Jack London is one of the most celebrated figures in American literature. His many novels and short stories, including “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” captured the realism of survival, and his larger-than-life personality came through in a lot of his work.
Throughout his 40 years, London lived in several places throughout the Bay Area, including San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, whose Jack London Square is named for the author. He also briefly lived in Benicia, and the city will be honoring him with a special event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death.
As part of its Capitol Neighbors Speaker Series, The Benicia State Parks Association will be presenting “Jack London in Benicia,” focusing on the author’s short time in the city in 1892. Around this time, the 16-year-old London had become an oyster pirate and purchased a boat called Razzle Dazzle.
“He had a boat that he had docked down where the palm trees are now across from the Depot,” Donnell Rubay, Jack London scholar and event organizer, said. “Later he was a member of the Fish Patrol, which captured oyster pirates.”
Benicia figured prominently in London’s works. In “John Barleycorn,” the author’s autobiographical novel about his struggles with alcoholism, he wrote "I now made the old town of Benicia, on the Carquinez Straits, my headquarters. In a cluster of fishermen's arks, moored in the tules on the water-front, dwelt a congenial crowd of drinkers and vagabonds, and I joined them.”
London also used the city as the basis for his short story collection “Tales from the Fish Patrol,” where the Carquinez Straits are mentioned by name at the beginning of the story “Charley’s Coup.”
“He was a very colorful and interesting person, and Benicia during that time was a pretty exciting place,” Mike Caplin, the publicity director for Benicia State Parks Association, said. “The fit was a good one.”
London’s time in Benicia is celebrated on signs and markers throughout the town, although Caplin says events centered around the writer have been very minimal.
“The city is well aware of his ties to Benicia,” he said. “But they should really do a lot more, and that’s why I think that this is gonna be hopefully the first of more to come.”
The idea to do an event centered around London came from Rubay, who has studied his life, and featured the author as part of the plot of her 2011 novel “Emma and the Oyster Pirate.”
“The thing about Jack London that is so dynamic for me is that he had this great over-the-top personality,” she said. “When you read his writing, you just marvel at the fact that this was a man who was almost completely self-taught. He had very little formal education. He spent most of his childhood working in factories, but he would read. He would get books from libraries and read them.”
The event will feature three speakers. The keynote speaker will be Lou Leal, the historian at the Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, where the author had lived in his later years until his death. The presentation will focus on London’s time in Benicia.
Also presenting will be former Benicia poet laureate Joel Fallon who will talk about the author’s political writings. The event will close with local poet, handyman and Herald columnist Peter Bray portraying London and providing a perspective on what the legendary writer would think of today’s society.
Bray was very active in promoting the restoration of the Jurgensen Old Corner Saloon where London used to hang out when it was located by the Southern Pacific Railroad Depot at the end of First Street, Rubay said.
“Peter was big on saving the building when it was down by the railroad station when it was only one floor, and it looked like a wreck,” she said.
The building was eventually moved to the corner of West E and First streets where it is currently occupied by the metaphysical supply store Angel Heart 4 You.
The main goal of the event will be to promote a greater interest in London’s works.
“I’m guessing a large part of the audience will have read Jack London, but I’m also guessing that we’ll have people who perhaps have not,” Caplin said. “The aim is to have people leave wanting to go buy Jack London books.”
“Jack London in Benicia” will take place 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 31 at the Benicia State Capitol Historic Park, located at 115 West G St. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 12 to 17 and free for children under 12. Books by London will be for sale, as well as the biography “Jack London: An American Life” by Earle Labor. For more information, contact Benicia State Parks Association at 745-3670.