by Jonah Raskin
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he radical American novelist, Jack London, would surely be delighted by the Iron Heel Theater Collective’s lively new performance of his 1907 dystopian novel on stage in and around the city of Oakland, California, where his own radicalism was nurtured at the end of the 19th century. With his great-granddaughter Tarnel Abbott in the cast, he’d probably be in the audience cheering wildly.
An activist, a playwright and a long-time member of the Socialist Party of the United States, London ran for mayor of Oakland on a populist ticket twice and lost twice, though he wasn’t discouraged.
Adversity fed him. He wrote and spoke frequently about controversial social and political issues, including the prohibition of alcohol, the vote for women, the eight-hour day and laws to protect children from exploitation in the work place.
In 1905, London traveled across the country and delivered a rousing speech entitled “Revolution” to students on college campuses and to well-to-do audiences curious about the revolutionary side of the author of popular books such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. He didn’t disappoint them.
In his own day, London was widely known as a fiery socialist who supported the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, and who viewed revolution as a political tool to bring about economic equality and social justice. But the roundup and deportation of anarchists in the 1920s and the anti-communist crusades of the 1950s, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, resulted in a kind of whitewashing of his radicalism, especially in academic circles.
In American high schools, students were assigned his short story, “To Build a Fire,” a tale of survival in the Arctic, and not, for example, an equally riveting short story, “The Apostate,” about a young man like himself who grows up in the working class, toils in a factory and leaves it all behind to seek adventures on the road. Or “South of the Sloth,” a tale about a California man who lives a double life as a college professor and as a labor organizer and who chooses labor.
In the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century, London was the most popular American author. Around the world, from Brazil to Vietnam, readers devoured The Iron Heel in large part because it seems to predict the rise of fascism and oligarchies.
Born in San Francisco in 1876, London grew up in a world of poverty and with an innate love of books and reading and with the determination to become a writer, a dream encouraged by librarians. He worked on the waterfront and as a fisherman and as an oyster pirate, and sailed to Japan on an expedition to hunt seals that opened his eyes to the need to save endangered species and to protect environments slated for destruction by corporate greed.
In the Yukon, London prospected for gold, returned home penniless and began to write stories about his own adventures that were rejected by editors for years. He persevered, married, raised a family, separated from his first wife Bessie and married a second time.
Charmian London shared his love of life itself; and together they moved from urban Oakland to rural Sonoma County where they created “Beauty Ranch,” farmed organically, raised animals, and hosted friends from near and far, including the Russian-born anarchist, Emma Goldman, who described London as “the only revolutionary writer in America,” a sobriquet he wore proudly.
The Call of the Wild brought success before he was 30. He followed it with The Sea-Wolf in which Captain Wolf Larsen, a Nietzschean superman, is defeated by the elements and by his own inner demons. Big ideas fascinated London. He turned to Darwin and to Marx as well as to Nietzsche, and in novels such as Before Adam and in short stories, too, he described the devolution of human society.
Optimistic and pessimistic by turns, a dystopian and a utopian, he swung back and forth between depression and elation, drank too much, worked too hard and lived on the edge all too often. Danger fascinated him in real life and in fiction. Peace he craved and all around him he saw war and the preparations for war.
Over time, he developed the art and the craft of fiction writing and created complex characters, both men and women. In Martin Eden, one of his best novels, he describes a working-class writer who becomes a successful author, becomes increasingly disillusioned with success and sees through the illusions of bourgeois life. At sea, he takes his own life and sinks beneath the waves, a grim ending that he defended but that was denounced from the pulpit because it didn’t offer hope.
In The Valley of the Moon, his feminist protagonist Saxon Brown takes her husband Billy from the industrial strife of Oakland to the bohemian community on the California coast at Carmel and then to Sonoma County where they live the bucolic life. London rarely allowed himself to enjoy peace and tranquility.
The rise of corporations, the closing of the American frontier and the concentration of political power in fewer and fewer hands led him to write The Iron Heel and to call for social and economic justice.
Along with his fellow writer and fellow radical, Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle — an expose of the meat packing industry — he created the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, an organization for students that served as a model for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 1960s anti-war group.
London’s introduction to The Jungle helped to make it into a bestseller. “It is a book well worth the reading and it is a book that may well make history, as Uncle Tom’s Cabin made history,” he explained. “There are large chances that it may prove to be the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of wage slavery.”
London’s 1915 introduction to Sinclair’s anthology of humanist literature, The Cry for Justice, shows that he remained true to the cause of radicalism until shortly before his death in 1916 at the age of 40. “Civilizations have exposited themselves in terms of power,” he wrote. “No civilization has yet exposited itself in terms of love-of-man.”
He called for a world built on “love and service and brotherhood,” all of which inspired his great-granddaughter and her friends and comrades in the Iron Heel Theater Collective.
London’s own sense of brotherhood and sisterhood often stopped at the boundary of race and ethnicity, though he also tried not to adopt racist ideas. Born at a time when anti-Asian sentiments ran high in California and when California excluded the Chinese, he imbibed racial stereotypes from an early age and repeated them in his books.
Then, too, he tended to blame victims, especially when it came to discrimination, Jim Crow laws and segregation, though he also rose above his prejudices and adopted the African American boxer Jack Johnson as a hero. In “The Mexican,” a brilliant short story, he created a hero who is a revolutionary, a boxer and brown-skinned. Art enabled him to transcend ideologies.
On the cusp of the 100th anniversary of his death in 1916, Jack London’s life still intrigues. His contradictions and paradoxes are well worth exploring. Then, too, his books, both fiction and non-fiction, continue to have punch. In The People of the Abyss, he goes undercover in the city of London at the turn of the last century and describes the poverty, homelessness and hunger of the poor people that he witnesses. Few 20th-century American books are as empathetic.
In his book The Road, a forerunner of Jack Kerouac’s Beat narrative On The Road, he depicts his experiences as a young hobo who travels from California to New York, where he’s arrested and jailed as a vagrant, and then back again to California. Everywhere he goes the narrator sees out-of-work men and women who have been denied employment by an unfair, unjust economic and political system. His heart goes out to them.
If he was flawed as a writer and a thinker, his flaws are emblematic of the big flaws in American writing and thinking. To read London’s work today is to peer into a vital and turbulent time when our society was deeply divided along class and racial lines, not unlike our own time.
Moreover, reading him now shows how prescient he was. The notion that America was divided between the 1% and the 99% would not have surprised him or shocked him. Not only that, he would probably have joined Occupy movement protesters at Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. He might have tweeted and been on Facebook. Technology didn’t terrify him; he owned a telegraph machine, a telephone and a Dictaphone and used them all daily.
A futurist, he wondered, in one of his last poems, about the “Man of the Future” and asked, “Who is able to describe him?” He added, “Perhaps he breaks our globe in fragments/ in a time of warlike games.” Perhaps, too, he suggested, he is “able to aim at the stars,/to harness the comets/ And to travel in space among the planets.”
A lover of beauty, justice and truth, Jack London would love The Iron Heel Theater Collective’s lively performance of his novel. Every writer wants to see his or her work live and to find new audiences and new meanings. London was no different than the global authors he loved and admired, from Mark Twain to Maxim Gorky and Upton Sinclair and with whom he shared a sense of hope for humanity in the future.
Jonah Raskin is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution, an anthology with a representative sampling of his fiction and journalism about social and political issues.
For further reading of Jack London:
Short stories: “The Apostate.” “The Mexican.” “South of the Slot.”
Novels: The Iron Heel, Martin Eden, The Valley of the Moon
Journalism: The People of the Abyss, The Road
Since London’s copyrights are long expired there are several substantial collection of free (public domain) versions of his writing:
Project Gutenburg (including ebook versions);
http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings and at