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Anglo-Saxon Rebel

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 comrades.

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.

Individual Heroism

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 to them.

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.

Anglo-Saxon Government

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 pertinence today:-

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.

Self Preservation

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 needed.

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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