Jack London: A Life
By Alex Kershaw
HarperCollins, 1997. 335 pp., $45 (hb)
Review by Phil Shannon
Leon Trotsky praised him as a revolutionary artist. Lenin was moved by his stories. Could this be the same author who wrote popular novels about the inner lives of dogs in the Arctic? It could and it was.
Jack London had his political and literary feet planted in vastly different, often incompatible, terrains. Revolutionary socialism — and Nietzschean dribble about the superiority of Anglo-Saxon "supermen". Marxism — and the white racism of social Darwinism. Writing for the cause of socialism — and writing for the market.
Alex Kershaw's biography of London explores the contradictions that made London the most popular socialist-proletarian writer of his day, but also a proponent of humbug about the biological basis of human inequality.
London was born in 1876 in San Francisco and spent the wild days of his youth in theft, brawling and alcoholic stupor on the Barbary Coast as an oyster pirate, gang member and binge drinker. He was also a binge reader, however, and Tolstoy, Flaubert and Melville opened up a world beyond the mind-numbing canning factory or the bars and brothels of the wharves.
When economic depression hit, London joined a train expedition and march to Washington to protest against unemployment, discovering the Communist Manifesto on his way. A policeman's truncheon to his skull and 30 days for vagrancy confirmed Marx and Engels' analysis of class and state, and London returned home to join the Socialist Labour Party in Oakland.
Socialist but poor, London got the gold-rush bug in 1897 and battled the forces of nature in the Klondike and the social anarchy of Dawson City. Economically and physically broken, he took a leaf out of his reading and turned to writing for a living. A talent for raw prose energy and a solid mastery of suspense, shored up by a strict regime of writing 1000 words a day before lunch, soon had London sought after by press and publishers.
The People of the Abyss recorded, with some hyperbole but genuine outrage, the shock he felt at the economic degradation of the poor of the East End slums of London as he went "underground" in 1902 with the homeless, the unemployed and the sweatshop workers. It was the book he most loved of all his writings, taking "most of his young heart and tears" in its writing.
The Klondike may not have yielded its yellow treasure to London, but he did strike literary gold from his frontier adventures. The Call of the Wild was the first of his successful nature stories, with its epic tale of Buck, a pet dog kidnapped and forced to fight the Darwinian fight for survival amongst the wolf packs of the north.
The Sea Wolf followed this thematic trail, with the wolf-dog replaced by Wolf Larsen, the brutal captain of a sealing ship who battles for survival with more civilised rivals in a gothic thriller of path-breaking violence. White Fang kept the royalties coming as London returned to his hit theme of a dog torn between civilisation and the wild.
Whilst he plied his popular literary trade and hack journalism to pay the bills, London was also very much the revolutionary activist, delivering lectures on "The War of the Classes", of which "The Scab" still resonates with emotional power and political fire.
London grew more distant from the middle class leaders of the Socialist Party and their belief in the peaceful, parliamentary path to socialism. Whilst his understanding of Marx was not deep, he knew enough to know that the capitalist class will not peacefully give up its wealth and power.
In 1907 he wrote The Iron Heel, which graphically depicts the crushing of organised labour by an oligarchy of capitalists who seize power from the socialists fresh from their victory at the polls. A vehicle for the dramatic clash of ideas rather than a novel of subtle characterisation, the book's vigour and uncompromising message were greeted with derision by establishment critics and reformist socialists alike, but it staked a permanent place as a socialist classic in the hearts of revolutionaries.
From these artistic and political peaks, however, London's history becomes one of physical decline, political degeneration and literary wasting, as his mixed philosophies failed the test of growing political challenges.
Cruising the Pacific islands, London was disturbed by the disease and suffering which colonialism had brought to the indigenous islanders, but he did not condemn imperialism in Marxist terms, preferring to believe that indigenous cultures were doomed because they were an inferior "race". A former supporter of revolution in Mexico, London also now supported the "civilising" effects of US intervention.
Whereas in The Iron Heel London had described how war fever between the US and Germany was whipped up by the capitalists to turn their working classes against each other, London now supported US involvement in World War I against Germany, the issue which precipitated his resignation form the Socialist Party.
Retiring to his ranch, one of the largest in northern California — employing 50 workers — London was soon complaining about labour productivity, sipping cocktails with the colonial bosses of Hawaii and churning out books read by fewer and fewer of his once massive working-class readership.
London had come to this sorry pass because the anti-socialist elements of his philosophical make-up had swamped his socialist defences, just as the toxins and poisons had flooded his body past his failing kidneys, eventually killing him in 1916.
Despairing of the ability of the working class to rise above its state of servitude, London had come to believe that biological qualities explained the class system. His fixation, in stories about men and dogs, with "brute nature" and the bestial depths people can sink to (evident in his repulsion from and dread of "the mob", which intermingled with his compassion for the poor in even his best works), had drowned his better socialist belief that people could cast off the muck of the past and remake themselves in the act of revolution.
George Orwell perceptively analysed the reason for the triumph of reaction in London, a strain that had run through most of London's stories about dogs and men — London's preference for the strong against the weak, which brought him within hailing distance of proto-fascist theories.
For the older London, Nietzsche had triumphed over Marx. It was eat or be eaten, the weak to the wall, the race to the swift and the battle to the strong as humanity was reduced to the level of animal competition.
Earlier, London's socialist conscience had often won out. His early books, with their revolutionary anger towards the wealthy and the championing of justice, equality and internationalism for the poor, are London's best legacy.
Where the great storyteller meets the fiery socialist in the pen of Jack London, the results speak with a power that will be relevant for as long as the call of the class struggle beckons through the civilised management-speak of the tame "labour" leaders of today.