The social and artistic vision of Jack London is relevant today
Jack London was a socialist who lectured and gave speeches urging members of the working class to join together and fight for a better form of government than the one they were living under. His message to the capitalist class of his day was, “No quarter! We want all that you possess.”
From an early age, London was determined to succeed as a writer.
He soon discovered that he could make readers clamor and editors pant for his work if he gave them something new and fresh, something that was his and not “a garbled mouthing of things the world had already heard.”
He worked hard to develop a view of his own that underlies all that he wrote.
His philosophy of life is based on:
- First-hand knowledge of life from the varied perspectives of a factory hand, sailor, tramp, soap-box orator, gold prospector, photojournalist, writer and farmer;
- Extensive reading in history, biology, evolution, ethics and other branches of knowledge;
- Study of commercially successful literature of the day.
In the last 18 years of London's life, he wrote and published 23 novels, 21 collections of short stories, three autobiographical memoirs, three books of nonfiction, three plays and dozens of essays.
When he died at 40, he was one of the highest-paid and most widely read celebrity authors of his time. The cause of his death is still being debated a century later.
Most of us remember London as the handsome and gifted writer of “The Call of the Wild,” his most famous story. It follows the adventures of a dog named Buck who becomes a legend.
After being transported to a hostile Yukon wilderness during the Klondike gold rush, where he is beaten into submission and worked nearly to death as a sled-dog, Buck goes feral and is last seen running with his throat “a-bellow” at the head of a wolf pack.
The legend of Buck the ghost-dog imbues readers, especially young ones, with a sense of hope and the belief that they will overcome their misfortunes.
Readers may be surprised to learn that London's favorite piece of his own writing was a work of social nonfiction. He once explained, “As to my favorite of my own books, that is a hard question to answer. I think I put more of my heart into ‘The People of the Abyss' (1903) than into any other book.”
“The People of the Abyss” is London's account of the appalling social realities he encountered in the East End slums of London in 1902. He found men, women and children living amidst chronic and heart-wrenching poverty, crowding, disease, starvation, criminality and lack of shelter during what were considered “good times” in England.
London's sociological study of life in the underworld of London was itself influenced by an 1890 slum narrative, “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis, who used photographs, graphic descriptions and statistics to depict slum conditions in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Other key works by London, including his dystopian novel, “The Iron Heel,” reflect the Progressive Era better than most of the novels of his socialist contemporaries, with the possible exception of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair.
Although “The Jungle” led to passage in 1906 of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, it did little to further Sinclair's larger goal: the rejection of capitalism and the victory of Socialism.
By contrast, George P. Brett, president of The Macmillan Company that published many of London's books, considered “The Iron Heel” to be “the greatest compendium of Socialism ever written.”
Although “The Iron Heel” never achieved the popularity of “The Call of the Wild,” it has been hailed as a great prophetic work of art by Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary, and by Anatole France, the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist.
Sinclair Lewis, author of “It Can't Happen Here” about the advent of a Nazi regime in Washington, D.C., was inspired by London's “The Iron Heel,” as was George Orwell when he wrote “1984.”
In “The Star Rover,” London helped awaken the nation to the corrupt prison system that existed a hundred years ago when it was legal in California to sentence a man to life-imprisonment in solitary confinement. Just last year, inmates succeeded in getting California to agree to an overhaul of the use of solitary confinement in its prisons, including strict limits on prolonged isolation.
In his day, London's social and artistic vision made a real difference, and it is having a resurgence. Although odds are long that a socialist will win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, supporters want Bernie Sanders to have a shot at it.
The desire for equity, or the rejection of injustice, is something Americans hold dear, and it helps to explain why we root for an underdog. In any era undergoing dramatic social change, the work of a writer like London who can arouse people's sense of fairness and justice will remain relevant and engaging.
Susan Nuernberg is a past president of the Jack London Society and a recipient of the Jack London Foundation's Woman of the Year award. She is currently writing a biography of Charmian Kittredge London with Iris Jamahl Dunkle.