This Day In Literary History
On July 25th, 1897, the legendary American writer Jack London set sail from San Francisco to the Canadian Yukon. He was only 21 at the time and accompanied by his much older brother-in-law, James Shepard.
Following the Panic of '93, a precursor to the Great Depression, London found himself among the millions of other young men working grueling, low-paying, dead end jobs. For a time, he became a hobo and drifted from place to place.
When the economy improved a little, he was able to save money for college, but later, new financial difficulties would force him to drop out. He never graduated.
Intrigued by stories of prospectors striking it rich in the Gold Rush, London and James Shepard decided to go to the Canadian Yukon and try their luck.
What they didn't know was that only 30% of the hundred thousand prospectors who made the trip actually reached the Yukon and only four thousand of them managed to find gold.
Shepard mortgaged his home so that he and London could pay their boat fare and buy the supplies they'd need for their prospecting trip. Then they set sail from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska.
The eight day boat trip was literally smooth sailing all the way. After arriving in Juneau, London and Shepard made an arduous 500-mile trek to Dawson City, the heart of the Gold Rush.
The brutal Arctic winter had just begun in the Canadian Yukon, and like so many other prospectors, London was unprepared for the harsh climate. His food supply inadequate, he suffered from malnutrition, then developed a severe case of scurvy.
With no gold found and little money left, London spent most of his Yukon adventure living in a shelter and medical facility for the poor. His scurvy caused him lose four front teeth and suffer facial scars.
Although he failed to find gold in the Yukon, his experience there enabled him to strike gold with his writings, setting many of them in bleak, harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Yukon.
His classic short story To Build a Fire, published in 1908, told the story of a young prospector in the Yukon. Unprepared for the brutal Arctic winter and with only a stray wolf-dog for companionship, he struggles to build a fire to keep them both warm.
I first read this great story in my advanced reading class in elementary school. I was awestruck by the power of London's words and felt like I was slowly freezing to death along with his protagonist. It made me want to be a writer.
London's most famous novels, also classic adventures set in the Yukon, were The Call of the Wild (1903), and White Fang (1906).
The Call of the Wild told the story of a dog called Buck, a St. Bernard - Scotch shepherd mix who is stolen from a ranch in California, sold, and shipped to Seattle.
There, he's resold to a couple of French Canadians who take him to the Yukon to serve as a sled dog. Buck survives the brutal cruelty of humans, other dogs, and the Arctic winter, and becomes the leader of the sled team.
In White Fang, a wolf-dog hybrid called White Fang is brutalized by humans and raised to be a savage fighting dog. He goes undefeated until a vicious bulldog nearly tears him apart. Left for dead, he is rescued by a kind young prospector who nurses him back to health. But can he be tamed again?
Jack London would publish nearly two dozen novels and nearly two short story collections during his remarkable career. He died of kidney failure at the age of 40, though some believe it may have been from an accidental or intentional overdose of morphine he used to treat the excruciating pain of his kidney stones.
Quote Of The Day
“I write for no other purpose than to add to the beauty that now belongs to me. I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.” - Jack London
Today's video features a complete reading of Jack London's classic short story, To Build a Fire. Enjoy!