain I think throughout the history of literature, a superlative writer in command of the English language. There were others, of course. Let me see...
US Jack, if I can break in for just a second. A couple of our students are pointing out right now that Kipling has been called by some critics a racist, and as a matter of fact, some critics accuse you of being, probably the wrong phrase, as "a white supremacist," putting the white race above others. How would you respond?
London How would I respond? Well, I'll tell you the only thing I ever raced in my life was a horse. If you get to know your history pretty well, you'ld learn that the term "racist" didn't become popular in the American vernacular until 15 or 20 years after my demise. At the time I was living in there was really no such thing as the racist. No one would think of putting it in those terms. Let me put it this way, ok? Mammy Jenny, I mentioned earlier, was the lady who gave me the mother love that I needed to continue on through life. Mammy Jenny, Virginia Prentiss, was a woman of color. Now, obviously, I loved Virginia Prentiss as a surrogate mother. I had great respect for her and one of the things she taught me was that everyone should be proud of the race that they're born into. I was proud of being a white man but had I been born a black man I'd be proud to be a black man, and if I had been born Hispanic, I would be proud of my Spanish heritage. The important thing to understand about the charge of racism is that it's entirely unfounded in terms of the perspective of my time. There are folks who of course, they look back at history with modern eyes, and it really doesn't work to do that to yourself. Because if you're going to understand what happened in the past, you need to look at the past through the eyes of the past rather than through the eyes of today.
US Jack, I understand that two of your other influences were an improbable pair — Horatio Alger and Frederick Nietzsche.
London Yes, they are kind of different, aren't they?
US Could you speak to how they both influenced you?
London Well Horatio Alger was the first name of a writer that I could have told you as a boy growing up. Horatio Alger wrote stories about virtuous workers who became successful because of their hard work and their goodness. Horatio Alger stories appeared often in cheap pulp magazines that were carried by work men sometimes, who would help my father on his farm, and they would leave these magazines. From my earliest memory, I used to collect these magazines or any scrap of paper I could find with a story in it. The stories of Horatio Alger of course were like a lighthouse for me, shining a light for a better life, a better world through hard work.
US And Nietszche?
London Nietzsche is a very different story altogether. At the time I was coming of age as a young man, the German philosophers, the German perspective in the sciences, was considered the epitome of what was known in the civilized Western world. Germany held a very strong position in the sciences and the philosophies, and of course you're going to have to study German philosophers and the German science if you were going to be educated. Nietzsche's philosophy, of the, if you will, the "Super-Man," of the Zarathustrian, appealed greatly, especially to the imperialist, to the ambitious capitalist. He was made to order as to how our lives should be conducted.
US Okay. Jack, this session is absolutely flying by and we've not even talked about any of your writing. I have a lot of ground to cover and I only have about 15 minutes to do it. I want to talk a bit about The Call of the Wild, I want to talk a bit about "To Build a Fire." I want to talk about your marriages, and I want to talk about the ranch. It was in 1903 that you wrote The Call of the Wild?
London Actually 1902. It was in 1903 that it was published.
US This was a hit, yes?
London Yes it was a hit, although I didn't like it when I finished it. I didn't think it was very good.
US How come?
London Probably because it had too much of my soul in it.
US Could you just give for those who haven't read it, just a quick synopsis of what happens in The Call of the Wild?
London The Call of the Wild is a story of a dog that was kidnapped and sold to be taken to the Klondike where they have a great need for dogs as sled dogs and work dogs. And it's taken from a very nice comfortable life, being a family dog on a ranch in the Livermore Valley, to being a tough, mean, hardened dog, that has to pull a sled and fight for his life in the Klondike. He is shown the absolute, most despicable aspects of human nature in terms of their abuse of animals. But then he's introduced to a fellow who loves animals and he takes him in, nurses him back to health as it were, and they become close friends. As a matter of fact he learns to love the man. This man in the book is John Thornton. Thornton is a mining engineer, a character based on a person I knew, of course. All of my characters are based on people that I knew. John Thornton goes to a hidden valley in the far north — there are all these legendary valleys when you're in the Klondike. People talk about how over the next two mountaintops you'll find a valley protected by this incredible tribe, and the streams are lined with gold, and everybody was looking for that El Dorado off there in the distance. So I wrote about that, and John Thornton found his El Dorado and unfortunately the Indians weren't too happy about it and killed him and his partner. Buck, the dog, is the main character in the story, and he was angry with the Indians, that of course he makes them pay for what they did to the man that he loved. But in the meantime, he has heard the sounding of the call. He has learned the truth of the pack. When he's not with the men in the camp he runs with the wolfs out in the mountains and in the hills. And as the only man he has loved once after he had been kidnapped has been killed, he goes and joins the pack and of course then he finds his self, his primitive self, his true self out there in nature with the wolf pack.
US Right. Was it hard writing a tale with an animal as the protagonist?
London Actually it was easier then using a human being.
US How so?
London With dialogue. And you can make strong impressions that people can't take much exception to. When you're talking about what a dog thinks, it can be a matter of debate, but no one will know for sure. The idea is I used the dog as a vehicle to communicate many of my thoughts and feelings about human behavior.
US Right. In the book, some people have seen Buck as a metaphor for the plight of the working man. Is this something that you had in mind when you wrote the book?
London Absolutely. Buck is a metaphor for the working-class man. Very much so. He's beaten. He's treated severely. He's barely given enough to stay alive. He has to work with every ounce of strength he has, sometimes almost to the point of death. He's forced to fight for his very existence.
US Was it also a notion of yours, Jack, that by writing this you're making some sort of statement that in fact, society was uncivilized and we should consider a movement back to nature as Buck does?.
London Bravo. You've hit it right on the head.
US Those 6 years in Santa Cruz paid off, huh?
London I think so. I think so. The important thing to note is that I didn't mean for the book that you read to be The Call of the WildSleeping Wolf. I was actually so embarrassed by the work which wasn't on my list of books to complete for my publisher that I originally sent it to the Saturday Post, the Saturday Evening Post, because they had always refused everything that I sent them. They were considered a very important publication to have buy your work. To my great surprise, without any quibbling at all, they sent me a check for 2 thousand dollars in the mail to publish my story. But I told them that I had to get permission from my publisher. He's the one, George Brett, at Macmillan, the president of Macmillan Publishing, George Brett, who is kind of a literary father figure to me. He suggested changing the name to The Call of the Wild, a name of one of the chapters, and as a matter of fact, I still had so little faith in the book that I told George, if he would simply advance me 2 thousand dollars more, I would give the company full rights to the book and they could do what they wanted to as long as they promoted it heavily.
US 2 thousand dollars was a goodly amount for a writer in those days I take it?
London Well at a time when a man could work as hard as a man can work and earn 60 dollars a month, yes sir.
US I would just like to interrupt one more time and say hello to a few new people who have joined the session. Carol Anne, Gong, thank you for joining us. Jack, I was wondering if you have any representative passages that you'd like to read for us.
London I have a couple I can read for you. Tell me, do you think that most of our participants today are younger folks or more adult?
US I do know that we have a lot of students in the middle school and the high-school level, but I know we also have teachers and fans of us as well.
London I'm going to work my way down from the top to the hull, which is where the kids live. The Cruise of the Dazzler is the only novel that I ever wrote that was intended for young readers. It's an excellent work. It's not one that is very well known, but the title is The Cruise of the Dazzler. It's a book that especially most students from say fifth grade all the way up to eighth grade could certainly enjoy and I wanted to give you a taste of that, if I could.
US We'd love it, please.
London This is actually from the very beginning. Chapter One. The chapter's entitled, "Brother and Sister." And here's how it reads:
They ran across the shining sand, the Pacific thundering, its long surge at their backs, and when they gained the roadway, leaped upon bicycles and dived at a faster pace into the green avenues of the park. There were three of them. Three boys. In as many bright colored sweaters and they scorched along the cycle path as dangerously near the speed limit as is the custom of boys in bright colored sweaters to go. They may have exceeded the speed limit.
That's how it starts.
US Very nice.
London Now if I may. Further on in the story, as things have developed and wyou have a real battle going on, allow me to share with you this passage.
Together, knives in hand, they crawled forward to where the pounding wreckage hampered the boat surely. Frisco Kid took the lead in the ticklish work, but Joe obeyed orders like a veteran. Every minute or two the bow was swept by the sea and they were pounded and buffeted about like a pair of shuttlecocks.
There you go.
US Thanks Jack. Why do you feel that particularly representative for younger readers?
London Well, because I was a boy once myself and I like action.
US That's great. Do you mind if we talk a little bit about "To Build a Fire"?
London I would love to.
US Actually, why do you have a hero who has no name in this short story?
London Because the name of the fellow is inconsequential to the point of the story.
US Which is?
London The point of the story is that you need to listen to the advice of the old timers. It's a pretty good idea sometimes to pay attention to the advice of those who have come before you and who know better than you do how to survive in that tough environment. The man goes out in weather that is 80 degrees below zero, which he was told to never do alone. He goes out alone with the animal he has with him, the dog that's accompanying him. He was a newcomer in the land and this was his first winter. The trouble with the man is he was like many men that we'll find around us even today. He was a man with little imagination. As a result, he figured that he could do better than these old timers knew. He was a warm-whiskered man. He kind of felt that he could do pretty well. The husky that was with him, for instance, if you'll notice, was depressed by the tremendous cold. The dog knew this wasn't the time to be traveling but the man didn't know any better. The husky by the way, in the story, doesn't have a name either.
US So the husky survives while the man does not.
London Exactly. One of the really important things for our participants today, is that the story "To Build a Fire" that most folks are familiar with is actually the second version of that story which was written in 1908. The original version was written in 1902, and it had an exactly opposite ending than the one everyone is familiar with.
US The man survives?
London Exactly. Because the original version of the story was written for Youth Companion magazine which later became Boys Life magazine, a favorite of the Boy Scouts of America. But the editors did not like the idea that the man froze to death and told me if I would change the ending they would publish the story and pay me for it.
US Was this considered too gruesome?
London Yes. It was considered disturbing for young readers to have a man freeze to death. Well, in 1908, I was stuck in a Doldrum in the South Pacific. A Doldrum is a place where there's no wind. You can't sail your boat. It was over 100 degrees, and very uncomfortable, and so I decided to try doing something ... have a funny ticking going on here, it might be ... Can you hear me okay? My phone is making a funny noise, I'm not sure why.
US Okay well, we can still hear you.
London Okay. Where was I? In 1908 in this Doldrum, I was able to rewrite the story, and cool myself (psychologically speaking) by having the fellow freeze to death. The reason I did that was to enhance the drama of the story. Now of course, in the second version of the story, the dog doesn't survive.
US Jack, in your works two mainstays are dogs and death. Did you have a dog? Jack? Oh my. Well it seems we've lost contact with Jack London. I want to thank all who participated today. I encourage everybody to visit the archive session. Jack, I want to really thank you for your time. We certainly could have gone on easily for another hour and I hope we get to do this in the future.

After the online expert session, we followed up with two final questions, shown here.
 
US If a teacher were to assign just one of your books, which would it be and why?
London It strongly depends on your grade level. For up to the 7th grade, I would recommend The Cruise of the Dazzler. This an excellent action-adventure story specifically written for younger readers. For 7th grade to the 10th grade, The Call of the Wild because it is easily one of the top ten classic American novels and one that any American student at that level or above should be familiar with. For the 10th grade to the 12th grade, The Sea-Wolf because it is an exposition of both my excellent prose and the dual theme concept that runs through most of my work. The dual theme concept is that any average reader can enjoy the story that is on the surface, but a more ponderous reader will notice the deeper, philosophical conflicts that are being explored, e.g., Wolf Larsen as the quintessential example of a Nietzschean superman who struggles to overcome his humanity. An interesting alternative to The Sea-Wolf would be White Fang, the companion novel to The Call of the Wild. White Fang is longer and more developed than The Call of the Wild, yet uses the same setting and a closely related theme. If you want to choose just one short story, please choose "To Build A Fire". It is considered one of the all-time best short stories ever written.
US You wrote at the end of the 19th century, and early into the 20th century. Do you think you are still relevant to a 21st-century readership?
London Very much so! Take a look at The Iron Heel or The Star Rover, or even The Valley of the Moon. Absolutely right on the mark! I should also like to point out that even though my work was scorned by teachers in the early-20th century, no teacher of American literature today would dream of not including my work in their curriculum.

Meet the Historians

These renowned historians and experts chatted with students online. Read the transcripts.

Carol Berkin
Colonial Women
Ira Berlin
Slavery
Joseph Ellis
Thomas Jefferson
James Loewen
Debunking History
Jon Nese
The weather
Robert Regan
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Remini
The Jacksonian Era
Brooks Simpson
U.S. Grant and Reconstruction
David Traxel
1898
Errol Uys
Riding the Rails
Cheryl Walker
Native American Lit
Mike Wilson
Jack London
Gordon Wood
American Revolution
historic documents, declaration, constitution, more