In his fiction, London insisted that his women are not mere “puppet[s] of Dame Nature,” for they live apart from their capacity to reproduce. They are rarely mothers, or even daughters, and when they are tagged as daughters they are daughters of natural forces or totemic entities. They exist in an uneasy tension between the demands of the body and those of the social order, a tension arising from the narrative’s attempts to square the biological nature of woman, traditionally conceived, with her place in political, social, and technological modernity, the classic conflict of the naturalistic novel. The repeated presence of women who embody a “post-Darwinian, technologized modernity” balances London’s reputation for writing a hypermasculine version of naturalism.
Susan Nuernberg, Iris Jamahl Dunkle, and Alison Archer
This essay explores Jack London’s novel The Valley of the Moon, which was originally published in 1912. The novel is structured as a heroic quest for love, land, and a home, and it was written during a period of time when London was consciously experiencing and exploring his own yearnings for love, land, and a home. This essay examines how London used research of small-scale farming and the small towns and cities he wrote about before writing the book. Equally, this essay examines how London reinvented the Heroic Quest by using a female heroine. Finally, the essay examines how London’s wife, Charmian collaborated on female characters and scenes throughout the novel. The Valley of the Moon is the literary rendering of London’s social and economic message to all future generations presented in the form of a quest narrative.
In the late 1870s a body of writing on tramps began appearing in the same nationally circulating magazines that were publishing regional fiction. The chapter argues that this tramp literature presented a view of the nation that differed from the one found in regional fiction; as the tramp circulated, he encountered a country seamless in its geography and connected by commerce. These articles also offered a different representation of the tramp. Often criminalized, the tramp became in print a homegrown, thoroughly modern figure. By the early 1900s, Jack London could produce the first writing on tramps to have the qualities of “literature,” marking this transformation of the tramp from social problem into a source of romantic possibility.
In his short stories, novels, social writings, essays, and letters, London repeatedly comes face-to-face with a dilemma: how to participate in a powerful new mass culture characterized by sensation and consumption while remaining dedicated to a public sphere of reflection and critique. This essay argues that in order to address this dilemma, London develops an understanding of sensation and experience (what he sometimes called “the feels”) as a form of critical reflection. In this light, London’s stories share a vision of affective criticality with Walter Benjamin, as well as more recent theorists of the affective-based public sphere like Oscar Negt, Alexander Kluge, and Michael Warner.
Jack London’s maritime writing often interrogates the difference between the savage space of the “outside” sea and the relative domesticity of land’s civilized interior, as well as the ways in which this spatial distinction supports the sovereignty of space, society, and the self. But instead of maintaining these spatial differences, London’s work is all about exposing their increasing indistinction in the early twentieth century and the effects such a spatial destabilization had on sovereignty itself. This interrogation of the new world order and its effects on previous forms of sovereignty, the chapter argues, is what makes London’s contribution to American maritime writing (especially The Sea-Wolf and The Cruise of the Snark) so important. London’s sea stories not only acknowledge the world’s new “nomos” but the effects this order has on political and personal forms of autonomy and coherence.
Layne Parish Craig
English-language developments in sexual science were tied to literary communities from their earliest incarnations, as sexologists like Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes also wrote novels and plays, and literary writers like George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Radclyffe Hall wrote fiction that can be read as extending and complicating, as well as adopting, the language and ideas of sexological discourse. Like their British counterparts, American writers of fiction developed a wide range of responses to the theories of sexologists, as well as those theories’ political implications. London and his contemporaries not only referenced the research of sexologists but also adjusted and challenged the assumptions of the field as they spread it to new audiences, creating and spreading knowledge about human sexuality.
Like many socialists, but unlike someone like Edward Bellamy, London explains the process by which people’s political “method of thinking” changes. London’s “How I Became a Socialist” formulates a model of conversion that most of us might find curious. London treats political commitments and faith as passions with a physiological basis. London pairs “socialism” with terms that designate tribal affiliation. If being a socialist is like being “Teutonic” and “Christian,” then political affiliation is a species of religious faith, and political and religious affiliation operate as tribal affiliation, suggesting a biologistic basis. In London’s analogy, one’s commitment to a set of beliefs is akin to one’s alliance to others of like kind.
Sara S. Hodson
The People of the Abyss is Jack London’s study of the poor in the city of London, England, in 1902. This essay places the book in the context of earlier poverty studies by Joseph Tuckerman, Henry Mayhew, William Booth, Charles Loring Brace, Jacob Riis, Robert Blatchford, George Hawes, and others. The essay then considers four tensions within London’s book: between London’s roles as both observer and participant, between his affinity for the lower classes of his own origin and his new status as a successful writer and middle-class family man, between his feelings of both revulsion and sympathy for the poor, and between the docile and subservient poor and those who are spirited or rebellious in the face of charity. The interplay of these tensions enables London to portray vividly and examine fully the lives of the poor who inhabit the East End of the city of London.
Kenneth K. Brandt
As editor, mentor, and friend, Macmillan President George P. Brett had the single most significant influence on American writer Jack London’s professional publishing career. This essay explores how their partnership developed into one of the model editor-writer duos of the twentieth century putting them in the company of Maxwell Perkins and his authors. It examines the Brett and London’s correspondence regarding the editing, content, and publication of The People of the Abyss, The Iron Heel, The Road, Martin Eden, The Cruise of the Snark and other works. Brandt also highlights the significance of Brett and London’s shared interests—agriculture, arboriculture, travel, and the West.
Martin Eden (1909) commences in the aftermath of a moment of (naturalist) chance and concludes with a supreme demonstration of the realist will to power. The manner in which London begins and ends the novel suggests a deliberate resistance to any effort to contain it within preconceived generic forms, such as realism, naturalism, or the popular romance, and a desire to disconcert readers expecting the book to follow a particular, preordained pattern. Like Henry James, London places great stress on investigating and parodying the limits and overlaps between genres, challenging literary conventions of the time. This essay historicizes the Martin Eden’s representations of gender, sexuality and class, in order to locate London as a figure whose work is modern—rather than modernist—in its incorporation of a wide range of popular practices found in early film, theatre and painting, as well as in literature.
Per Serritslev Petersen
I discuss the philosophical significance of the generic confusions in Jack London’s novel The Sea-Wolf (1904). Drawing on a generous array of genres and scenarios, London asks his prospective reader to try and make sense of this complexity, either as “the superficial reader” of the sea romance or as “the deeper reader,” who is promised “the bigger thing lying underneath.” But what exactly is that bigger thing, the philosophical message, hidden by the generic complexity of the narrative, which will eventually necessitate a kind of deus-ex-machina authorial intervention when the sea romance is jeopardized by the demonic superman (and rapist) Wolf Larsen. By way of conclusion, I discuss the existential dilemma that London faced in The Sea-Wolf and in most of his work its philosophical formula articulated in Jules de Gaultier’s bovarysme and the war against reality, the Medusa-Truth.
Under Milicent Shinn’s editorship, The Overland Monthly helped create a Pacific consciousness, a knowledge on the part of western Americans that their world was at least equally a part of the Pacific as it was of the nation of the United States. Shinn was an anti-imperialist without being a white supremacist. She believed in a Pacific unity through cooperation, not militarism or trade. It is within this larger cultural historical context that the rise of Jack London must be placed. The stories that led to his acceptance in the Atlantic Monthly and then to his national prominence first appeared in an Overland Monthly heavily indebted to the editorial philosophy of Milicent Shinn.
Jack London’s reportorial work for American newspapers remains rich territory for investigation, especially given the porous boundaries between fact and fiction, news and story at the turn of the century—porous boundaries evident in London’s style, as well. This essay examines the articles he penned as a correspondent for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). The dispatches from the Far East reveal how London deployed his literary skill to produce provocative reportage, and how he cast himself as a character type—that of the fearless newspaper man—in his own articles as he attempted to experience the real-life adventures of war and, in turn, offer those adventures up to readers through his true stories of the news.
Jack London suffered to succeed, and he succeeded by becoming a poet of suffering. His hardscrabble life of various labors has attracted many biographers, but London was his own first mythologist. The hells that London imagined he lived in gave him a career of material, starting with his childhood work at a “hell hole” of a cannery. This essay argues that Jack London’s work is informed by an aesthetics of suffering that is crucial to a fraught and frequently contradictory definition of manhood. From the Northland to the boxing ring, London spotlights the spectacle of male suffering and endurance, a focus that reflects the rising emphasis on masculinity during his lifetime, and his own deep personal and artistic investment in the meaning of white manhood.
Clare Virginia Eby
While Jack London is renowned for hypermasculine narratives, this essay traces his ongoing interest in marriage and domestic themes. That thread becomes especially visible as the essay establishes as an overlooked historical context for understanding London’s thinking about gender: the Progressive era debate over marriage and divorce. While in early work (and in his own first marriage) London maintained a troubling distinction between “Mother”-women versus “Mate”-women, later work (and to some extent, London’s second marriage) reflects a more egalitarian and companionate model, such as was recommended by contemporary marriage reformers. In particular, this essay traces the marriage reformers’ idea of a voluntary relationship between economically independent coworkers as refracted through London’s evolving portrayals of the division of labor in romantic partnerships. Drawing from London’s two marriages, one divorce, and troubled relationship with his daughters, this essay examines as well his evolving portrayals of sexuality, adultery, and reproduction.
Jack London is often pigeonholed as a literary naturalist, but his interests aligned with a science fiction tradition. Over the course of his career, London increasingly set his narratives in the ancient past and the distant future. These fictional temporal environments provided him with new vantage points with which to explore the political relationship between individualism and nationalism, an exploration that intensified in his later work. His little-known 1912 novella The Scarlet Plague, one of the earliest examples of postapocalyptic fiction, reimagined the western frontier in a new age. Its combination of a doomed heroic individual and a struggling Darwinian population set the tone for American postapocalyptic tales to come. An examination of this novella in its historical and compositional context reveals it to be a significant step forward in London’s literary development.
Jack London wasn’t just lucky at what he called the “writing game”—he is, by many accounts, the most popular American author in the world today. His 44 published books and hundreds of short stories and essays have been translated into more than 100 languages and hailed by critics from South America to Asia. His international reputation was forged in his namesake city across the Atlantic Ocean. London, England was the publishing gateway to Europe and the rest of the English-speaking world. By achieving success there, Jack London ensured that his books would be shipped by English publishers, in multiple editions and price points, around the globe. Foreign translations were also arranged, and piracy, though illegal, helped spread London’s works even wider. Given his prolific output, the author became a “brand” as readers looked forward to “the next Jack London book.”
Jack London’s failure as a poet, defined by esthetic or marketable criteria, is not an argument for ignoring his poetry. The mere fact of his including his poems in his essays and stories indicates that poetry was an integral aspect of his creativity and hence must be considered in an evaluation of his work as a whole. This essay provides an overview and classificatory system for better understanding his poetic output, especially in relation to the rest of his work. Given the difficulty of demonstrating that London was a poet who also reluctantly wrote prose, it is perhaps more accurate to call him a prose writer who for various reasons wrote poetry. A way to recuperate the view that he had a poetic instinct is to consider him the third kind of poet, in the larger etymological sense of the Greek poietes, “one who makes” or “creates.”
Even though London wrote plays during most of his career as a writer, from 1905 to 1915, it still comes as a surprise to most readers that he did so. And even after the publication of Reynolds’s The Plays of Jack London in 2000, there is still little attention paid to London as a playwright. This essay provides the first critical overview of that work in relation to his efforts in other genres. Much work still remains to be done on the evaluation of the totality of his work, taking into account London’s dismissal of his plays; his willingness to work with collaborators; his reiterated claim that he could not judge his own work; and the politics, philosophy, and esthetic principles underlying their messages, implicitly or explicitly expressed, in relation to the larger context of American drama in the period 1900–1918, particularly the most successful plays.
As tempting as it may be to situate the author of such titles as “The Strength of the Strong,” The Abysmal Brute, and The Call of the Wild among the Bernarr Macfaddens of his day, a closer examination of London’s career reveals he held a much more pessimistic view of physical culture’s ideals than many might assume. While he shared his contemporaries’ interest in maintaining corporeal well-being, he also realized that maintaining physical strength was far less powerful than the pen. But even more, he discovered that in his efforts to forge new political ground, the precarious nature of the literary marketplace, and the strength of American consumerism were often more powerful than any one body could handle.