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The many sides of Jack London

Speaking to us 100 years after his death, in the era of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, Jack London’s late novels make a fascinating spectacle of their author’s ‘white fragility’.

Owen Clayton
25 November 2016
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Jack London in 1903. Wikicommons/Little Pilgrimages. Some rights reserved.On November 22, 1916, the American author Jack London died. He left behind a number of important stories, but also a difficult legacy. A follower of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, he combined revolutionary socialist principles with troubling views on race. His novels continue to be popular, but his standing in academic circles has never been high. Scholars have viewed his work as lacking intellectual complexity — as being macho adventure tales or dog books for children. Most serious of all are the accusations of white supremacy. Yet London’s life, work and beliefs were more complex (if no less disturbing) than the conventional narrative suggests. A follower of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer, he combined revolutionary socialist principles with troubling views on race.

London was born into a working-class family in Oakland, in the San Francisco Bay area. He never knew his real father, and his early life was a struggle. Working in a canning factory as a teenager, he received an early education in manual labour: he later claimed to have become a writer (a ‘vendor of brains’) because it was less destructive to the body than physical toil.

An adventurous youth, he spent time as an oyster pirate, as a sailor on a whaling ship off the coast of Japan, and as a hobo riding freight trains across the United States. His book of tramping experiences, The Road (1907), is a free-spirited set of tales that influenced Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, and ultimately the American Road Movie.

In 1897, he joined the Klondike Gold Rush, spending months in the harsh Alaskan wilderness. Though he didn’t find gold, he did reap valuable material for his books. London’s best short story, ‘To Build a Fire’ (1902/1908), is a naturalist classic of one man’s struggle alone in a deadly, frozen landscape. His impulse to depict people trying to survive in a savage environment beyond the protection of civilization finds many echoes in film and TV today, most recently in The Walking Dead and its spin-off series (which have acknowledged their debt, referencing London explicitly).

Upon his return to the Bay area, London gained a degree of notoriety as the ‘boy socialist’ of Oakland – even running for Mayor of that city in 1900 (he did no campaigning and lost badly). Turning his attention to literature, he began a strict writing regime, penning 1000 words a day. In 1903, the hard work paid off – he published The Call of the Wild (followed by White Fang in 1906) and became a star. He was able to buy a ranch in Glen Ellen, Sonoma, which is today the Jack London State park.

George Sterling, Mary Austin, Jack London, and Jimmie Hooper.jpg

His stories continued to be popular, and several of them were turned into motion pictures (the 1907 adaptation of his The Sea Wolf was the first full-length feature film). Fame did not curb the desire for adventure: he worked as a photojournalist in the 1904 Russo-Japanese war and the 1913 Mexican Revolution, and in 1907 made a failed attempt to sail around the world. London died at the age of 40, which has fuelled claims that he committed suicide, though in fact a less romantic way to go, kidney failure, was probably the cause. George Sterling, Mary Austin, Jack London and Jimmie Hooper on the beach at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.approx.1902-7.Wikicommons/Arnold Genthe.Some rights reserved.There is some evidence that London had sexual feelings for men. In a love letter to his future second wife, Charmian Kittredge, he wrote that he had long dreamed of a ‘great Man-Comrade’ with whom he could share his life. Other early letters carry flirtatious messages to male correspondents. One popular biography, James L. Haley’s 2010 Wolf, speculates that London had a sexual relationship with the poet George Sterling. There is no direct evidence for this, though of course finding proof of same-sex activities that occurred (or didn’t) a century ago is extremely difficult, as any Henry James scholar will tell you. In any case, London’s gender and sexual orientation have long been taboo subjects among scholars and indeed many fans. This is a shame, especially as several of his biographical works are fascinating accounts of what today we would call toxic masculinity. Writing after her husband’s death, Charmian complained that accounts of London had failed to capture ‘his many-sidedness. And it is not fair to him or to readers to leave out ANY SIDE OF HIM. His child-side, his womanside (I mean feminine side), his tender side, his love-side’. A century on, this remains largely true. ‘And it is not fair to him or to readers to leave out ANY SIDE OF HIM. His child-side, his womanside (I mean feminine side), his tender side, his love-side’.

In the realm of politics, London subscribed to ‘Anglo-Saxon socialism’. That is, he believed that socialism would overthrow capitalism, but only after the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’ had outbred the other peoples of the world. He was not a white supremacist as we understand the term today, since not all whites are Anglo-Saxon: Celtic races were as doomed by their biology as ‘Black’ or ‘Semitic’ ones. His later (and weaker) books are full of Anglo supermen who perform impressive feats of physical and intellectual prowess, often at the expense of characters from ‘lesser’ races. Yet close reading of this work also reveals deep uncertainty: many of these apparent supermen, such as the protagonist of Burning Daylight (1910), grow weak under the softening influence of civilization and alcohol, the latter being a problem that plagued London himself (and about which he wrote eloquently in John Barleycorn, his ‘Alcoholic Memoirs’). In ways that speak to us in the era of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, London’s late novels fascinate by making a spectacle of their author’s ‘white fragility’.

His racial theories suffered a number of shocks. First, while researching the slum areas of London for his book The People of the Abyss (1902) he found America’s Anglo-Saxon forebear, the British Empire, in very poor health. Second, during his time as a boxing reporter, he watched the African-American heavyweight Jack Johnson’s stunning victories over the white champions Tommy Burns (1908) and Jim Jeffries (1910) — fights that many saw as being symbolic of a clash between races. Though the author was undoubtedly on the side of Burns and Jeffries, he could not deny Johnson his victory. Third, he witnessed new Latino and Chinese immigrants farming Californian land far more successfully than his white peers.

Finally and most crucially of all, by the end of his life he had become deeply disillusioned by the fact that Anglo-Saxon workers had not overthrown American capitalism (the most prominent revolutionary organisation in America was now the staunchly multi-cultural IWW, which can’t have helped either). He quit the Socialist Party in 1916, accusing it of lacking revolutionary energy. In truth, it was his belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority that had lost its previous vigour. After the horrors of the Holocaust, we tend to associate eugenics with the extreme Right, but in fact eugenicist ideas were common across the political spectrum.

In despair, and also in a very poor state of health, London welcomed World War One, writing to a friend in August 1916: ‘Civilization at the present time is going through a Pentacostal [sic] cleansing that can only result in good for humankind’. In a career that contains many worrying statements, this is perhaps the most disconcerting. After the horrors of the Holocaust, we tend to associate eugenics with the extreme Right, but in fact eugenicist ideas were common across the political spectrum in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Among many other things, London was a product of his time.

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Jack London in his office, 1916.Wikicommons/California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection.Some rights reserved.It is difficult to know how his views would have developed had he lived longer. Would London have rejoined the Socialist Party in 1917, energised by the Russian Revolution? Or, perhaps inspired by the rise of Mussolini in the 1920s, would he have become a fascist? Either option – or even both – seem plausible. Indeed, in a twenty-first century that has seen the re-emergence of democratic American socialism with Bernie Sanders and racist nativism under Trump, it is fascinating to contemplate a writer who might have voted for either of them. Hopefully in the next one hundred years, scholars and readers will engage with London’s ‘many-sidedness’, and finally come to appreciate the complexity of this problematic, talented, and contradictory author.

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Jack London's grave, Jack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen, CA. Wikicommons/DanielP.B.Smith. Some rights reserved.

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