Features & Columns
Jack London's Bay Area Roots
The second week in October of 1901 brought sweltering Indian summer days to the Santa Clara Valley. Forest fires throughout Central California cast a smoky haze over the region as the final push of the valley's annual fruit harvest was well underway.
Nationally, the country was still mourning the shocking assassination of President William McKinley and coming to terms with the unanticipated ascension of his young vice-president, Theodore Roosevelt, to the highest office in the land.
After a nearly month-long mourning period during which Roosevelt ordered flags be flown at half-mast, he issued a new order returning them to their normal position. McKinley's assassin, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, was arrested, tried and convicted in a matter of weeks. By the end of the month, he would be executed in an electric chair.
In San Jose, the University Extension Club announced its fall schedule of classes as well as its 10th season of lectures, a celebrated series held annually at the California State Normal School (which, over the ensuing century, would transform into San Jose State University). According to the San Jose Mercury, the lectures "of the coming season are fully up to the average of their past in their quality, and in some respects are more attractive than any" that had previously been offered by the club.
One of the prime reasons for such an assessment was the fact that the season was to be kicked off by Jack London, described by the local daily as a "young author who has already won his spurs as one of the most vivid and powerful of our short story writers." The paper noted that London's anthology Son of the Wolf, recently published by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. to widespread popular and critical acclaim, was the "best portrayal of Alaskan scenery and life that has ever been written."
The paper trumpeted London as a "practiced public speaker" and a regular lecturer before the prestigious Economist League of San Francisco, and it mistakenly identified an award-winning essay by London as titled "Competitive West"—its actual title being "Competitive Waste," a stinging denouncement of industrial capitalism and an early formation of London's socialist world view. There was no mention of London's radical politics in the Mercury announcement.
Jack London was no stranger to San Jose. Contrary to the assessment of at least one Oakland-centric London historian (and regurgitated by the Mercury in the 1990s) that the writer "never spent more than a day or two visiting Santa Clara County," the Extension Club lecture would mark one of many visits he had made to the city—and to the "Valley of the Heart's Delight," as it was known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—dating back to his adolescence.
Indeed, the opening of his most famous and lasting work of literature, The Call of the Wild (1903), which chronicles the epic journey of a Saint Bernard Dutch-Collie, "Buck," from rural California to the Yukon Territory, was set locally:
Buck lived at a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. Judge Miller's place, it was called. It stood back from the road, half-hidden among the trees, through which glimpses could be caught of the wide cool veranda that ran around its four sides. ... There were great stables, where a dozen grooms and boys held forth, rows of vine-clad servants' cottages, an endless and orderly array of outhouses, long grape arbors, green pastures, orchards, and berry patches.
The passage was a precise description of the home of Judge Hiram Bond, a prominent prune grower and banker in the Santa Clara Valley. London had spent part of his celebrated journey to the Klondike with Bond's two sons, Marshall and Louis, on whose dog "Jack" London had based his heroic canine character.