Jack London, novelist and passionate advocate of labor unions, socialism, and the rights of workers, was born 140 years ago in San Francisco on January 12, 1876. Best known to U.S. readers as the author of Call of the Wild, London also wrote several powerful works dealing with labor, capitalism and socialism. These include his famous dystopian novelThe Iron Heel, his non-fiction critique of capitalism and poverty The People of the Abyss, and an essay collection titled The War of the Classes.
John Griffith Chaney was the child of an unmarried mother who had come from a once wealthy family that had fallen on hard times. He took the name of John London, a partially disabled Civil War veteran his mother married in 1876, the year Jack was born.
Growing up in poverty, London had a youth filled with hard work and adventure. Before he reached the age of 19, he worked in a cannery, a jute mill, and a streetcar power plant, sailed as a seaman on a sealing boat, hoboed around the country, and joined Kelly’s Army of unemployed protesters against economic inequality in the U.S. At 19, he crammed a four-year high school course into one year and then enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, but quit after a year because of financial hardship. Instead he joined the Klondike gold rush.
London only spent a brief time in the Klondike in the winter of 1897. Like most gold seekers, he suffered extreme physical hardship and his prospecting efforts failed. But he returned to California with a trove of stories that eventually made him wealthy. He published his first stories of the Alaskan frontier in 1899, and eventually produced over 50 volumes of short stories, novels, and political essays. His 1903 novel about a domestic dog who joins an Alaskan wolf pack, The Call of the Wild, brought him lasting fame.
Despite his early identification with rugged individualism and fierce competition, London, through his life experiences, became an outspoken socialist and supporter of the American labor movement. He colorfully described his transformation in a 1903 essay titled How I Became a Socialist.
A short diatribe on “The Scab” is often quoted within the U.S. labor movement and frequently attributed to London, although it has not been found among his writings. It opens:
“After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and Angels weep in Heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out….”
A commentator describes the novel The Iron Heel – sometimes viewed as a portrait of futuristic fascism -as “London’s attempt to consolidate his ideas about the struggle between the working class and the looming specter of capitalism, as epitomized by the shadowy The Oligarchy. It was Marxism for fans of ripping yarns.”
“One message of the novel stands true today: Those on the poverty line can only achieve some sort of economic level playing field against the ruthless elite – identified today as that 1% of the planet who own 50% of the wealth – by joining together for common causes.”
London died at age 40 from kidney failure on Nov. 22, 1916. The buildings and property where he built his last home, and where he and his wife were cremated and interred, were later preserved as Jack London State Historic Park, in Glen Ellen, California. London became for much of the 20th century possibly the best known American author around the world, and much celebrated in the socialist countries.
How do we see Jack London now?
The year 2016 marks the centennial of London’s death, and might be a good time for scholars, readers and activists to revisit his legacy. As “Ben” commented two years ago (Nov. 22, 2013, in an earlier version of this article marking London’s death anniversary), “It is troubling that you would publish an article on Jack London without discussing and critiquing his open white supremacy. This was not an incidental part of his politics, and was not just a matter of being a product of his time. He was a bitter enemy of the anti-racist wing of the [Socialist Party], fought for resolutions against Asian workers, embraced social-Darwinist logic for imperialism and declared ‘I am first of all a white man, and only then a Socialist.'”
Another commentator, E.E.W. Clay, added, “We will have no progress in socialism, democracy, peace, land nor bread and butter without combating the ‘White Only’ menace to labor and humanity. ‘White Only’ advocates and their apologists, are enemies of humankind and labor no matter what ‘classic’ they write.”
These observations reflect some of today’s critical thinking about the “heroes” and “great men” of our past. How much of their work stands the test of time even as we know their creators were deeply flawed human beings? How much of a person’s character must be defined by their worst belief, act, or even crime? We need to take into account the actions of every person, and weigh their positive against their negative contributions.
Do we throw George Washington and Thomas Jefferson into the trash bin of history because they were slaveholders? Do we ban the music of Richard Wagner because of his anti-Semitism? Do we remove Ernest Hemingway, or Paul Robeson, from our shelves on account of their womanizing? Should we discount the New Deal and Social Security because President Franklin D. Roosevelt achieved these advances by wrenching accommodation to the Jim Crow Southern states dominated by Democratic Party politics in the 1930s? Do we damn forever those sectors of the left that were so tardy in their embrace of the LGBT struggle and the feminist movement?
Perhaps it has always been so that we are drawn to paint our friends in a bright rosy light and our foes in lurid, smarmy tones. It is the mark of the mature critic to aid understanding for present and future generations by sober assessment characterized on the one hand by firm principle, and on the other recognizing the specific influences and limitations on an individual of a particular place and time in history.
Jack London, and anyone, must be considered in that light.
Photo: Portrait of young Jack London. UC Berkeley, The Bancroft Library