Real Men, Social Cooperation, and the Gap In Jack London's Thinking

Jack London was a brilliant man, brilliant but uneducated.  Although a fiction writer, his own life had more experience in it than many a  rousing novel.
Forced to work grueling jobs to support his mother and family, he had no time for schooling, and when he did return to high school he had sailed the Pacific in a schooner, tramped across America with Kelly’s Army, masses of the unemployed converging on Washington, and been thrown in jail for being a bum. At nineteen, he looked on his fifteen-year-old classmates and heard the innocence in their questions about freedom and democracy. At night he worked as an assistant janitor while they studied.

He attended a semester at University of California, Berkeley, after cramming for entrance exams under tutelage of his first wife, Bess Maddern,* but became bored and left after four months. His classmates were out of touch with reality, he said. *(Sophie Sutherland, inspiration for his novel The Sea Wolf.)

He knew child labor before laws against child labor existed. Life for him was continual battle, and so at sixteen he found nothing against becoming an oyster pirate, sailing his sloop to steal them in San Francisco Bay. During the 1897 Gold Rush he borrowed money from his stepsister Eliza to buy supplies and sailed with her husband, Captain Shepard, to the Klondike to strike it rich.

Once there, London and the Captain stood at the bottom of Chilkoot Pass, watching a steady line of men tied together, weighted down with boxes of provisions, trudging wearily up it. Both had been warned against going over it. Shepard turned back. London reached the other side and, bone weary, trudged on the Dead Horse Trail, strewn with animal carcasses, then to the Klondike.

His health ruined, he returned just as poor to San Francisco, after rafting in freezing waters down the Yukon and after a desperate winter in a log cabin. He went to get rich and came back with a bad case of skin rot.

He had one ambition—to avoid wage slavery and its soul-deadening demands in textile factories. He looked at the swells on Market Street, with their fancy coats and vests, homburg hats, and high-button patent-leather shoes, and thought they had it made. He didn’t have their chances in life and could see only one way out. Write. Write and make lots of money. He wrote, and was rejected. He wrote and was again rejected.

After countless rejections he became discouraged until he sold one short story, which renewed his ambition. He kept writing and his major success came with Call of The Wild, a novella still regarded as London’s masterpiece.

The story reveals London’s view of life, the world given him by his birth. Struggle to survive. He was familiar with Nietzsche's concept of the super man. He read Darwin on natural selection and Herbert Spencer on social Darwinism with its twisted view of evolution—survival of the fittest—that, for the rich and powerful, justified capitalist misuse of workers through unsafe conditions, long hours, and starvation wages. J.P. Morgan and other robber barons read Spencer and found “scientific” justification for their greed and exploitation of the masses. Spencer told them they deserved what they got because they were the best.

London, though, took a different message from Spencer. He had personally experienced horrible, life-sapping days behind factory machines, his ears ringing with their noise, and he turned away from it to socialism. He awaited the revolution of the working class, when the masses rose up against their chains. He joined the Socialist Party, wrote for its publications.

For all that, Jack had not thought through the disconnect between the one and the other, between Spencer's survival of the fittest and socialism. The first ideology justifies that the elite survive; in the other, the masses overturn the elite. This disconnect can be found in his personality. In key aspects he was not in touch with himself. On one side was the primal man, believing only the strong survive. On the other was a human being deeply sympathetic to the hungry, weary, and exploited, and also deeply in need of love—a man who supported his family and gave generously to anybody in poverty who wrote him.

In later years he turned from Socialism, resigning the party, and devoted his efforts to Beauty Ranch, at Glen Ellen, near Sonoma, verged on the Napa Valley, above San Francisco. He was an environmentalist before there were environmentalists. He wanted to show what could be done to raise food without exploiting the soil. He had prize cattle, bulls, and horses. An atheist, his first religion had been Spencer and Socialism, and he turned to his new religion, earth itself.

Alex Kershaw has written a good biography and it is well-documented, with keen, but overly brief insights into London’s personality. Based on Jack's formative years, I looked for an explanation of the disconnect between London's worship of strong men and his embrace of socialism, for certainly it is a discordant relationship, but found little in Kershaw's book. There is an intellectual gap in London's thinking and a psychological explanation can be argued. This, Kershaw does not develop.

He does trace Jack’s rise into success, showing us a writer with remarkably evocative skills but a writer who bragged he never rewrote a word. London was clear on the matter. He wrote for money, not art—yet out of his imagination came art.

Kershaw describes London’s descent into ill health and, finally, death at forty in 1916. An alcoholic who wrote John Barleycorn, Jack ate several very rare ducks—read bloody ducks—daily. He died of uremic poisoning with his beloved second wife Charmian by his side. Next in love was Beauty Ranch.

He had been schooled in the College of Hard Knocks and espoused strength before adversity but something was lacking in the world—he found no comfort in it. Given his stark view of life, no wonder that he thought of suicide many times before he died. Morphine was a standard pain reliever then and some believe that when he reached for it to relieve his pain, he intentionally over-dosed so that he would suffer no longer.  

Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw. St Martin's Griffin, NY. 1997

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