by Matthew Asprey
If San Francisco has taken hold of the world’s imagination through the hardboiled stories of Dashiell Hammett, the prose and poetry of Jack Kerouac and his fellow Beats, through Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, it is as a romantic city of vast suspension bridges and foggy back alleys, not as the wild west of Jack London’s day. It’s always a little shocking to discover that the iconic Golden Gate and Oakland Bay Bridges were completed as recently as the late 1930s; it’s only in John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon (1941) that Sam Spade can spy the bridged bay from his office window.
Pre-quake San Francisco was a tough town, and Jack London — hobo, sailor, oyster pirate, hard drinker — was pretty tough, too. Herbert Asbury, author of the famous Gangs of New York, wrote a history of San Francisco lowlife called The Barbary Coast (1933). Due to the arrival of gold prospectors in the nearby Sacramento Valley from 1849 — along with “gamblers, thieves, harlots, politicians and other felonious parasites” — San Francisco became, in Asbury’s words, “the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent.”
The Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 destroyed nearly everything in old San Francisco. Jack London was there to write an eyewitness report for Collier’s:
Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone. Remains only the fringe of dwelling houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco.
Thereafter San Francisco rebuilt itself into one of the world’s great cities.
Although born in 1876 near Third and Brannan Streets in San Francisco, Jack London lived much of his childhood eight miles across the bay in Oakland. From 1868 the city’s Long Wharf was the last stop of the Transcontinental and Central Pacific Railroads. Oakland was a rough and vital place. As a child, London fed his tremendous appetite for reading at the Oakland Public Library. His early teens were spent at gruelling labour in a cannery. In his memoir of alcoholism, John Barleycorn (1913), London tells how he escaped that servitude to became an oyster pirate on San Francisco Bay with his own sloop, the Razzle Dazzle. Later he switched sides and became a member of the California Fish Patrol, which inspired the cycle of short stories collected in 1905.
In 1893 London signed on to the schooner Sophie Sutherland and voyaged across the Pacific. The next year he was on the road as a hobo with Kelly’s Army. It was only in 1895 that he was able to attend Oakland High School. After graduation and a brief stint at the University of California in nearby Berkeley, London sailed north to the Yukon for the Klondike Gold Rush. His experiences in the Northlands would lead to the creation of such classic works as The Call of the Wild (1903), White Fang (1906), and ‘To Build A Fire’ (1908). London would soon become one of the world’s most popular writers.
Never losing his love of travel and adventure, Jack London always returned to California. He eventually bought a ranch north of San Pablo Bay in Sonoma County. He died there at the age of forty on November 22, 1916. He had published over forty volumes — novels, short stories, non-fiction, and essays.
The idea for this present collection can be traced to a period I spent in San Francisco in the autumn of 2009. After reading Rodger Jacobs’ 2003 essay ‘Ghost Land’, I caught a BART train under the bay to Oakland. From the 12th Street station I took a short hike down Broadway, then walked to Jack London Square. This modern waterfront is centred around a block-long Barnes & Noble bookstore (now closed). In this very contemporary setting it’s jarring to see Jack London’s Klondike cabin, reconstructed from the original logs. Well, half the logs; the others were used to build an identical cabin in Dawson City, Yukon. It’s even more surprising to come upon Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, which is still in business. Due to damage from the Great Earthquake the floor slopes and the clock is stuck forever at quake hour. The bar still uses gaslights. The roof is creosote-blackened and papered with innumerable business cards from another age. You can ask the barman for a glass of white rum and drink at the actual tables where London studied as a boy and later worked on The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf. They have a photo to prove it. The saloon is a relic from a vanished age. If California was tough in 2009 and getting tougher, it could not compare to the wild west of London’s era, and to the devastation of 1906.
I drank the glass of white rum and thought of the famed tale-teller of the Klondike and the Pacific. What had Jack London written about the Bay Area of more than a century ago? Had he captured its peculiar zeitgeist? And has anyone ever brought those stories together? Well, now you have this collection.
In his short career, Jack London published nearly two hundred short stories. A large number are set in the Yukon. Many others are set in Hawaii and the South Seas. Apart from Tales of the Fish Patrol (republished here in its entirety), London’s San Francisco Bay Area stories have always been scattered across numerous collections. This anthology gathers the best of them for the first time to create a composite portrait of the Bay Area in a vanished age.
Parts I and II loosely follow the chronology of London’s life in Oakland and on the Bay. Excerpts from London’s ostensibly non-fictional John Barleycorn (1913) are interspersed with fictions. ‘The Apostate’ is London’s often-anthologised dramatization of child servitude in factories. Although no explicit mention is made of Oakland, this story is generally believed to be inspired by London’s own experiences as an exploited teenage worker. A short extract from London’s article ‘Small-Boat Sailing’ is followed by ‘To Repel Boarders’, an amusing story of two chums sailing out on the Bay.
The Fish Patrol cycle is based on London’s exploits chasing oyster pirates in San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay, particularly around Benicia and Vallejo. In a letter to Youth’s Companion dated March 9, 1903, London insists on the knowledge from which he writes. The so-called ‘King of the Greeks’ appears under his actual name, Big Alec. We find cartoonish depictions of Chinese oyster pirates in these stories; despite his socialism, London was not at all progressive in his racial politics, and voiced many of the prejudices of his time. These stories are exciting adventure yarns that usually focus on the inventive means by which the protagonist and his companions outwit Chinese and Greek pirates. The original illustrations by George Varian are reproduced.
The stories in Part III are set in various parts of the Bay Area. ‘The Banks of the Sacramento’ is a particularly gripping story of a boy finding courage as he single-handedly repairs the cable car of the Yellow Dream mine. ‘An Adventure in the Upper Sea’ and ‘Winged Blackmail’ take us into the skies by hot-air balloon and primitive aircraft, respectively. ‘When the World Was Young’ is a strange story set in Mill Valley, north of Sausalito, in which an otherwise respectable lawyer lives a double life as “a savage and a barbarian.” The successful Oakland grocer of ‘The Prodigal Father’ returns to Connecticut with the intention to reunite with his long-lost wife and son. The plots of ‘Winged Blackmail’, ‘When the World Was Young’, and ‘The Prodigal Father’ were sold to London by the young Sinclair Lewis. ‘The Benefit of the Doubt’ was based upon a fight London had with Timothy Muldowny, proprietor of the Tavern Café in Oakland’s Tenderloin; London had his revenge through this amusing fiction.
Finally, Part IV focuses on stories and reports from the city of San Francisco itself. The opening chapter of The Sea-Wolf is a superb account of a ferry crash. The fine story ‘South of the Slot’ shares the double-life motif of ‘When The World Was Young’: here a dull uptown sociologist assumes a downtown working class identity for academic reasons and ultimately chooses the proletarian life. A lost possible future is evoked in the violent general strike fantasy ‘The Dream of Debs’. And finally there is London’s classic journalistic account of the Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire.
Here, then, are lively stories of a vanished San Francisco and its magnificent bay, of Oakland, of Benicia and Vallejo, Mill Valley and the Marin Islands.
Copyright © 2010 Matthew Asprey. All rights reserved.