Jack London: A Mess of Seething Contradictions

The anniversary of Jack London’s death on November 22, 1916 is near. In honor of the occasion, which I will observe, we might revisit some of his ideas and take another look at his life. For decades, literary critics and cultural historians knew where the American author, Jack London, (1876-1916), stood on the political spectrum, even while they recognized his contradictions and oddities. In 1917, his friend and romantic interest, Anna Strunsky wrote an obituary for London that appeared in The Masses. “Napoleon and Nietzsche had a part in him, but his Nietzchean philosophy became transmuted into Socialism—the movement of his time,” she explained. Philip S. Foner called his book, Jack London: American Rebel (1947). Robert Barltrop’s titled his, Jack London: The Man, the Writer, The Rebel (1978).

More recently biographers and critics such as Earle Labor, the author of Jack London: An American Life (1994), have turned him into a Jungian more preoccupied with myth, archetype and symbol than with class, race and gender. Yes, myths, symbols and archetypes are in London’s fiction, but before he turned to Jung (and also to Freud) near the end of his life, he embraced Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche, as Anna Strunsky pointed out in her obit.

Now, Dan Wichlan turns London into a moderate—something he never was, as he himself recognized. “I always was an extremist,” he wrote in his memoir, John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs. A former business executive at the Bank of America and Charles Schwab & Co., Wichlan belongs to the London faithful, and, while he is not an academic or a trained scholar, he has gathered together in one volume London’s Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays (2018) which is available at Amazon.

Wichlan touts his own horn and claims to have unearthed previously unknown works by London. He insists, for example, that London’s political essay, “What Socialism Is,” which was originally published in The San Francisco Examinerin 1895, is “not listed in any of the published bibliographies.” Wichlan includes the piece in his anthology. He might have looked at Russ Kingman’s A Pictorial Life of Jack London, where that 1895 essay is included. But that is the least of the flaws in Jack London: Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays.

Wichlan’s book offers 42 articles and essays by London, an introduction by the editor himself and prefaces to each article and essay. It’s good to have London’s writing about politics, journalism and more between covers. But Wichlan tends to glorify London, downplay his genuine radicalism and whitewash his belief in white supremacy. If nothing else, London was a walking talking contradiction. Wichlan doesn’t see that either. Upton Sinclair liked his writing and so did H. L. Mencken, Anatole France, Max Lerner, Leon Trotsky, V.L. Lenin (sometimes) and Emma Goldman who called him in 1910, “The only revolutionary writer in America.” In many ways, London was all-things to all-make-and-manner of men and women.

For much of his life, London considered himself a socialist; he was a member of the American Socialist Party, and, though he didn’t attend meetings, he spoke and wrote for the Socialist Party to recruit new members and swell its ranks. He ran for mayor of Oakland twice on a liberal-left ticket.

Briefly, he urged violent revolution in the U.S. to overthrow the capitalist system and usher in socialism by which he meant the end of the rule by the men who owned the factories and the transfer of power by any means necessary to those who toiled in those same factories. In “What Socialism Is,” London wrote that it “is a phenomenon of this century.” He added, “We have slavery, feudalism, capitalism—and socialism. It is the obvious step.” For much of his life, London thought that socialism was inevitable.

Wichlan writes that London became a socialist because he wanted “labor reform.” That perspective neglects the London who defended the Industrial Workers of the World (The IWW) and empathized with anarchists like Alexander Berkman, though he didn’t endorse anarchism of the deed. Wichlan also talks about London’s “discontent” with the Socialist Party and his resignation in 1916, the year he died, but he ignores the two decades when London was a fiery radical and a loyal party member.

Wichlan calls London an “anti-racist,” but in two essays in this book, “The Salt of the Earth” and “Washoe Indians Resolve to Become White Men,” London stands with white men and against men of color. Indeed, he wanted Indians to go to U.S. government schools where they would lose their Indian-ness and be turned into white people. Indians have been rebelling against that kind colonization for hundreds of years.

London was a socialist who identified with the British Empire and wanted a kind of pan-Atlantic alliance that would connect the Anglos and the Americans and stand against yellow, brown and black people. For much of his life, he was against war, but at the start of World War I, when the Germans threatened the Brits, he urged the U.S. to join with them and make war against “the Huns.”

When one looks deeply into the life and the works of Jack London, the less heroic he appears and the more deeply flawed.

The best essay in Wichlan’s anthology is entitled “In the Days of My Youth.” It’s autobiographical and it was published in 1905, the year London identified with the Russian revolutionaries whom he called his comrades. “I am out on a hunt for the boyhood which I never had,” London says. He adds that he was “very lonely.” Indeed, all his life he was surrounded by loneliness, which is why, in part, he joined the Socialist Party. It was a social organization.

On the subject of his own radicalization, London explains, “In the Days of My Youth”: “I tramped all through the United States, and the whole tramping experience made me become a socialist.” The writers who influenced him the most, when he reached adulthood, he noted, were Karl Marx, the Communist, and Herbert Spencer who borrowed Darwin’s idea of the survival of the fittest and applied it to human society.

In “The Salt of the Earth,” London explained that, “In the struggle for food and shelter, for place and power, the weak and less efficient are crowded back and trampled under, as they always have been.” In his eyes, the weak and the less efficient were people of color. Paradoxically, or perhaps not, he also believed that the wealthy were weak and so doomed to become extinct when the revolution arrived.

Before we indulge in the worship of Jack London, we might remember that he could be a bigot and a chauvinist. In a 1914 essay included in Wichlan’s volume, he insisted that, “woman is the conservative factor of the sexes, whereas man is the radical.” But he also felt that women in primitive (i.e. pre-capitalist) societies were healthier than women in modern societies.

Those who say that London held the popular, dominant ideas of his time, and ought to be excused may not know that in his era there were feminists, anti-imperialists, and antiracists who helped create organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and demanded the right to vote for women.

Even as he believed in progress, London looked back fondly to the past and to all that humanity had sadly lost. Ah, Jack, poor Jack, after all these years, we’ve hardly known who you really were, though Anna Strunsky did.

“He believed in the inferiority of certain races and talked of the Anglo-Saxon people as the salt of the earth,” she wrote in her obit. “He inclined to believe in the biological inferiority of woman to man, an extremist he embraced socialism even as he endorsed white supremacy.” She loved him nonetheless. “He was a captive of beauty—the beauty of bird and Bower,” she wrote. “A captive of sea and sky and the icy vastness of the Arctic world.”


(Jonah Raskin is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution.)

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