Jack London’s Enduring Legacy

As soon as we closed on our cottage we wanted to start exploring the local area and asked for insight from our new neighbors. Several of them suggested a visit to Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen. My only real knowledge of Jack London was from a high school English class where we studied The Call of The Wild. While London was clearly a talented and poetic writer he seemed to be part of an era that I didn’t consider to have much of a connection to our modern existence.

During our visit I learned that London had referred to his magnificent property as his “quiet place in the country.” Of course, our cottage couldn’t compare to London’s Ranch but we felt the same way about our little house. What one considers to be a quiet place in the country is really quite subjective – and it can easily be something as simple as relaxing on a blanket at a local park.

It’s easy to focus on the natural beauty and the year-round events that the Sonoma valley offers, but the history of the area is both impressive and inspiring.  There’s no doubt that the legacy of Sonoma County was shaped by people like Jack London and their love and respect for the land.  Visionaries purchased and preserved redwood groves in Armstrong Woods in Guerneville in 1878 and the Sonoma Land Trust currently protects 50,000 acres of open space in Sonoma County.

Jack London
Jack London. Photo by: Arnold Genthe, Arnold Genthe Collection (Library of Congress)

Jack London’s early years were spent in the San Francisco area where all of my own family members were raised. London had jobs as a young boy – as did my own father who saved for a shoe shine box to earn money for his immigrant family. Having your family struggle when you are young shapes your view of the world in indelible ways and for London it fostered an awareness of social injustice.

Jack London grew up in an age where an elite group of industrialists possessed almost unimaginable wealth and power. Citizens read about the palatial estates, world travels and vast fortunes of business magnates while the country was experiencing a depressed economy, child labor and unsafe working conditions. People knew hunger, unemployment and the daily struggle of being part of the working poor. The parallels with modern society are impossible to ignore.

London valued education, fair wages, healthy working conditions and sustainable farming practices that preserved the earth. He held the progressive opinion that those with great wealth have a moral duty to improve the quality of life for others and he used his notoriety to speak about the risks associated with unfettered capitalism. London was convinced that creating a more level playing field would benefit the entire country.

An enduring lesson of London’s work is the realization that so many of our current struggles are not new. We still face – and will likely continue to face – the same universal challenges to the human condition that London wrote about so long ago. Young people in our country today will not know the disease scurvy or shovel coal as a child worker as London did.  But 100 years after London’s death it’s just as true that they may face difficulty in finding employment, that they will likely have to make decisions on issues such as climate change and that they will have to find their collective voice in order to be drivers of change.