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Beauty at 50

California prepares to fete long-ago golden boy Jack London

By Jonah Raskin

He signed his letters "Wolf," wrote about ferocious wolves in the Yukon and built a mansion he called Wolf House that burned to the ground in 1913. The insurance company suspected arson. So did the police, but Jack London collected every cent owed him on his policy. Almost immediately, he went back to his writing desk and dispatched a letter to a friend in which he said, "I would rather be the man whose house was burned down than the man who burned down the house." A nice distinction from a writer who made a career of making distinctions between the wild and the tame, and between wolflike men such as Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf and the novel's bookish hero Humphrey Van Weyden, a stand-in for London himself.

The eerie and oddly beautiful gothic ruins of Wolf House remain, and visitors to the 1,400-acre Jack London Historical State Park in Glen Ellen can see the massive, moss-covered stone walls and imagine the grandeur that might have been. It's as close as the state gets to an official monument to California culture and outdoor living. I think of it, too, as the Golden State's answer to those East Coast literary landmarks in the Berkshires, where the likes of Herman Melville and Edith Wharton decamped and were inspired.

I've been to Jack London State Park dozens of times, ever since I first moved to California from New York in 1976. Every time I go back, I see and hear something different: red-tailed hawks, frogs, wild irises and foxes. I'll go back this summer and look and listen all over again, and as though for the first time.

Opening its gates to the public in 1960, the park celebrates its 50th anniversary with speakers, barbecues, live music, special exhibitions and games for children on June 27. London, who moved to Sonoma County from nearby Oakland to escape the crowds and urban soot, would probably enjoy the spectacle of so many locals and out-of-towners flocking to his homestead. One of the bestselling novelists of his day, and a glutton for fame and notoriety, he turned his Beauty Ranch into a destination for bohemian artists and writers, members of the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, and such anarchists as Emma Goldman, who called him "the only real revolutionary writer in America."

That image stuck with London for much of his life. It continued after his death in 1916 at the age of 40, and it delayed the transformation of his estate into the state historical park it is today. London's 20-year-long membership in the Socialist Party of America didn't help, either. The California State Legislature felt uncomfortable about a state-owned and -operated property that would commemorate a card-carrying Socialist, but London wrote Call of the Wild, and that book all on its own, of the 50 or so books he wrote in 17 years, was nearly enough to persuade Sacramento politicians to vote yes.

These days, carefully cultivated vineyards surround much of the park, but it still has a wild feeling and a rough-hewn beauty. The walk to the remains of Wolf House takes hikers through dense woods. Signs warn against rattlesnakes and mountain lions, though over the years they have not deterred visitors. There are picnic tables under leafy trees that provide cool shade, and there are water fountains with cold water from the mountain itself.

The Glen Ellen bars that London once frequented are gone—burned to the ground, like Wolf House—but there's the saloon at the Jack London Lodge, and for gourmet food there's the Fig Cafe in the heart of Glen Ellen, a town that has no chain store of any kind. Going there feels like going back into the past, and one can appreciate why London fell in love with the place when he first went there in 1905 and began to buy land, grow grapes and make juice, not wine, under the Jack London label.

I often feel a certain sadness when I visit the park, perhaps because London died there at such a young age. But I remember the words that Anna Strunsky, a Russian-born Jewish writer who settled in San Francisco, wrote about him right after his death, and they provide a kind of serenity. Watching him as he watched a pair of beautiful humming birds, she noted, "He was a captive of beauty—the beauty of bird and bower, of sea and sky."

Jack London State Park celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sunday, June 27, from 11am to 4pm. 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. 707.938.5216.

Jonah Raskin is the editor of 'The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution.'/

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