Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Road Not Taken

"London had an aspect of a proletarian Byron: illegitimate, handsome, wildly romantic, casting himself as the rebel and revolutionary, admired by Leon Trotsky for his anti-capitalist polemics. He was the archetypal early burn-out, dead at 40 from the excesses that he lived and wrote about....How he could write!... [London's] perfervid rhetoric matches the great narrative force of his stories, long and short. He is fascinating to read, about beast and man, in fact or fiction."
The Wall Street Journal

"As a boy, the first heroes that I put into my Pantheon were Napoleon and Alexander the Great. Later on I destroyed this Pantheon and built a new Pantheon in which I began inscribing names such as David Starr Jordan, as Herbert Spencer, as Huxley, as Darwin, as Tyndall." - Jack London in a letter of 1915

I wonder how many readers familiar with White Fang and Call of the Wild are aware that Jack London was a committed socialist, or that he was convinced - at the turn of the 20th century - of an impending world revolution.

About six years ago, when I was living in Des Moines, I went to the public library downtown when it occupied an elegant old classical-style building by the river. The library has since been moved to a ridiculously expensive, ultra-modern monstrosity that snakes through downtown Des Moines. I located a volume of the Library of America edition of the collected writings of London, the Novels and Social Writings, that included The People of the Abyss (his reportage of the slums of East London), The Road, and a prophetic novel, The Iron Heel.

I suppose that I should've examined the book before I checked it out, because when I got it home and sat down to read it, I opened it to the section that, according to the table of contents, contained London's socialist journalism, I found that the entire section, a few hundred pages' worth, was missing. The pages must have been removed during the binding stage, since the book was otherwise intact. So it hadn't been a disgruntled reader who had found London's socialist writings objectionable but someone involved in the manufacture of the book itself.

I was a little astonished that no one had noticed the missing pages or hadn't brought them to someone's attention at the library. Evidently, someone was made uncomfortable with the idea that Jack London, outdoorsman, adventurer, and all-American, has been a committed and passionate enemy of capitalism I had to wonder if there were any more books in the Library of America's edition of London's writings in a similar condition.

To understand London's attraction to socialism, you have to know the bare facts, which were especially bare, of his early life. The circumstances surrounding his birth in 1876 read like one of his stories. His father and mother were unmarried, and when his mother became pregnant, his father demanded she get an abortion. When she refused, he abandoned her and she attempted suicide.

At the age of 13, London began working in a cannery, his first of many grueling jobs. After the labor unrest known as the "Panic of '93" in Oakland, he joined "Kelly's Army" of tramps that made a march, along with "Coxey's Army" of Ohio, all the way to Washington to protest unemployment. 6,000 of them made it to Washington, only to see the leaders of the protest arrested for walking on the grass. London only got as far as the Ohio River, where he was arrested for vagrancy and jailed 30 days in Buffalo at the Erie County Penitentiary.

On his release, he turned hobo, was a sailor for a short time, and eventually returned to Oakland to attend Oakland High School. It was his experiences on the road as a bum that he immortalized in his extraordinary book The Road, published in 1907.

John Law was up and out after the early worm. I was a worm. Had I been richer by the experiences that were to be fall me in the next several months, I should have turned and run like the very devil. He might have shot at me, but he'd have had to hit me to get me. He'd have never run after me, for two hoboes in the hand are worth more than one on the get-away. But like a dummy I stood still when he halted me. Our conversation was brief.

"What hotel are you stopping at?" he queried.

He had me. I wasn't stopping at any hotel, and, since I did not know the name of a hotel in the place, I could not claim residence in any of them. Also, I was up too early in the morning. Everything was against me.

"I just arrived," I said.

"Well, you turn around and walk in front of me, and not too far in front. There's somebody wants to see you."

Arrested, London was taken, with a group of other hoboes, before a judge, who listened just long enough for the charges against each one ("Vagrancy, your honor")before delivering the invariable verdict "Thirty days". London saw how each hobo was given exactly fifteen seconds, from charge to sentence. He waited his turn, thinking of the words for his defense,

. . . my American blood was up. Behind me were the many generations of my American ancestry. One of the kinds of liberty those ancestors of mine had fought and died for was the right of trial by jury. This was my heritage, stained sacred by their blood, and it devolved upon me to stand up for it. All right, I threatened to myself; just wait till he gets to me.

He got to me. My name, whatever it was, was called, and I stood up. The bailiff said, "Vagrancy, your Honor," and I began to talk. But the judge began talking at the same time, and he said, "Thirty days." I started to protest, but at that moment his Honor was calling the name of the next hobo on the list. His Honor paused long enough to say to me, "Shut up!" The bailiff forced me to sit down. And the next moment that next hobo had received thirty days and the succeeding hobo was just in process of getting his.

London was an erratic writer who wrote far too much. His 1,000 words a day is half of Trollope's daily output but twice that of Graham Greene. But he possesses a powerful, if simplistic, view of life that he managed to convey in his best writing, like the stories "Love of Life," "Make Westing," "The Francis Spaight", and "A Piece of Steak," and the books The People of the Abyss and The Road.

London led an interesting life that, after he had made himself rich from writing on an industrial model, had about it a rather driven zeal for adventure and physical risk-taking. London placed his characters in situations that provoked the response he was trying to illustrate, like the starving man and wolf in "Love of Life," or the crew of the sinking ship "The Francis Spaight". London's prose is blunt and does not suggest depths. There probably weren't any depths that he wished to explore. But his political convictions, while they may have stood in contrast to his brutal understanding of life, were genuine and determined by his life experience.

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