Jack London never felt that he got enough meat. When he was seven, he stole a piece from a girl’s basket—an incident that he called “an epitome of my whole life.” Although his mother claimed that “he didn’t go hungry in our house!” and a childhood friend recalled being served steak during a visit, London insisted that he had been deprived. “It has been hunger, nothing but hunger!” he wrote to a girlfriend at the age of twenty-two. “You cannot understand, nor never will.”
He spent his short life—he died at forty—trying to make people understand. In his writing, which ranged from realist novels to memoirs and science fiction, he became a psychologist and economist of extremity. He was particularly fascinated by the idea of freezing and starving to death. He chose settings where life is hard to sustain—the Arctic, the urban ghetto, the sea, a plague-razed future—and where heroes must defy the odds. Gold prospectors fight against winter, writers against poverty, and dogs against hungry dogs. The focus of his best prose narrows to essential need. A man lost in snow can no longer feel or move his fingers, but can he light his matches if he holds them between the heels of his hands? If an aging boxer were able to afford steak for lunch, would he have the strength to deliver a knockout punch?
There is another question, too: In the absence of money, food, heat, or other necessities, can there be love? The hero of London’s best-seller “The Call of the Wild” (1903), who happens to be a dog, does find love, and he expresses it by closing his mouth around one of his master’s hands “so fiercely that the flesh bore the impress of his teeth for some time afterwards.” The master recognizes “this feigned bite for a caress,” but, in London’s short story “Love of Life” (1905), a similar bite has a darker meaning. A famished man and a sick wolf lie down together, exhausted, after days of mutual stalking. As the man drifts in and out of consciousness, he feels the wolf lick his hand: “The fangs pressed softly; the pressure increased; the wolf was exerting its last strength in an effort to sink teeth in the food for which it had waited so long.”
There are hints in London’s writing, however, that love is more likely to flourish amid need. “The very poor can always be depended upon,” he wrote. “They never turn away the hungry.” He was an avowed socialist for most of his life, an allegiance that he struggled to reconcile with his belief that the survival of the fittest shaped human affairs. As Earle Labor relates in his lively and authoritative biography “Jack London: An American Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), London’s writing returned again and again to the poverty from which his success as a writer freed him. One of his characters, a right-wing sociology professor, adopts a working-class alias in order to do fieldwork, only to discover that the alias, who brawls and drinks, is so much looser, warmer, and sexually richer that he abandons himself to the identity forever.
The schism in London himself wasn’t as crude. It played out over time. He began as a manual laborer and became a landowner and celebrity who lived by his wits. He was a natural who became an artist. Here are the plots of his four best novels, in the order in which he wrote them: a tame dog turns wild; an acclaimed writer becomes a sailor; a wild dog is tamed; a sailor becomes an acclaimed writer. His true self, the variations suggest, was to be found in the transitions.
London was born in 1876, into crisis. His mother was a San Francisco seamstress, piano teacher, and medium, who uttered war whoops when possessed by her spirit control, an Indian chief named Plume. When she told the man she was living with, an astrologer, that she was pregnant, he denied that the child was his. She tried suicide, first by overdose and then by pistol, or at any rate she told the San Francisco Chronicle that she did. The astrologer left town.
The infant Jack was given for nursing to a former slave, Daphne Virginia Prentiss, known as Jennie, who became his lifelong friend. His mother married an acquaintance of the Prentisses named John London, a carpenter and a Civil War veteran, who provided a new surname. As a boy, Jack London had no toys to play with. He was eight before he had a store-bought item of clothing (an undershirt, which he cherished). But Jennie and one of his stepsisters cared for him, and his salvation was the Oakland Free Library, where, in order to multiply the number of books he could check out, he signed up everyone in his family for library cards. He didn’t use a toothbrush until he was nineteen.
His mother and the man he thought was his father failed at running a grocery store, failed at raising chickens, and failed at keeping a boarding house. At the age of ten, Jack was put to work delivering newspapers and setting up pins in a bowling alley, and at fourteen he joined the assembly line of a cannery in West Oakland, handing his wages over to his parents. “I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked the hours I worked,” he later wrote. Rebelling, he turned to stealing oysters, which fetched high prices because a monopoly controlled the private oyster beds of San Francisco Bay. To purchase a sloop, he borrowed three hundred dollars from Jennie, who had a steady salary as a nurse. “What she had was mine,” he wrote, recalling her generosity.
The fifteen-year-old London sailed, stole, fought, and drank. “I knew that I was at last a man,” he wrote in “John Barleycorn,” his 1913 memoir of alcoholism, a condition whose early stages he traced to this period. Ashamed of the frugality that poverty had drilled into him, he took to buying rounds for fellow “oyster pirates” as freely as they did for him. “I was deciding between money and men, between niggardliness and romance.” For the rest of his life, even though he became, by Labor’s estimate, “the highest-paid author in America,” he had trouble spending within his means.
After a few months, he abruptly switched sides, joining the marine police. They drank as heavily as the pirates did, and one night, while intoxicated, London stumbled overboard. The water was fine; the prospect of drowning struck him as romantic. “I wept tears of sweet sadness over my glorious youth going out with the tide,” he recalled. Shedding his clothes, he swam and let himself drift out to sea until, four hours later, cold, tired, sober, and afraid, he realized that he did want to live after all. A Greek fisherman rescued him.
What he was going to live for, however, was not clear. In “Martin Eden” (1908), London’s most autobiographical novel, vocation alights on the sailor hero in the South Seas, where—with a grammar, a dictionary, and a set of Shakespeare—he has been training himself to be worthy of a girl he fell for back in San Francisco: “In splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write!” In real life, London arrived by a zigzag of gruelling labor, near-criminal idleness, and desperate efforts at self-education. He went hoboing. He sailed to Japan and back on a ship that hunted seals. He took a job in a jute mill for ten cents an hour. He wrote an essay about a typhoon in the Pacific which won a prize from a San Francisco newspaper. He shovelled coal for the electric company, exhausting himself and damaging his wrists, and was outraged to discover that he had been hired to do the work of two men. He concluded that “manual labour was undignified, and that it didn’t pay,” and went hoboing again. He joined a labor protest, from which he stole some of the donations offered by sympathetic locals. In June, 1894, at the age of eighteen, he was arrested for vagrancy outside the town of Niagara Falls and sentenced to thirty days in prison.
He survived because, he wrote, “I am a fluid sort of an organism, with sufficient kinship with life to fit myself in ’most anywhere.” On the train to the penitentiary, still in handcuffs, he split his tobacco with a muscle-bound con in his late thirties, who took London under his wing. He smuggled London’s possessions past the guards, saw to it that he was spared hard labor, and cut him in on a racket that embezzled prisoners’ bread and sold it back to them. “Certainly there should be some reward for initiative and enterprise,” London deadpanned.
London wrote that he witnessed “unprintable” and even “unthinkable” things while in prison. Were any of them sexual? How platonic, for that matter, were his friendships with other sailors, pirates, and hoboes? Labor is noticeably less interested in the question than earlier biographers have been, but the historian George Chauncey has classified sailors, prisoners, and hoboes at the turn of the twentieth century as belonging to a distinctive “erotic system” of underground homosexuality, and London seems to have been aware of it. He dedicated “The Road” (1907), his memoir of this time, to Josiah Flynt, the author of the essay “Homosexuality Among Tramps.” “Every tenth man practices it,” Flynt wrote. A young hobo who offered his sexual favors was known as a “prushun,” a “kid,” or a “lamb”; an older hobo who took advantage was a “wolf” or a “jocker.” Though London was called Sailor Kid and ’Frisco Kid when he first started riding the rails, he insisted that “I was never a prushun, for I did not take kindly to possession”; in 1911, when a bisexual sent him a hint-filled letter, London replied that he was “prosaically normal.” Still, he had an eye for male beauty (“I have never seen one who stripped to better advantage,” he wrote of an illiterate coal shoveller whose bunk he shared in England), and he is reported to have said that sex between men isolated from women is “a perfectly natural result of a natural cause.”
At the age of nineteen, he began high school, taking a janitorial job in the school at the same time. In a burst of reading, he realized that he was a socialist. “Awake!” he wrote, for the high-school paper. “Seize the reins of a corrupted government and educate your masses!” The San Francisco Examiner printed a speech of his, the San Francisco Chronicle profiled him as a “boy socialist,” and he joined the Party. Later, he even wrote a science-fiction novel, “The Iron Heel,” about socialists who overthrow a plutocracy, which they define as the wealthiest 0.9 per cent of America’s population.
London crammed years of high school into months, in part by limiting sleep to five hours a night. In the fall of 1896, he enrolled as a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley. A classmate recalled that a boxer on the varsity team was appalled by London’s street-fighting ways. Money was tight, and he withdrew during his second semester. For a few weeks, he wrote poems, political essays, and fiction for as many as fifteen hours a day, as if on a self-imposed factory schedule. He then took a job in a school laundry, where, as the hero of “Martin Eden” says of a similar job, “all that was god-like in him was blotted out.” [cartoon id="a17128"]
It was his last stint of conventional employment. In July, 1897, news spread that gold had been discovered in the Klondike, a region in northwestern Canada. Prospecting was finders keepers, like oyster piracy—but legal. It involved a long, dangerous journey with rough men, like hoboing—but with a chance of fabulous wealth. Luckily for London, gold fever struck not only him but also his stepsister’s sixty-year-old husband, who purchased ship fare, clothes, and equipment for both men. To prevent foolhardy prospectors from starving, the Mounties were refusing to let travellers cross the border unless they had a year’s supply of food, and the brother-in-law was also willing to pay for their “grubstakes.” London contributed reading matter, including Milton and Darwin, for the cabin-bound winter.
“I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” London declared. He netted just four dollars and fifty cents’ worth of gold dust, but he also brought back the raw material for a fictional world. Returning to California in the summer of 1898, London now read and wrote for nearly nineteen hours a day. He made a study of literary form, from Shakespeare to newspaper fiction, though in the end it was his experience of panhandling as a hobo that determined his style. “Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub,” he wrote. In a ledger, he recorded where he sent his stories and essays, as well as the copious rejections. By the next year, he had sold a Klondike story for five dollars and a tale about a mad scientist for forty. Six months later, The Atlantic bought a story, and he was off.
In the Klondike, as London reimagined it, nature and capitalism keep strict accounts. Prospectors measure out the days of life remaining to them in cups of flour; an Indian reckons his dwindling hours by the number of sticks he has left to burn; “shirks and chronic grumblers” are punished by being left to one another’s company, which dooms them. The injuries that life inflicted on London had left him with contrary urges: he wanted political justice, in the name of all underdogs, but he also admired the invulnerability of overpowering strength. This sometimes led him to idealizations of brute force and fantasies about race that make a modern reader wince. He was drawn to the writings of Herbert Spencer, whose theory of social Darwinism maintained that capitalism was cruel in the same way that nature was. By telling stories about animals and near-bestial men struggling for survival in a brutal environment, London made a new range of cruelties and sorrows available to fiction.
The economics of nature and capitalism in London’s Klondike don’t always align. After all, prospectors hunted for the medium of exchange (gold) often at the expense of something for which there is no substitute (food). In one of his stories, an entrepreneur sees that eggs are selling for fifteen cents a dozen in San Francisco and a dollar-fifty apiece in the Klondike and attempts arbitrage; nature sabotages his scheme, and takes two of his toes. London hints that property needn’t, and maybe even shouldn’t, be respected. When Buck, the canine hero of “The Call of the Wild,” steals bacon, the narrator comments that the theft shows him as “fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment.”
The prose of some novelists takes on erotic intensity in passages of romance; the prose of others, during moments of self-discovery. In London’s case, that kind of intensity comes with descriptions of hardship, labor, and survival. In the opening chapters of “White Fang,” two men ferrying the corpse of a third through the Klondike are shadowed by wolves, which are reminiscent of “children gathered about a spread table and awaiting permission to begin to eat.” After one of the men falls, the survivor becomes fascinated by the “cunning delicacy” of his own fingers—by the subtlety of the mechanism that, for the wolves, would be merely so much protein. It’s an ingenious and suspenseful psychological touch, but a few chapters later London insinuates the reader just as deftly into the mind of a predator. When White Fang, who is part puppy and part wolf cub, crouches in the mouth of the cave where he was born and faces the unknown beyond it, he snarls. “Out of his puniness and fright he challenged and menaced the whole wide world.” White Fang soon learns “the law of meat”: “Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten.” London’s genius is to make such generalities vivid and sensuous. It’s the excitement of blood, as well as its savor, that London conveys when, for the first time, White Fang eats a ptarmigan chick: “There was a crunching of fragile bones, and warm blood ran in his mouth. The taste of it was good.”
London’s ability to describe nature richly but plainly foreshadows Hemingway. He is at his best in the dog novels “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” perhaps because an animal’s survival is more elemental, perhaps because a dog’s love of the master he works for is free of the embarrassment of gender. But some of London’s work manages to bring the life-or-death stakes of the animal world to human affairs, such as “To Build a Fire,” the story of a man trying to stave off death by freezing. In “Love of Life,” a starving man enjoys a meal like White Fang’s, and with similar gusto: “There were four newly hatched chicks, a day old—little specks of pulsating life no more than a mouthful; and he ate them ravenously, thrusting them alive into his mouth and crunching them like eggshells between his teeth.” Even “Martin Eden,” which takes place in the relatively civilized setting of San Francisco, vibrates with animal spirits. When the sailor Martin Eden first sees an oil painting, he dismisses it as a “trick picture,” because the image seems to dissolve when he moves close enough to see the brushstrokes; there is an echo of White Fang’s puppy snarl at the unfamiliar.
Though nature may undermine capitalism in the Klondike tales, it doesn’t quite overthrow it. White Fang learns “to obey the strong and to oppress the weak”—hardly an ideal of socialism—and, while Buck does join a wolf pack by the end of the book, he also learns how to acclimate himself to work. “A dog could break its heart through being denied the work that killed it,” Buck comes to realize. The paradox, as the critic Jonathan Auerbach has suggested, may represent London’s experience of his vocation. When he left manual labor behind to become a writer, he went wild, in the sense that he began to live by an expression of the impulses inside him—a sense that colors his description of Buck’s chase of a snowshoe rabbit: “This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame.” But London also developed a fondness for the harness. He imposed a relentless work schedule on himself, and often seemed more concerned with the quantity than with the quality of the writing he produced.
With success came romantic opportunities. In the fall of 1899, London went steady with Elizabeth May Maddern, the fiancée of a late friend, but he was soon bicycling to the house of a Russian-born Stanford student and socialist named Anna Strunsky. “It was as if I were meeting in their youth La Salle, Karl Marx, or Byron,” Strunsky recalled. In the spring of 1900, London intended to propose to Strunsky, but, mysteriously, he proposed instead to the less exciting Maddern, who bore him two daughters. Days before the wedding, he received an invitation to meet Charmian Kittredge—a free-spirited typist who became his mistress a few years later and, eventually, his second wife.
Further complicating the ménage was a bohemian poet named George Sterling, whom London met in the spring of 1901. Sterling introduced London to hashish, and London introduced him to brothels. In the idiom of their friendship, Sterling went by the name Greek, perhaps on account of his classic profile, and London was Wolf. The two boxed, wrestled, and swam together, and one of London’s daughters later wrote that she suspected “latent homosexuality.” Labor doesn’t mention such speculation, though he acknowledges that London used the word “love.” “I speculate & speculate, trying to make you out, trying to lay hands on the inner side of you,” London wrote to Sterling in 1903. Two years later, the bromance had cooled—“The dream was too bright to last,” London commented—though they remained friends.
London suffered in these years a depression so severe that he took the precaution of giving away his revolver. Perhaps he was upset by his romantic misfortunes: his fumbling of his love for Strunsky, and the necessity of going through a divorce in order to secure Charmian. Or perhaps he was unbalanced by success. In “Martin Eden,” the delay between the act of writing and the reward of social recognition brings alienation, and Martin Eden the person becomes fixated on the idea that “Martin Eden, the famous writer, did not exist.” There may have been a physical component as well, Labor writes—an ailment that London worried “might be cancer or venereal disease.” London’s own explanation was that he “had read too much positive science.” He knew too much about “the merciless and infinite waste of natural selection.” If, at root, everything is biology, are altruism and sympathy merely signs of weakness?
In 1905, London relinquished city life, moving with Charmian to the countryside north of San Francisco. Though they had some good times together, something went badly wrong with the last decade of London’s life. He wrote steadily and earned prodigiously—by 1913, he was making more than ten thousand dollars a month, nearly a quarter of a million in today’s money—but he spent at an even higher rate. A custom-made boat, the Snark, cost more than five times its estimate, and, even so, it leaked. Jack and Charmian intended to sail around the world, but by the time they reached Australia Jack was suffering from a cold, two rectal fistulas, diarrhea, malaria, yaws, and a mysterious illness that swelled his hands and monstrously thickened his fingernails and toenails. They gave up. London also poured money into a ranch in Sonoma County, never profitable in his lifetime, and a mansion, which burned down before it was completed.
And he drank, no doubt a factor in his poor financial judgment. “The uncertainty of the alcohol future depresses me unspeakably,” Charmian wrote in her diary in 1912. Jack in his cups was capable of berating her for not giving him a child. (She had a daughter who died soon after birth and a second pregnancy, which miscarried.) He told one of his daughters that “if I were dying I should not care to have you at my bedside”; she was then thirteen. Even Sterling found him “violent and irritable and unreasonable.”
In his last years, London suffered from gout, pyorrhea, and kidney disease, and, heedless of his doctor’s warnings against a high-protein diet, insisted on meals of raw fish and near-raw duck. “Don’t forget I’m naturally a meat-eater!” he told Charmian when she remonstrated. A doctor prescribed opiates on account of the pain he suffered from kidney stones, and in November, 1916, he slipped into a coma and died. His last words—said to Charmian the night before—were “Thank God you’re not afraid of anything!” The death certificate blamed uremia, and Labor dismisses earlier biographers’ speculations of suicide, which he sees as an attempt to “sensationalize.” He draws on reviews of the medical evidence by a doctor and a pharmacist. Neither account rules out an accidental overdose of opiates, however, so there’s no medical ground for ruling out an intentional overdose, either.
In one of his last and creepiest stories, “The Red One,” London imagines that an enormous, bright-red metal sphere, a missive from extraterrestrial intelligences, has fallen in the Solomon Islands. Although the natives consider the sphere too holy for outsiders, a scientist sneaks a glimpse. He falls too ill with fever to return to it, though, and, as he languishes in a medicine man’s hut, he wonders what the aliens were trying to say. “Had they won Brotherhood? Or had they learned that the law of love imposed the penalty of weakness and decay? Was strife, life? Was the rule of all the universe the pitiless rule of natural selection?” He realizes with regret—or is it relief?—that he’s going to die without knowing the answer. ♦
Jack London - Berkeley Digital Library
Jack London State Historic Park
Jack London was a prolific writer; over the period from 1899 until his death in 1916, he wrote 50 books and over 1,000 articles. Though he was made most famous by his stories of the Klondike, he wrote on subjects ranging from boxing to romance, from survival in the Arctic to labour strife in Australia. He led a harsh, erratic life; born illegitimate, raised as a poor "work beast", constantly questing after every adventure and all the knowledge the world might offer, he died young as a result. The fact that his gift for writing was ever realized came to be used as an example of "The American Dream"; London rose
out of the lower depths of American society, out of the social and economic abyss where art, thought and rebellion are all but unknown, where the primal struggle for survival absorbed the energy, ambition and creativity that produced art and speculative thought in the more favoured classes (Powers, 1975, vii)London's rough view of the world changed dramatically as he studied the works of Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Jung, and uncounted others; by carefully sorting through his works, it is possible to trace his emotional and literary development through the characters in his stories and the way they react with their environment.
Sorting through London's stories and articles to find the philosophical roots is a daunting task, but the vitality and variety of his narratives ensures that the search is never boring; Howard Lachtman describes London as "...a born teller of tales who wrote as he lived - in a hurry. The writer, like the man, was a creature of force and eloquence, pulsing with enthusiasm or indignation."
Jack London dropped out of school at the age of fourteen, and worked at a series of low-paying sweatshop jobs until he was sixteen, when his adventures began. London's exploits during the years 1892 and 1893 are part of the London legend: oyster pirate, fisheries patrolman, seal hunter in the North Pacific, rail-riding hobo, and hard-drinking dockhand. In 1894, during America's worst depression until that time, he traveled across the United States and Canada on the rails; the impact of that journey, "during which he saw the pains and disorders of American society in one of its most disturbing crises, cannot be underestimated. [He saw] for the first time that society was badly put together" (Walker,1978: 31). In April 1896, he joined the Socialist Labour Party, and very soon became a regular speaker for them.
By the spring of 1897, London had decided that society would not drag him down and force him to spend his life slaving as a "work beast"; he would become a writer. He later said of that period: "never was there a creative fever such as mine from which the patient escaped fatal results." He wrote fifteen hours a day, composing everything from "ponderous essays and ... short stories... to elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas" (Walker,1978: 40).
In July 1897, only twelve days after the Excelsior landed with the first word from the gold-laden Klondike, he and his brother-in-law joined the mad exodus to "the frozen North"; he was about to find his literary niche.
Jack London had a talent for rapid, intimate perception of his physical surroundings. The scenes in his stories of the Klondike were developed from what he saw and heard during his one winter at Split-Up Island, at the mouth of the Stewart River. His story plots came from rumours, bar-room tales, newspaper clippings, story plots purchased from other writers, and self-admitted "modification" of other writers' works, including those of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad (Calder-Marshall,1966). In London's stories, the Klondike became "not only a real country, but a territory of the mind" (Lachtman,1984: 13), in which his characters lived or died because of what they had inside them; in this, London was "a saga writer to a nation of emotional frontiersmen, who had reached the Pacific Ocean, only to find unemployment as acute there as further east" (Calder-Marshall,1966: 9).
It is often said that London's characters lack depth (ie Powers,1975), but that seems an unfair criticism. While it is true that much of his "hack-work" suffers from superficial character development, his best work reaches deeply into his characters' hearts, sometimes in the form of anthropomorphism, as with Buck, the dog-hero in The Call of the Wild. The allegoric use of Buck to represent the struggle of all working-class people to maintain their dignity is often commented on.
Although Jack London was famous as an action-writer, he was a master at describing the physical sensations of slow death. His descriptions in The White Silence are vivid enough to put a shiver down the spine of anyone who has traveled through the Northern wilderness in the depths of winter:
Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity - the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven's artillery - but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot's life, nothing more.
Death is a common theme in London's work; Arthur Calder-Marshall (1966: 17) states that London "was always very much in love with death," and his descriptions make it obvious that he spent a great deal of time thinking about the subtleties and progressions of various ways of dying. He had some degree of first-hand knowledge of the matter from an early age, having barely survived drowning after attempting suicide by swimming to exhaustion in San Francisco Bay while drunk at the age of sixteen (Sinclair,1977: 12). Most of the action in To Build A Fire concerns itself with the slow process of freezing to death at 75 degrees below zero. Interestingly, London never gives his protagonist in that story a name, and Walker (1978: 257) suggests that that anonymity may have been intended to personalize for all readers the starkness of the struggle with nature." In The Call of the Wild, the death-cry of the rabbit that Spitz kills is reverently described as "the cry of Life plunging down from Life's apex in the grip of Death."
London particularly enjoyed killing off incompetents such as Percy Cuthfert in In a Far Country, who "mistook ... an abnormal development of sentimentality ... for the true spirit of romance and adventure." Franklin Walker suggests that the basic plot of the story was borrowed from Joseph Conrad's An Outpost of Progress, with Northern twists. The idea for the story actually came from an incident during London's Klondike winter, during which he used his partner's axe to cut ice; the ensuing argument forced Jack to move out into a neighbouring cabin. In the In a Far Country version, two men, complete opposites in breeding and personality, are trapped in a remote cabin for the winter, and end up killing each other, succumbing to "The Fear of the North":
This fear was the joint child of the Great Cold and the Great Silence, and was born in the darkness of December, when the sun dipped below the horizon for good. ...[Cuthfert] allowed his soul to become saturated with the Fear. He dwelt upon the unseen and the unknown till the burden of eternity appeared to be crushing him. ...This was the Universe, dead and cold and dark, and he its only citizen. ...the Fear of the North laid icy fingers on his heart."
Jack London has often been classed as a racist, but he was a man of complex reasoning, with many contradictions, and atypical outbursts during his frequent sicknesses; to classify him as a racist is much too simplistic a label. As a child, his mother taught him to believe that he was better than the Chinese, the Italians, the Irish, and the other immigrants who were taking away jobs from Americans of good Anglo-Saxon breeding. In his youth, he clearly believed in the inferiority of non-whites, and particularly of those people who were of mixed blood. He definitely did not believe, however, that all Anglo-Saxons were inherently noble creatures; he often portrayed whites as heartless aggressors both against the "weaker races", and against the weaker members of their own race. To emphasize that point, Andrew Sinclair (1977: 89) describesLondon's pessimistic viewpoint on Anglo-Saxon civilization following seven weeks researching in the slums of East London for The People of the Abyss at the height of his socialist period, in the summer of 1902:
To him, the London Abyss was another Social Pit. The inefficient were weeded out and flung downwards. The efficient emigrated, taking the best qualities of the stock with them. The British race was enfeebling itself into two classes, a master race and a ghetto race. A short and stunted race was being created - a breed strikingly different than their rulers. ...If this was the best that civilization could do, then savagery was preferable. 'Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss'.Returning from England, London stated that if he were God for one hour, he would "blot out all London and its 6,000,000 people, as Sodom and Gomorrah were blotted out" (Kingman,1979: 115).
One of the philosophers read by London was Friedrich Nietzsche, and London was often ctriticized, by early critics for the most part, for promoting Nietzsche's "superman" ideal. This seems to arise as a result of attaching "cultural baggage" to a poor translation of Nietzsche's Ubermensch; "overman" was the term he used to describe a person who has "organized the chaos of his passions, given style to his character, and become creative"; in short, a person who has developed "a unique supernatural dignity" (Edwards,1967: 511). London seemed to ignore those criticisms, for no clarification of the philosophy was published.
In stories such as those in Tales of the Fish Patrol, published in 1905, racist attitudes against Greeks and Chinese are particularly blatant. However, much of London's work was written strictly to pay the bills, and he wrote exactly what he though the public of the day wanted. Those racist attitudes were the norm of the day:
Anglo-Saxon superiority was a basic assumption not just of the popular audience - some of the most sophisticated thinkers in America identified American cultural traits with the racial characteristics of Anglo-Saxons (Powers,1975: xv)As London absorbed the Social Darwinist theories of Herbert Spencer, and modified them from his own experiences, stories such as The League of Old Men (1902), Negore the Coward (1907), and On the Makaloa Mat (1919) stand out in showing a much different racial and social philosophy forming in London's mind.
The League of Old Men is one of the four pieces "which are essential to the London vision of the North-west," according to Calder-Marshall, and London often said that it was his personal favourite. In it, London gives a sensitive description of the white man's destruction of the lives of the Indians of the Yukon as related by Imber, an Elder of the fictional Whitefish tribe. A technique which London uses often in his stories appears here; when speaking to whites, the Indians use broken English, but between themselves, flowery Victorian English is used to portray their dignity. Imber's tribe has been virtually wiped out by diseases brought in, and by the young people of the tribe being lured away by the wonders of the whites' world; even their wolf-dogs have been ruined by breeding with the whites' dogs:
...the white men come as the breath of death; all their ways lead to death, their nostrils are filled with it; and yet they do not die. Theirs, the whiskey and tobacco and short-haired dogs; theirs the many sicknesses, the smallpox and measles, the coughing and mouth-bleeding; theirs the white skin, and softness to the frost and storm. ...And yet they grow fat on their many ills, and prosper, and lay a heavy hand over all the world and tread mightily upon its peoples.
Imber and the other old men of the League have killed many white people in an attempt to stem the tide of cheechakos. Now all the other Elders have died or been killed, and, sitting by the busy main street of Dawson, Imber realizes that he has failed. He turns himself in to the police, to face the white man's justice; during the trial, a member of the Whitefish tribe who has been educated at a church-run school interprets for Imber. The result of the trial is "a forgone conclusion. ...It has been the custom of the land-robbing and sea-robbing Anglo-Saxon to give the law to conquered peoples, and ofttimes this law is harsh."
During 1904 and 1905, Jack London's work took on an extremely pessimistic, morbid note, particularly in The Game, All Gold Canyon, and The Minions of Midas. At the time, London was going through what he termed "the long sickness," his personal reassessment centred around the impending end of a very unhappy marriage. The "sickness" was compounded by a difficult relationship with poet George Sterling that included a strong physical attraction, and the start of London's physical collapse during a trip to Korea to cover the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.
The Game introduced a new minor genre to the American literary scene - the boxing story (Sinclair,1977). In this tale, two "working-class aristocrats," Joe, a very successful boxer, and his fiancee Genevieve, are due to be married as soon as he wins one more fight. She attends the fight in disguise, and sees Joe die in the ring. London was very vain about the beauty of the Anglo-Saxon male's body, even taking pictures of George Sterling on the beach in the nude; his description of Joe, with his "deep smooth chest" and "muscles under their satin sheaths - crypts of energy wherein lurked the chemistry of destruction" has been said by some critics to be a sign of at least latent homosexuality.
In The Mexican, which Sinclair called London's "masterpiece of the genre," a poor Mexican boy wins a fight against the cheating gringo hero in order to buy guns for the Mexican revolution. Although he hates fighting the "hated game of the hated gringo," his only focus is to avenge the murders of his parents by the federales during a strike, and he has a natural talent for the game. The money is easy, and "not first among the sons of men had he been to find himself successful at a despised vocation." This sympathy for the Mexican youth and the justification for the Revolution is in stark contrast to London's seven articles on the actual Revolution in 1914, when he was sent to Vera Cruz as correspondent for Colliers magazine:
His racism grew rampant. He explained that the confusion of the Mexican revolution was due to the childish and predatory games of the "breeds," the one-fifth of the mestizo population which was neither Spanish or Indian. "Like the Eurasians, they possess all the vices of their various commingled bloods and none of the virtues" (in Sinclair,1977: 202).London was drinking heavily while in Mexico,and caught amoebic dysenetry, complicated by pluerisy, nearly dying while in a Vera Cruz hospital.
In June 1905, the Londons bought the first piece of what would, by 1914, be a 1,439-acre ranch in the Valley of the Moon. The ranch became the anchor of his life, and his passion. He became noed for his prize stock, state-of-the-art barns, soil reclamation projects and water conservation measures. As always, Jack London did nothing half-way; "he was always excessive, if not ecstatic, about what he believed at the moment" (Sinclair,1977: 163). On August 23, 1913, the fabulous home, "Wolf House," that was being built on the ranch, mysteriously burned; arson was suspected, but recent studies indicate that spontaneous combustion caused the fire.
London's new-found awareness of the fragile beauty of nature is shown in All Gold Canyon; in this story, the destructive power and callousness of men searching for gold is portrayed. The story begins with a lengthy description of the beauty of a tiny pocket canyon in the Sierras, off the main desert valley; in this pocket, "the air was sharp and thin. It was as starlight transmuted into atmosphere, shot through and warmed by sunshine, and flower-drenched with sweetness." An old prospector appears, shattering the peace, and soon the slow progress of his digging for gold "was like that of a slug, befouling beauty with a monstrous trail." The obligatory gunfight with a thief follows his discovery of a deposit of pure gold; the thief is killed and dumped in the pit, while the old prospector goes on his way, loaded down with gold.
The Minions of Midas possibly best portrays London's sense of frustration and cultural isolation, never quite accepted by "proper" society, and indeed never really sure if he wanted to be accepted. In this futuristic story, the capitalist class is made to pay for thier oppression of the working class. The Minions of Midas, "the nightmare stereotype of the proletariat" (Powers,1975: xxi), kill innocent people without mercy or guilt in their successful blackmail campaign to ake over industry and control the means of production. The "M of M" call themselves "the successful failures of the age," and state that they "turn upon the society which has created them." Some businessmen initially refuse to be blackmailed, even as the assassinations progress, professing to beleve that "it was manifestly just that a few should be martyred for the ultimate welfare of the many" (in Horowitz,1980: 56). Their guilt, however, eventually drives even those men to suicide.
Surely the most surreal of London's stories is The Red One; it presents a mixture of science, philosophy, and anthropology, written with a strong sense of irony, and tinged with a strange vein of black humour. Barrett, a scientist in search of a certain jungle butterfly on Guadalcanal, gets attacked by cannibals, but survives because a particularly ugly woman of the tribe lays claim to him. In the heart of the island, the Red One, a huge metallic sphere, possibly some kind of message from outer space, is worshipped as a god. Hundreds of men, women and children are regularly sacrificed to the Red One. Barrett develops malaria and black-water fever, and just before he dies, offers to let the shaman have his head for drying if he can see the Red One, and hear the incredible noise it makes when struck with a log set up for that purpose. Just as the tomahawk is about to sever his head,
'...it seemed that he gazed upon the serene face of the Medusa, Truth.' Yet what the truth was, the story does not tell - only that, in the total dichotomy between the hallucinatory message from the stars and the utter savagery of men, the boundaries of Jack's split personality lay. At last, he had the courage and awareness to decalre himself, as he prepared for his own death (Powers,1975: 231).
The stories contained in the collection On the Makaloa Mat, which London wrote in the last few months of his life, as he was slowly dying of uremia, are generally considered to be some of his most mature short stories:
[London's] recognition of his dependence on Charmian and Eliza and Joan [his wife, sister, and daughter], his laying to rest of his father's rejection of him, his Jungian discovery that his nightmares might be the good myths of his unconscious, all helped Jack write some of his better short stories... He no longer identified himself with the young Anglo-Saxon heroes braving the frozen wastes and bullying the lesser breeds... (Sinclair,1977: 229).
During London's last trip to Hawaii, in 1915, he came to love the Hawaiian people, and this comes across clearly in the short story "On the Makaloa Mat." In this, his fullest development of a female character and one of the most romantically moving of is tales, two aged sisters, descended from the Hawaiian royal family, are sitting on the lawn of one of their many estates. Bella, the younger of the two, tells her sister about a two-week affair she had almost fifty years previously with the heir to the throne; at the time she was married to a haole (white man) who was determined to get very rich by investing in land, and by denying himself and Bella every pleasure:
... that house of his, of ours, at Nahala, was gray. All the color of it was gray and cool and chill while I was bright with all colors of sun and earth and blood and birth. It was very cold, gray cold, with that cold gray husband of mine at Nahala. ...You know he was gray, Martha. Gray like those portraits of Emerson we used to see at school. HIs skin was gray. Sun and weather and all hours in the saddle could never tan it. And he was as gray inside as out.Bella had married George because her uncle had told her that George would be "the ruler of Hawaii. It is written it the books. It is ever so where the haole conflicts with the easier races." Too late, she realized her mistake; when the charming, flambouyant Prince came along, she was swept away by excitement and by love: "I was like a survivor from the open boat falling down on the sand and lapping the fresh, bubbling springs at the roots of the palms." Two weeks later, the Prince left, ripping up the lei that Bella made for him, and mouthing the word "Pau" ["finish"]; she went back to George, who died two years later, leaving her very wealthy. As Bella was telling her story, her new car arrived:
'But oh, all the Pierce-Arrows and all the incomes in the world compared with a lover - the one lover, the one mate, to be married to, to toil beside and suffer and joy beside, the one male man lover husband -' Her voice trailed off...
London's love of the Hawaiians was returned in kind; upon his death, a statement from the Royal Family said, "By the point of his pen his genius conquered all prejudice and gave out to the world at large true facts concerning the Hawaiian people..." (quoted in Kingman,1979: 270)
Through Jack London, millions of people around the world have experienced the outer edges of the world, the innermsot core of the working-class world, and the complex struggles to survive in either place. Literary critic Alfred Kazin once said that "the greatest story London ever told was the story he lived." On November 22, 1916, that life came to an end.
Jack London was an extremely complex man, and biographers use widely-varying terms to describe him. Although the London name is now a marketing tool for everything from shopping malls to tour companies, controversy still surrounds even his suitability as a commercial tool. In Whitehorse in 1996, the two main access routes into the city from the Alaska Highway were named to honour Robert Service and Jack London. But the "racist" label was successfully attached to London, however - the signs were removed, and the road is again just called "Two-Mile Hill."
© 1998-2013 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author. It may be cited (in APA style) as:
Lundberg, Murray (April 1998). The Life of Jack London as Reflected in his Works. ExploreNorth. Retrieved from http://www.explorenorth.com/library/yafeatures/jack_london.html