Jonah Raskin explores the contradictions of London's political life
A writer among the ruins of London's beloved Wolf House.
Perched on a picnic table half a mile from the Wolf House where the socialist Jack London's capitalist dream went up in smoke, Jonah Raskin reflects on the enduring contradictions of the man who remains both a publishing icon and an industry.
"Describing London calls to mind the metaphor of the blind man and the elephant," Raskin observes. "There are so many parts..." And, he could add, so many blind men.
Searching for the real Jack London has occupied the entire careers of numerous scholars, and the popular press has insisted on capturing his essence in a handful of simple syllables. Some biographers have absolved him of all sin, others reduce him to labels like "socialist," "alcoholic," "womanizer," and "racist."
In his latest book, The Radical Jack London, Raskin avoids all those traps while weaving a wide seam of socialism through the narrative fabric of Jack's life. Raskin is chair of the Communications Department at Sonoma State University and a former Sixties radical who once served as Minister of Education for the Yippies. He knows something about radicals, has published numerous books and articles on the radical movement, and looks back on it now with a certain measure of wise detachment.
Raskin ended up in Sonoma County because his parents moved here from New Jersey. And his parents moved here because of Jack London. "They said," Jonah recalls, "if it's good enough for Jack London it's good enough for us."
It was good enough for Jack London, Raskin says, "because he had had enough of Oakland. He said, I would sooner slit my throat then spend my life in Oakland."
In Glen Ellen and the Beauty Ranch, it wasn't just Oakland Jack was escaping, it was the cage of his working class roots. "When Jack was in school he was also the school janitor," Raskin reveals. "His stepfather and mother had no money, they bounced around the Bay Area. Jack rose out of the working class with no college degree."
London, adds Raskin, is a perfect example of the adage, "The personal is political." The central quality of his life, Raskin says, was London's aloneness. "He was always, in some sense, alone, an orphan. Charmian said he was a child, always needy. He had a profound hunger...and a really deep hurt."
When he was 19, London wrote an article for the San Francisco Examiner entitled, "What is a Socialist?" London's answer, says Raskin, was "someone who is social." The socialist party, Raskin believes, "was the only real family he ever had. He would call people comrade, and it meant more than friend."
And while it sounds contradictory, Raskin insists there was no inconsistency between London's political views, rooted in the urban labor movement, and his escape to the tranquil and genteel countryside of Glen Ellen. "Being radical can be consistent with the outdoor life. There is a radical tradition of the rugged outdoorsman...like Thoreau and John Muir."
London's daughter Joan downplayed her father's socialism, dismissing it, writes Raskin, as "largely incoherent." But the written record is clear about London's socialist passion. "He didn't go to socialist meetings," Raskin acknowledges, himself a veteran of endless ideological conclaves. "I can understand that. But when anybody asked him to speak, he did speak tirelessly. He talked to women's groups. He wrote for all the intellectual and socialist periodicals of the day. That takes time, that takes energy."
Raskin has assembled an impressive collection of essays and articles detailing London's radicalism, and he opens the anthology with a long and thoughtful introduction that is reason enough to read the book. But the most interesting revelations from his research involve the ongoing paradox of America's richest writer advocating the overthrow, at times with violence, of the system that made him so wealthy.
And there is the further irony that London's greatest passion, outside his wife Charmian, ultimately became the 1,400-acre Beauty Ranch where he had, in the best bourgeois tradition, become a member of the landed gentry.
Raskin offers important insight into other overlooked or under-reported parts of London's life, including his six-year friendship-romance with the socialist socialite Anna Strunsky. And he makes the case that what London believed, and the unavoidable contradictions trapped in those beliefs, remain relevant today.
The French seem to think so. A French publisher told Raskin recently that in France all 51 London books are still in print, in French.
Ask Raskin to sum up London and he stops to think for a moment.
"He was funny, a practical joker. He was also a very spiritual person...he had a kind of Buddhist, new-age side to him. He tended to be self-destructive. He worked too much. He was not always or totally a racist, but there were times he said the white race was superior. He drank too much. He loved the people but he detested the masses. He had profound mood swings. He was manic and depressed, he would call it the long sickness. It was hard for him to be a good father and husband, but I think he did his best.
"He was a man with two identities: Straight and celibate, and a rowdy boozer. He was rich, complex, contradictory."
Raskin pauses to remember something. "After I finished the book my brother asked me, do you love Jack London? I said, yes. I don't love everything about him. But yes, I love Jack London."
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA