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An Introduction to Jack London
by Edward Lewis
In the early part of this century Jack London was upheld in the English-speaking
world as the foremost name in American literature. Though, of course, his
fame has diminished, his works are still widely available and for Britons
there is much in London’s tales and studies to entertain, educate and enlighten.
Numerous biographies of London exist and most of his novels and studies
are still available. Almost all of his published works are accompanied
by biographical introductions in which the picture painted of this fascinating
man is of the socialist, committed to a socialist egalitarian brotherhood.
They sweep London’s assertions of worldwide Anglo-Saxon patriotism conveniently
under the carpet, assuring the reader that this was merely an irritating
flaw in his psychological make-up, environmentally engineered no doubt.
The truth however is, thankfully, rather different.
Born into Poverty
Jack London’s own story is itself one of great richness. Born into desperate
poverty, he consciously made an early decision to rid himself of it. Before
the age of twenty-one he had worked a dozen or more trades, laundryman,
tramp, Klondiker and oyster pirate, to name but a few. No matter what he
turned his hand to, London seemed to be successful but he knew that for
all his physical strength, sellers of muscle had short careers. He thus
elected to be, as he described himself, ‘a seller of brains’.
Beginning his writing career, London found that his harsh exposure
to life’s realities and his self-education, enabled him to bring a fresh,
modern style to the flowery all-American literature of his day. Romance
was sacrificed for realism and his gritty no-nonsense tales were immensely
popular with the ‘common’ people. His own adventures had stood him in good
stead. It was clear his books were researched not in a dusty library but
rather in Alaskan mining towns and the heat of the South Seas. London had
‘lived’ his tales of wonder.
The American Socialist
Yet although his novels have sold millions and keep his name alive today,
there was so much more to this fascinating man. The bare facts declare
that London was a member of the radical American Socialist Labour party
for many years. He vehemently opposed the capitalist system and he quoted
Marx regularly on his worldwide lecture tours. Yet this is simply the veneer
that the ‘left’ prefer to project of London. In reality he was something
altogether different and greater.
When the excesses of the industrialists of that time and the lack of
protection for the poor are remembered, it became inevitable that London’s
keen sense of injustice would be stirred. Though his commitment to radical
socialism must be admitted, this was born of his burning sense of outrage
at the treatment meted out to America’s poor. He adopted the dogma (often
reluctantly) of the left as the only answer to the horrendous conditions
endured by America’s poorest citizens.
Equality of Opportunity
However, much of London’s ‘socialism’ is today accepted as the political
norm, or at least thought to be desirable by the bulk of society. Equality
of opportunity, rather than of wealth was London’s policy and this set
him apart from, and placed him in conflict with, many of his socialist
His great sociological works while condemning the excesses of a rampantly
exploitative capitalism, did not simply bemoan the fate of the oppressed.
Rather they applauded the efforts and enterprise of those who strove to
better themselves. It is clear from these works that London rejected the
Marxist equality myth. Indeed, through his writings, London constantly
urged his countrymen to improve their own lot rather than wait for some
promised but distant revolution to save them.
His novels are enthused with tales of great ‘individualistic’ heroism,
both human and otherwise. In ‘The Valley of the Moon’ (1909), London depicts
a courting couple who are first encountered as dirt poor, city wage slaves,
whose idea of freedom is a few stolen hours spent away from their drudgery.
But London bestows upon them the pioneer spirit of the first American
settlers. He takes his lovers out of the hell-like city and into the countryside
both to regain their heritage and promise a future for their children.
It was no accident that London timed their flight to coincide with a general
Labour strike, thus infuriating his leftist colleagues. London’s persistent
use of heroic individualistic characters was always a constant irritant
It was perhaps inevitable that such unlikely bed fellows as London and
Marx would eventually part company. The irreconcilable conflict between
the writer and his Marxist comrades was the former’s inability to reconcile
his socialism with his passionately held patriotism.
Since first he embraced the Labour movement he had never accepted its
doctrine of universal equality and multi-culturalism. It clashed totally
with his fierce pride in, and love for, his own people. London would often
state that:-"I am a white man first and only then a socialist".
Though one cannot quite imagine a politician of any description choosing
these words today, this line of thought was considered to be quite normal
in London’s times. To him and the vast majority of his contemporaries it
was taken for granted that the protection and advancement of its own nation
were the abiding principles of any Government whatever its hue. And that
is what he meant by this apparently shocking statement.
As his own party drifted further towards the position taken by our own
Labour party today, London made constant and increasingly passionate assertions
that, committed socialist though he was, he would prefer a pro Anglo Saxon
Government of any kind, to a socialist authority ridden, with the one-world
dogma that incensed him.
This thinking, so abhorrent to the left, led London to reject the notion
of the uniformity of nations and man so beloved by his comrades. Inevitably,
London would finally resign from the party that he had supported for twenty
years. His parting shot to that movement was a warning that retains much
Freedom and Independence
"My final word is that liberty, freedom and independence are royal things
that cannot be presented to nor thrust upon race and class. If races and
classes cannot rise up and by their own strength of brain and brawn, wrest
from the world liberty, freedom and independence, they never in time can
come to these royal possessions...and if such royal things are kindly presented
to them by superior individuals, on silver platters, they will not know
what to do with them, will fail to make use of them, and will be what they
have always been in the past....inferior races and classes".
This was always London’s stance though the left simply tried to ignore
this fundamental position in someone so useful to their cause. Although
proud of his own heritage, London firmly rejected the patronising attitude
towards other peoples that is so transparent within mainstream socialism.
London was a theoretical socialist. When dealing with hypothetical situations
he stood with the left. Yet in his work, when he placed his characters
in harsh surroundings, he would inoculate them with healthy doses of self
preservation and independence.
His classic dog stories 'Call of the Wild'(1903) and 'White Fang' (1906)
owe more to Londoan’s belief in peace through strength than his socialistic
tenderness. In 'The Call of the Wild', the canine hero Buck is transported
from his comfortable domestic life to the frozen, savage lands of the Yukon.
Through the sheer need for survival, Buck transforms himself from a docile
family pet into the very finest working dog in the icy north.
Through Buck, London demonstrates how changes in circumstances and the
behaviour of those around the subject necessarily elicited a comparable
change in the subject itself. Essentially a placid, peace loving animal,
he learns quickly to defend himself with the ferocity required in such
hostile surroundings. This tale alone tells us much about London’s thinking.
He yearned for a world in which men and nations could coexist with kindness
and charity. However, he understood clearly that men and nations have differing
capacities for these desirable qualities. London knew that civilisation
had to be fought for, and that once attained it was necessary to fight
for its preservation. To the horror of his pacifist comrades London supported
Britain from the outset of World War One.
Rational Men and Violent Means
"War is a silly thing for a rational, civilised man to contemplate...
but rational men cannot be expected to settle problems in a rational way
when others insist on doing it by violent means".
For all his down-to-earth common sense, London never gave up his belief
that his own people, the Anglo Saxons, were special, that they possessed
a great destiny. His belief in universal brotherhood was never strong and
crumbled along the years until he reached his final position on the matter:-
"there is a certain integrity, a sternness of conscience, a melancholy
responsibility of life, a sympathy and comradeship and warm human feeling,
which is ours, indubitably ours and which we cannot teach to the oriental
as we would teach logarithms or the trajectory of projectiles".
An Affinity for Britain
As we can see from his allegiance during World War One, London’s pride
in his heritage and love of his people produced in him a great affinity
for Britain and its population.
A visit here in 1903 produced perhaps his greatest sociological work,
the study of the appalling conditions in the East End of London, ‘The People
of the Abyss’.
This brilliant study was researched in Jack London’s usual fashion.
He acquired a suit of rags and hurled himself into the hellish world of
the city’s poorest quarter to encounter his subject first hand. What he
discovered shocked even one, who had personally endured appalling poverty.
This book was just one of a huge number of contemporary East End studies.
London’s however is by far the best, being not simply a collection of facts
and figures and a scientific analysis of these, but rather a vivid portrayal
of life and people that has the power to move even today. ‘The People of
the Abyss’ hit British sensibilities squarely on the jaw. The fact that
East End conditions were not noticeably improved at this time was due only
to the lack of political will among the nation's rulers. However, the book
did at least attune the British establishment to the idea that change was
As a visitor London journeyed to and commented on many towns and nations
around the world. What makes ‘The People of the Abyss’ so striking is that
he writes almost as if he were a native. Indeed, London considered himself
a compatriot of those he found in such suffering.
Admirer of Cecil Rhodes
In this he shared much ground with his contemporary Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes
had died shortly before London’s first big success (1902), but the author
had followed the Englishman’s career with interest and approval. Though
worlds apart in political terms, the two men shared the belief that all
policy should be formulated with their own people in mind.
They both dreamed of reuniting their respective nations in some form
of commonwealth or federation. Their models may have differed but the central
tenet was identical.
Rhodes dreamed of worldwide Anglo-Saxon unity, "under the Stars and
Stripes if necessary". London’s own Anglo-philism is well documented.
Squalor and Mismanagement
In further studies, London added to his descriptions of squalor in our
capital and proceeded to attack the mismanagement and ineffectual government
that were afflicting not just Britain but the whole western world. He railed
against capitalism’s waste of resources and people. He (again to the dismay
of fellow socialists) abhorred the policy of equipping third world nations
with manufacturing machinery. He warned of shrinking markets and predicted
the problems of western nations affected by worldwide overproduction. A
not inaccurate description of the wasteful trade agreements of today.
In perhaps his finest political novel, ‘The Iron Heel’ (1907), London
told of the struggle of the people against the increasingly dictatorial
and finally victorious powers of an oligarchy. This fictitious struggle
was waged between the years nineteen twelve and nineteen thirty two and
is always referred to by establishment commentators, as a prediction of
the rise of a world wide fascist dictatorship. It might be added that London’s
view of one world government also closely resembles either the now fallen
dream of communist world supremacy or the new world order planned by the
totalitarian ‘liberals’ of today.
Richly Earned Freedom
For us in the modern day, ‘The Iron Heel’ can be seen as a damning indictment
of any system that deprives people of freedoms so richly earned. An indictment
that can easily be applied to an age where patriotism and love of country
are so despised by established society and government.
For Jack London himself, the plight of his people, his own ‘melancholy
responsibilities’ and increasing health problems began to weigh too heavily
upon him during the winter of 1916.
He had built a huge ranch which had become his own personal ‘Valley
of the Moon’ and it was to here that he finally retreated. A drink problem
and a bad diet had ruined his once awesome physique. During a particularly
painful bout of illness, he overdosed on morphine. Many who knew London
believed it was a deliberate act.
Fresh and Pertinent
And so at the age of forty, Jack London passed into history. His work,
however, remains fresh to this day and has retained much of its pertinence.
For the patriot, whether American or British, his best novels remain
uplifting and inspiring, his studies remain educational and penetrative.
Though much of London’s philosophy changed through his life, the one constant
was his love of his people. Jack London took great pride in his English
ancestry, and England can be very proud of him.
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