The Essays, Articles, and Lectures of Jack London
Abstract and Keywords
This essay categorizes and analyzes the nonfiction (essays, articles, and lectures) of Jack London providing summaries of key works in each category. An argument is made for this body of work as a representation of an autobiography. Conclusions regarding his political and social philosophies are drawn based on those categories of writing. Comparisons and contrasts are made with his fictional work including an examination of his motivations. The relationship between London’s writing and lecturing is examined both in terms of content and origin. The essay also provides the raw material to provide further characterizations of London as a public figure.
In his 1913 memoir, John Barleycorn, Jack London tells us that he preferred writing “philosophic, economic, and political essays” to fiction. He doesn’t elaborate on this preference, but one likely interpretation is that the genre enabled him to more directly express his social conscience. Since, in general, the marketplace more generously rewarded fiction than essays, his writing essays was a labor of love, or at least preference, and, therefore, because of this greater emotional and intellectual intimacy, one can gain insight about him from his essays that is not present in his fiction. This writing duality of essays and fiction and the difference in the way the marketplace rewarded them became a source of conflict for London that he frequently referred to in his writing and correspondence. London ameliorated this conflict by frequently incorporating the themes and subject matter of his essays into his fiction, journalism, and lectures. Ironically, today London is best remembered for his fiction whereas his nonfiction, of which his essays, articles, and lectures constitute the major portion, is seldom read.
London’s essays, articles, and lectures have further significance as a chronicle of his life. Just as his short stories and novels reveal London, the literary artist, his nonfiction describes the man behind the artist. This body of London’s work offers an insight that no biography can achieve because it is a self-description, free of the biases of any biographer. Absent his autobiography, Sailor on Horseback (the titled preempted by Irving Stone in his “biographical novel”), that London planned to write, these writings are collectively the closest thing to an autobiography that exists. This thesis is further substantiated by the recent publication of An Autobiography of Jack London edited by Stephen Brennan who juxtaposes, in chronological order, excerpts from John Barleycorn, The Road, and The Cruise of the Snark.
London’s body of nonfiction work is substantial. He wrote 87 essays, 102 articles, and he lectured on 65 known separate topics, most of them multiple times. This count includes books that can be considered collections of articles or essays: The People of the (p. 179) Abyss, The Road, and The Cruise of the Snark. Therefore, the scope of this chapter only permits examination of key works.
London’s first published work was his essay “Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan” (San Francisco Call, November 12, 1883) and the last work published during his lifetime was the essay (originally a lecture) “My Hawaiian Aloha” (Cosmopolitan, November 1916). Fittingly, these two pieces, both part of his nonfiction, are bookends to a literary life driven by intellectual curiosity and an insatiable desire for travel and adventure. Coincidentally or not, these two writings touch tangentially on issues of race which plagued London throughout his career and to this day. The first references the Chinese and Japanese with whom he dealt harshly in the “Yellow Peril,” and the second with the mixed Asian ancestry Hawai‘ians whom he embraced in “The Language of the Tribe.”
Not only does London’s nonfiction chronicle his life, but it also articulates his philosophy and politics. Just as the two previous references, along with several others, document the evolution of his thinking on race, we can trace his thinking on politics, socialism in particular, from his first article on socialism, “What Socialism Is,” to his resignation from the Socialist Party. Thematically London’s articles and essays can logically be categorized as political, racial, literary, social, or travel related. There are two additional groupings that, although thematically diverse, are nonetheless appropriate. These are, first, journalism, because of the reportorial style of writing and, second, lectures that are a genre unto themselves. The schema used here examines, in chronological order, the more significant writings within a classification to portray the evolution of London’s thinking in a field of interest or, in the case of his diverse lecture and reporting topics, his changing interests or circumstances.
London carefully delineates his vision of socialism in his first political essay “What Socialism Is” (San Francisco Examiner, December 25, 1895). He initially differentiates it from the rampant anarchism of the day. “Anarchy and nihilism may have given cause for such an impression, but they are as far apart from socialism as are the poles.” He continues, “Socialism means a reconstruction of society with a more just application of labor and distribution of the returns thereof. It cries out ‘Everyone according to his deeds!’ … ‘All men are born free and equal,’ and its ultimate aim is pure democracy…. Born free with equal opportunity to earn by honest labor … a livelihood.” He concludes by commenting on corruption in a republican form of government, “Representatives may be corrupted, but how could the whole people be bribed?”
The one essential socialistic element that is absent from London’s description of socialism is government control and redistribution of wealth, which is common to all political systems of socialism. Indeed, the opposite is implied when he says, “Everyone according to his deeds!” Also noteworthy is London’s thesis that all men are equal under (p. 180) democracy versus the socialistic tenet that they are not equal and that it is the role of government to make them so.
London wrote this article in December 1895 when he was nineteen, and it states his position on socialism before it was obscured by party politics. Four months later, in April 1896, he joined the Socialist Labor Party. He was responding to five years of exploitation in a series of factory jobs as a teenage worker and abuses, such as child labor, that he witnessed and dramatized in his short story, “The Apostate”; hence his emphasis on labor in this essay.
A principle part of the Socialist Labor Party’s 1896 platform was labor reform: the prohibition of the employment of children; equalization of women’s wages with those of men; laws for the protection of life in all occupations; an employers’ liability law; abolition of convict labor; and the reduction of labor hours in proportion to the progress of production. Given the preceding five years of exploitation of London’s own labor and the abuses that he witnessed, it is obvious why he was drawn to the Socialist Labor Party.
As previously noted, London concluded his first essay on socialism with a discussion of the corrupt nature of a republican form of government. This serves as an introduction to his next political essay, “Direct Legislation through the Initiative and Referendum” which appeared in the Oakland Times on May 9, 1896.
London begins with, “The difference between a democracy and a republic is DIRECT LEGISLATION.” … “The control by the majority is the principle on which our government should rest, but upon which it does not, at present. Our electoral college does not allow that, and neither does our system of representation. They, a minority, pass and refuse to pass, many bills, which the people, a majority, do not wish, or wish.” And most significantly London continues, “Another of the great benefits to be derived from direct legislation, is the overthrow of PARTY POLITICS and partisanship, which are of the worst of the evils we suffer under to-day. Loyalty to the nation is forgotten in the allegiance to party, and the talents of the best of our public men are prostituted to the furtherance of party designs and powers.” The foregoing statement makes clear London’s aversion to party politics and presages his uneven relationship with and eventual resignation from the Socialist Party.
In 1899 there was a split in the Socialist Labor Party over the effectiveness of affiliated unions. A contingent calling for labor union reform separated from the Socialist Labor Party forming the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance and joining labor organizer Eugene V. Deb’s Social Democratic Party. In January 1901 London ran for mayor of Oakland on the Social Democratic Party’s ticket, strongly suggesting that he was part of this contingent. In July 1901 Eugene V. Debs, who had converted to socialism while in prison, rechartered the Social Democratic Party as the Socialist Party of America, which was more focused on government ownership of utilities and control of factories and wages. Therefore, London was passively absorbed into the new party as opposed to actively joining. However, based on his preceding definition of socialism, it is doubtful that he shared the priorities of the new organization. This change in party politics and London’s expressed aversion to such may have been the beginning of London’s divergence from the Socialist Party.
(p. 181) In his November 1904 essay “Big Socialist Vote Is Fraught with Meaning,” London’s passion for socialism is near its peak and his language is more radical. He first documents the slow but steady growth in the socialist vote, and then he states the goals of socialism. He writes, “It is a revolutionary movement that aims to pull down society to its foundation, and upon a new foundation to build a new society where shall reign order, equity and justice. ‘The capitalist must go!’ is the battle cry.” Later he continues, “By this it means to apply the law of eminent domain to the land and extend the law of eminent domain until it embraces the mines, the factories, the railroads and the ocean carriers. [The foregoing is the first direct reference to government control of wealth in London’s political writing.] In short, the Socialist party intends to destroy present day society, which, I contend, is run in the interests of the merchant or capitalist class, and from the materials to construct a new society which will be run in the interest of the working class.” London concludes by mollifying his earlier rhetoric by saying, “It is a peaceful and orderly vote at the ballot box, under democratic condition, where the majority rules.” London’s ambivalence toward the tactics of the Socialist Party is apparent, going from the rhetoric of “battle cry” and “destroy present day society” to an orderly and peaceful democratic election that remains consistent with his two previously cited articles.
By February 1916 London had become disillusioned with the Socialist Party when he wrote an addendum to the unpublished introduction he had written in 1911 for Alexander Berkman’s book in preparation for publishing it. In this preface London is calmer and more thoughtful than in his often-quoted resignation letter that simply says, “I am resigning from the Socialist Party, because of its lack of fire and fight, and its loss of emphasis on the class struggle.” Here, he offers specific reasons for his resignation, which are consistent with his earlier articles on socialism.
Some years ago Alexander Berkman asked me to write an introduction to his Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. This is the introduction. I was naïve enough to think that when one intellectually disagreed with an intellectual the only difference would be intellectual. I have since learned better. Alexander Berkman could not see his way to using my introduction, and got someone else to write a more sympathetic one for him. Also, socially, comradely, he has forgotten my existence ever since.
By the same token, because the socialists and I disagreed about opportunism, class consciousness, ghetto politics, political slates, and party machines, they, too, have dismissed all memory, not merely of my years of fight in the cause, but of me as social man, as comrade of men, as a fellow they ever embraced for having at various times written or said things they described as doughty blows for the Cause.
Charmian London, his second wife, reports in The Book of Jack London that he submitted this article to an unidentified socialist publication that declined to publish it.
This specific list of reasons for London’s dissatisfaction with the Socialist Party includes “ghetto politics, political slates and party machines” which hearken back to his previously cited article on direct legislation (written sixteen years earlier) in which he stated, “Another of the great benefits to be derived from direct legislation, is the (p. 182) overthrow of PARTY POLITICS and partisanship, which are of the worst of the evils we suffer under.”
As his writing reveals, London was more focused on labor and political reform than the revolutionary overthrow of government, and he was a reluctant party member and a recalcitrant politician. In a February 7, 1913, letter to Hartwell S. Shippery (a prominent socialist journalist) London writes, “Quite sub rosa, I don’t mind telling you that the only reason that I am permitted to remain in the socialist party at present moment is the fact that I have never taken any part in the policy of the party. I have never spoken out in a meeting. I’ve just been a propagandist.”
London’s first significant work addressing racial issues was “The Salt of the Earth.” It was written in May 1901 and published in the August 1902 issue of The Anglo-American Magazine, and it largely became the basis for his reputation as a “racist” even though a careful reading of this hard-to-find essay reveals a more profound interpretation than “white Anglo-Saxon supremacy” and even though his later writings on race reveal a more moderate position. In this essay London uses the word “race” to refer to culture and not skin color.
London is actually expounding Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory, that is, the ability to adapt to the environment and efficiently use resources and not racial superiority based on skin color. He begins by citing the early dominance of the Egyptian in Africa and later the Celt in Europe. This evolution causes him to write, “Under a given environment the race which survives is that best fitted to survive; and it is best fitted to survive because in its evolution it has developed characteristics (initiative, will, energy, self-determination, and enterprise) which better enable it to cope with the given environment than can the race it displaces.” Although this interpretation is clearly a misapplication of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, which was new and intriguing to London, it does not deserve to be superficially called racism.
London continues by describing the current dominance and success of the Anglo-Saxon. He defines the Anglo-Saxon group not by skin color but by their culture: “We employ ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to designate that portion of the human family which speaks the English tongue, acknowledges English traditions and which, in traits and characteristics, is more English than anything else.” By this definition a Negro born and raised in London would be considered an Anglo-Saxon.
London acknowledges that the evolutionary process will continue and that perhaps, “He (the Anglo-Saxon) may divide the world with the Slav; he may give up the world to the Slav. All these things are possible.”
London also laments some of the displaced and exploited cultural groups when he writes that sociologists “do not retard one jot or tittle the passing of the Alaskan Indian—an erstwhile mighty race now crooning its death song over the cold ashes of dead fires. (p. 183) Nor do these heart-reasoners and idealizers stop for an instant the political and commercial exploitation of the continent of Africa.” Such empathizing does not become a racist.
London’s next significant offering on race is the article “Washoe Indians Resolve to Be White Men,” which he wrote the following month in June 1901. London went to Nevada to interview the Washoe Indian Chief “Captain Pete” who was trying to lead his people into the twentieth century. The metaphor of becoming white men is the chief’s and not London’s, and it refers to his intent to educate his people—teach them to read and write and learn a trade—so that they will no longer be wards of the government.
London treats Captain Pete with respect and describes him as “Moses leading his people out of bondage.” London concludes on an optimistic note by conferring the likelihood of success on the chief. He writes, “But Captain Pete is no Utopian visionary, no reform-rhapsodist dreaming impossible dreams. Though he sees far and widely he is not blind to the little things close at hand, nor is he above the mere mechanical details of ways and means. For all that he is looked upon by his people as a redeemer, and for all that he is much of the prophet and far-seer and much of the philosopher.” At this time it was unusual to treat Native Americans with such dignity and respect since the Indian Wars, which continued into the 1890s, were still fresh in the memories of survivors and victims’ families. London exploited the racism of his readership by using a misleading title to attract readership, but, in the body of the article, he carefully explains its nonracist meaning while preserving the integrity of his subjects.
London’s next noteworthy commentary on race-related issues was a newspaper article written in June 1904, “The Yellow Peril.” This article was written when alarm about Japan was high in the United States because of the Russo-Japanese War and the resulting fear of Japanese imperialism. It is an example of “yellow journalism” exploitation at its worst. London’s use of skin color to describe the Japanese and Chinese and his use of the phrase as the title for the article were done to capitalize on this anti-Japanese sentiment.
London describes his experiences with the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese during his coverage of the war. He mocks the “inefficiency” of the Koreans, and he praises the “industry,” courage, and fortitude of the Chinese and the management capability of the Japanese. He focuses on the Japanese, exploiting the fears of his audience: “This rejuvenescent Japanese race has embarked on a course of conquest, the goal of which no man knows. The head men of Japan are dreaming ambitiously, and the people are dreaming blindly, a Napoleonic dream.”
The “yellow peril” is the 400 million Chinese, whereas the Japanese are the “brown peril” who number 45 million. London considers neither a threat individually, but “[t]he menace to the Western world lies, not in the little brown man, but in the four hundred millions of yellow men, should the little brown man undertake their management.”
Colleen Lye devotes a chapter in America’s Asia to London’s “Yellow Peril.” However she only mentions the title and date of the article without any description or analysis. She assumes that it is anti-Asian and uses a “yellow peril” motif to compare London’s work with that of George Kennan in reporting the Russo-Japanese War. She continues her “yellow peril” analysis with London’s fiction, in particular the short stories “Goliah” (p. 184) and “The Unparallelled Invasion” that she presents as anti-Asian. Interpreting London’s position on race from his fiction is a highly speculative endeavor.
London, much as he did with his “Big Socialist Vote” article, ends with a disclaimer—“But it must be taken into consideration that the above postulate is itself a product of Western race-egotism, urged by our belief in our own righteousness and fostered by a faith in ourselves which may be as erroneous as are most fond race fancies.” London appears to be divorcing himself from any racism suggested by his article and exposing the fallacy of racism itself by referring to “fond race fancies.” Just as he did with the Washoe Indian article, London draws the reader in with a racist headline. This time he waits until the end of the article to “right the ship.” In both cases London is exploiting the racism of readers by misdirecting them into reading what turns out to be an endorsement of the reader’s racial victim.
“Bit of Data, On the Japanese Question” was written during London’s Australian visit and first published in the January 21, 1909, edition of The Australian Star. Although it deals with racial matters, it is principally a study of Japanese culture based on London’s observations during the Japanese-Russian War and his reading. London offers an interpretation of the Japanese mind through the experiences of a Western writer, Lafcadio Hearn, who lived and worked in Japan and even became a Japanese citizen. He wrote a book, Japan: An Interpretation, which describes how different the Japanese thought process is, and how difficult it is for Westerners to understand it. And because we do not understand their thinking, we cannot predict their behavior, and they will, therefore, continue to surprise us. London writes, “The point I have striven to make is that much of the reasoning of the white race anent the Japanese is erroneous, because it is based on a fancied knowledge of the stuff and fiber of the Japanese mind.” London patterned the behavior of his last novel’s (Cherry) heroine after this description. She was both mysterious and unpredictable.
Lye also refers to this article in the aforementioned chapter of America’s Asia. However, she uses the reprint title, “If Japan Awakens China,” as it later appeared in Sunset Magazine. Again she offers no description or analysis of the article and assumes an anti-Asian bias. The titular phrase is used incidentally in the article, but it is in no way its theme as noted above. The reprint title was used in the American publication to exploit the country’s anti-Japanese sentiment stemming from the Russo-Japanese War.
London wrote his next significant piece on race issues in April 1915 with his essay “The Language of the Tribe.” (Published in the August 1915 issue of the Mid-Pacific Magazine.) During the intervening six years, London had traveled broadly and his cultural views had evolved as his paper attests. The essay was the basis of a speech that London gave at the Outrigger Club in Honolulu on August 8, 1915. London begins, “The ‘language of the tribe’ I referred to was the world language—the cosmic language.” He is referring to acts or expressions that benefit the community of mankind regardless of race and result in universal understanding. London writes about his firsthand experiences in Japan, China, and Korea. He proposes the “formation of a Pan-Pacific Club, where all men of all races can come, where they can eat together and smoke together and talk together.” He concludes by describing his relationship with his wet nurse and nanny, Mammy (p. 185) Jennie Prentiss, a former Negro slave. “I loved her almost as I loved no one else…. In her I had all faith.” His heart was broken when she answered a question in a way that he misinterpreted because he did not then speak “the language of the tribe.”
In Jack London’s Racial Lives Jeanne Campbell Reesman provides a detailed description of this essay. She attributes the motivation for London’s interest in a Pan-Pacific Club to his visit to a sugar plantation that Charmian found “picturesque and charming” but which appalled London because of its labor conditions where the Hawai‘ian “barons” exploited the “cheap Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Fiipino” labor. This reaction is based on his exploitation as a teenage worker which led, as noted earlier, to his joining the Socialist Labor Party.
Reesman observes that London’s visit to Hawai‘i marked a turning point in his racial thinking. Had she considered the earlier nonfiction writings described above, she might have seen it as the culmination of an evolution rather than an event. Prior to this time she classifies London as a racialist (one who believes that his race is superior but has no malice toward other races). This classification is largely based on his literary classification as a naturalism writer; the group subscribed to “scientific racialism.” However Reesman notes that London had the most diverse portrayals of racial minorities of any writer in this group. She further observes that these portrayals were mostly consistent within a genre (short stories, novels, essays, journalism, and letters) but that they varied among genres with his letters being the most racist. There is no evidence of racialism in the foregoing discussion of London’s nonfiction racial writings. However, superficial readings of “The Salt of the Earth” have resulted in such a misinterpretation.
Clearly London had come to embrace racial diversity. His enlightenment is substantiated by the last novel he was working on at the time of his death, Cherry, which was his first novel to have an Asian (Japanese) protagonist. It is not happenstance that London made Cherry Japanese. He had come to know the Japanese culture well, having reported firsthand the Russo-Japanese War and written about them in “The Yellow Peril” and “Bit of Data, On the Japanese Question.” He also doubtlessly gained insight from his relationships with his Japanese valets. London had come to admire their determination, leadership and honor code, all of which he imbued Cherry with.
The literary writings of Jack London are those essays that he wrote about his philosophy of writing and his experiences with writing, frequently offering advice to aspiring writers. (He also wrote eight book introductions, but those are beyond the scope of this paper.) Most of this writing was done in the early years of his career. Son of the Wolf, published in April 1900, put London on the literary map. London was a literary sensation during this period through the publication of The Call of the Wild in July 1903. Readers and writers alike wanted to know how he had achieved his success.
(p. 186) “On the Writer’s Philosophy of Life” is an essay written in August 1899 and first published in The Editor in October 1899. It is an exception among this grouping of essays in that it was written before he had achieved national fame. He had published only ten short stories at the time he wrote this essay. However, his short story “An Odyssey of the North” had been accepted by the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, and he had a contract with Houghton Mifflin to publish The Son of the Wolf. To be accepted by the East Coast publishing establishment meant that London had arrived, and he was anticipating his national reputation when he wrote this essay.
Herein London gives advice to aspiring writers. He is very elite in his approach, telling “hack writers” to skip reading the essay and that it is only for writers who have “ideals.” He tells writers to be “original” and to develop a “philosophy of life” or a literary signature with which to imprint their writing. He urges young writers not just to write but to also read good quality writing as well. He emphasizes that the writer must invest his time wisely both in reading and writing: “Don’t finish a tale just because you have commenced it…. Time! If you cannot find time, rest assured that the world will not find time to listen to you.” London appears to be recounting his own creative process in that he had a strong social conscience that shone throughout most of his writing, and he was a voracious reader. The major exception to his own advice is that he appears to have left little unfinished besides The Assassination Bureau, which plot he purchased and struggled to complete, and Cherry that he was working on when he died which was condensed and completed by his wife, Charmian, as Eyes of Asia.
Jonathan Auerbach in his discussion of this essay in Male Call interprets London’s advice to establish a literary signature as a “trade marking” process to be used to gain and maintain marketplace reception. He furthermore defines London’s trademark as “radicalism.”
“The Question of a Name” was written in February 1900 and was first published in The Writer in December 1900. London remarks, “A name is a very excellent thing for a writer to possess; and the achievement of a name is the ambition which dominates every normal unknown who ever entered the field.” He goes on to evaluate the two literary paths of the day: books and magazines. He concludes by writing, “One is more brilliant; the other sounder. Some are better fitted for the one; some for the other. A favored few are capable of either. But none may be permitted to classify himself until he has tried both.”
London is disingenuous here. He is almost coercing aspiring writers to make a choice between writing novels and magazine stories, with a strong bias toward the latter, while he discourages them from undertaking both genres and makes novel writing sound like a high-risk endeavor. Also he did not write his first novel, A Daughter of the Snows, until a year after he wrote this article, so his knowledge of novel writing was largely theoretical at this point. Despite his first novel’s lack of success, London’s thinking obviously changed since he went on to write twenty-one novels in addition to 197 short stories.
Auerbach also discusses this essay and describes The Writer as a publication devoted to the process of marketing work for publication with little regard for content. He credits the journal as using a Frederick Taylor (the father of industrial engineering) approach (p. 187) to writing—an approach that appealed to London who viewed his writing as labor to be sold in a capitalistic system, which is substantiated in the ensuing essays discussed here.
“Phenomena of Literary Evolution” was written in April 1900 and first published in The Bookman in October 1900. London’s thesis is that the pace of modern living has quickened because of the telegraph and the telephone and, as a result, the modern reader is less patient and demands terseness. The reader prefers the metaphor over the allegory and the short story over the novel. This marketplace demand has caused writing styles to evolve in the form of shorter sentences, which London documents in a table. He writes, “Never in all the world before has it had so much to do, so many calls upon its time. So in all things it demands the greatest possible amount crammed into the smallest possible space. And to this demand its literature must answer.”
London does not comment on the desirability of this “evolution,” but his description of it raises an interesting question—did London consciously pattern his writing style to capitalize on this trend or did his natural style happen to coincide with it? Once again he ignores an observation made in the essay—the reader preference that he cites for the short story over the novel did not discourage him from writing novels, although his most critically acclaimed novel, The Call of the Wild, was intended to be a short story, but it “ran away” with London.
On March 1, 1900, in between writing the two preceding essays, London wrote to Cloudesley Johns (a close friend and fellow author with whom he exchanged writing philosophy). He writes:
I am writing for money; if I can procure fame, that means more money. More money means more life to me, I shall always hate the task of getting money. Every time I sit down to write it is with great disgust. I’d sooner be out in the open wandering around any old place. So the habit of money-getting will never become one of my vices. But the habit of money spending, ah God! I shall always be one of its victims. I received the three hundred dollars last Monday. I have now about four dollars in pocket.
This letter summarizes the significance of money to London and how it taints his attitude toward writing for that end, and it sets the stage for the next three essays. It also hints at his preference for writing the less well-paid essays.
In “First Aid to Rising Authors,” written in May 1900 and first published in the December 1900 issue of The Junior Munsey Magazine, London examines the motives of writers. He broadly classifies them as those who “think they have a message the world needs” and those striving to “make the belly need”; the former is the considerably smaller group. This classification relates directly to his preference for essays over fiction, which he states pay better. London’s social conscience places him in the first group and his lifestyle in the second group. This essay introduces London’s writing dilemma that recurs in later writing and which gave him a sense of guilt that he never resolved. He cites the case of Grant Allen who wrote more than a hundred philosophical and scientific articles that earned him “next to nothing,” and later wrote a book, Physiological Esthetics, which won him the praise of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer but cost (p. 188) him $600 after he paid for its publication. London writes, “Does anybody ask why Grant Allen came to write fiction in his latter days?” London used his success as a writer of fiction to subsidize his nonfiction. In this way he did not have to choose as Grant Allen did.
London articulates his frustration over the choice described in this essay in a letter to Cloudesley Johns written at the same time as this essay (May 2, 1900). He writes, “No; at the moment I get a good phrase I am not thinking of how much it will fetch in the market, but when I sit down to write I am; and all the time I am writing, deep down, underneath the whole business, is that same commercial spirit. I don’t think I would write very much if I didn’t have to.”
“Again the Literary Aspirant” was written in December 1901 and first published in The Critic in September 1902. He continues his “First Aid to Rising Authors” complaint by outlining the economics of the publishing business. Sarcastically London addresses this essay to the “literary artist-aspirant with active belly and empty purse.” He laments the necessity to write for money, to satisfy the mass demand that causes deterioration of writing to the least common denominator. He focuses on the writing paradox: “The one master he must serve that he may live; the other that his work may live.” This last statement is another reference, in London’s case, to writing fiction versus essays. Ironically, London’s fiction has outlived his essays. As to how to “compass” the paradox, London writes, “That dear reader, as the editor told him, is his (the writer’s) business.” This essay has a pessimistic tone that reflects the strain of London’s continuing conflict over this paradox.
“Getting into Print” was written in February 1903 and first published in The Editor in March 1903. Almost three years after introducing his essay versus fiction dilemma in “First Aid to Rising Authors” a frustrated London rants again on the subject. He describes his initial approach to getting published: a “shotgun” one in which he wrote all types of writing—short stories, articles, anecdotes, jokes, essays, sonnets, ballads, villanelles, triolets, songs, and plays—and mailed them indiscriminately. After many rejections, he finally received forty dollars from Black Cat that enabled him to keep writing. He closes with this advice: “Don’t quit your job in order to write…. Fiction pays best of all…. Avoid the unhappy ending…. Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded…. Study the tricks of writers who have arrived…. Keep a notebook…. WORK, WORK all the time.”
One significant difference between this essay and the previous two is that London introduces humorous writing as a viable economic alternative. Yet he makes the contradictory statements, “Fiction pays best of all” and humor is “best rewarded.” Leaving no stone unturned, London tried his hand at writing jokes, but he was unsuccessful and only published two. He left a considerable file of unpublished jokes behind which is the basis for his “hardest to write” conclusion.
“Terrible and Tragic in Fiction” was written in February 1903 and first published in The Critic in June 1903. The title of this essay refers to the gothic type of stories written by Edgar Allan Poe to whom editors condescended and paid little. London discusses that portion of human psychology, fear, that draws the reader to the “terrible and tragic” even though the reader might deny it. Always cognizant of the economics of writing, (p. 189) London assesses the magazine market for this type of fiction when he writes, “enough of that portion of the reading public which cares for the terrible and tragic would be sufficiently honest to subscribe.” This conclusion perhaps encouraged London to write this type of fiction: The Scarlet Plague and The Sea-Wolf.
“Stranger than Fiction” was written in April 1903 and first published in The Critic in August 1903. This essay offers an interesting insight into London’s creative process. Early in his career he tried writing his fiction based directly on his real-life experiences but was rejected on the basis of its implausibility. Editors said that the actions were impossible and the descriptions were too extreme. So he began to “tone down” what he wrote, and editors began to accept his stories. He quotes Oscar Wilde saying, “Nature imitates Art. I have been forced to conclude that Fact, to be true, must imitate Fiction.”
The recurring theme in these essays, London’s inner conflict between writing for edification and writing for sustenance, is apparent throughout with no resolution. This conflict was between his social conscience and the need to meet his rising expenditures. As noted earlier, London tried to moderate the conflict by writing essays as time permitted and using themes from his essays in his fiction. However, after 1909, London appears to have abandoned the struggle because he wrote only three more essays. As his debts mounted, he concentrated on writing the more lucrative novels, short stories, and journalism.
London’s social writings are those in which he expresses his concern for social justice without any political context. This cross section of chronologically arranged articles demonstrates London’s consistent social concerns throughout his life regarding the environment, urbanization, the exploited worker, the vulnerable young, the politically oppressed, and the ill. These concerns predate and outlast his association with the Socialist Party. London’s earlier discussed dislike of party politics also is seen here.
“Shrinkage of the Planet” is the first significant member of this genre. It was written in December 1899 and was first published in the September 1900 Chatauquan magazine. In this essay London focuses on man’s achievements in “locomotion” starting with simple boats and later sailing vessels and later steamers and culminating with steam locomotives on the land. This “locomotion” has led to trade commerce and the building of economic empires resulting in the Industrial Revolution. This advance in transportation and communications (the telegraph) has caused a “shrinkage of the planet” where “there is much to condemn in the rise of the economic over the imaginative spirit” and where “economic man has defiled temples and despoiled nature.” Although he concedes that these advances have “rendered a general relapse of society impossible,” he concludes by saying that this drawing the “world closer and closer together” has resulted in concentration of the social organism in urban centers with great congestion and “stifling and impure air.” This essay marks an early concern that London had both for the ill effects of (p. 190) urbanization on humans and of industrialization on the environment, and it represents the seed of an idea from which later works such as Burning Daylight and Valley of the Moon grew.
London continues to document his concerns about urbanization in his “Telic Action and Collective Stupidity” essay written in late 1902 or early 1903 (first published in Jack London: The Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays, September 19, 2007) after his return from London where he wrote The People of the Abyss. London visited New York City in July 1902 prior to sailing to England. What he saw both fascinated and repulsed him, and this ambivalence can be seen throughout the essay. He gives credit to the designers of the skyscrapers and their elevators and the subway, but he is horrified by the slums. He writes, “People, by the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands, are crowded into screaming tenement districts; and the stench of their being is an offense to high heaven and an offense to the nostrils of their more fortunate fellows. The congestion of living and of traffic causes incalculable suffering, friction, and loss of time and nervous power; while evil and hurtful sights and sounds abound.”
London went to New York to embark on reporting of the Boer War for the Associated Press Association. Upon arrival he learned that a truce had been declared. While there he toured the East Side slum that possibly gave him the idea to go to London and write about the East End, which was the worst ghetto in the Western world at that time. His exposure to the East Side of New York doubtlessly lingered in the back of his mind as he walked through the streets of London’s East End. This fortuitous series of events led to the creation of The People of the Abyss, a work, which more than any other, demonstrates London’s social conscience. He afterward said, “Of all my books on the long shelf, I love most The People of the Abyss.” This book, being a series of chronologically arranged essays, again demonstrates the emotional intimacy of this medium for London.
“Saved and Lost! The Sobraun Boys” first appeared in The Australian Star in Sydney, Australia on January 28, 1909. It is one of six articles that London wrote during his stay in Australia; the others being “headline grabbers” intended to sell papers by exploiting London’s name. This article is different from the others because it was motivated by his compassion for the boys aboard the Sobraun school ship who likely reminded him of his seventeen-year-old self aboard the Sophie Sutherland. (London’s concern for the welfare of the young was earlier documented in a 1903 article in The San Francisco Examiner—“What Shall Be Done with This Boy?”—in which he tries to rescue a eleven year boy from a life of crime on the streets of San Francisco.) The government of New South Wales takes homeless teenage boys from the slums and enrolls them in a nautical training program where they live on the school ship and learn the sailing trade. Although London acknowledges that this part of the government’s program is superior to the way the United States treats its wards, he laments the outcome of the training in which the boys are exploited on English ships. They are signed on for minimal wages and are ill fed during their one- to two-year voyages. Once they reach an English port, they are paid off and have to find another ship. If they are lucky, they will find a good berth, but many of them will re-sign on the same or another English ship and receive the same treatment. In summary London writes, “As I stood on the Sobraun the other day, I was made glad at (p. 191) the sight of so much splendid young life being saved by the State. But I was at the same time made sad as I looked into the future and saw numbers of those boys going down to the deep waters to the dog’s life of the merchant service.”
The final article in this category is “Molokai Ideal for Mainland Lepers” that was first published in The Pacific Commercial Advertiser on March 15, 1915, and later collected in Jack London Reports where it was retitled “Our Guiltless Scapegoats: The Stricken of Molokai.” This article was a follow-up to the January 1908 “Lepers of Molokai” that appeared in Woman’s Home Companion. In that article, London dispels the imagined horror of the leper colony. He describes the cheerful social life of the residents and the good care and living conditions that are provided for them. They all lead productive lives farming or fishing and are self-supporting. He reports the story of a Negro man who had been mistakenly assigned to the island, and when he tested negative for the disease, he was released but refused to leave. He married a woman with leprosy whom he nursed until she died. It is very significant that London singled out a black man to show compassion—likely a product of his relationship with Jennie Prentiss—certainly not something a racist would do.
Now, seven years later London reports on the progress made in treating leprosy at Molokai. Earlier the infected were simply quarantined. He attacks the politics of the federal government that built a leprosarium that now stands empty because of lack of operating funds. He proposes that lepers on the mainland, who have no such facility and who are privately treated by doctors paid for by state governments and who are shunned by society, be brought here with their current medical funding such that they would receive better treatment as would the local lepers who are presently locked out of the facility. London concludes by saying, “And in all solemnity I take our Savior’s name, and say, in Christ’s sake, why should this immensity of comfort and beneficence be denied our brothers and sisters in Molokai because of Federal politics, because of Federal politicians, … because some men, far from Molokai and Hawai‘i, play the political game to their own good food of belly … forget, that most of all, we of the clean world, must in our utter sacredness serve our unfortunate ones, our guiltless scapegoats of our generation, our brothers and sisters in Molokai.” His dislike of politics that first surfaced in “What Socialism Is” in the form of party politics and the corruption it engenders recurs here at the broader federal level. London earlier documented in “Direct Legislation” how corruption occurs when the interests of the political party, or in this case the individual politician, are placed before that of the constituency.
London with his wife and other crew members set out on April 23, 1907, to sail around the world on their yacht, the Snark. Their extensive travels through the South Seas resulted in a series of articles in which he carefully observes and vividly describes local peoples and customs. This voyage provided the material for several of his later fictional (p. 192) works including The House of Pride, Jerry of the Islands, Michael, Brother of Jerry, On the Makaloa Mat, A Son of the Sun, and South Sea Tales.
“House of the Sun,” written in July 1907 and first published in the January 1910 edition of Pacific Monthly, celebrates London’s first visit to Hawai‘i. Here London describes the history and customs of Haleakala (House of the Sun), an extinct and sacred volcano on the island of Maui reaching an altitude of more than 2,000 feet. He describes the trade winds, called Ukiukiu and Naulu, that dominate the island and their influence on climate and the dress and behavior of the people. He goes into great detail about the mythology surrounding Haleakala. Maui, the son of Hina, made a rope from coconut fibers so that he could lasso the sun and slow it down so that it would dry his mother’s kapas faster. London vividly describes the island and its fauna and flora.
This was London’s initiation to Hawai‘i and its beauty; its culture and the affability of its people had a profound effect on him. (While there he learned to surf and wrote an article about it, “Riding the South Sea Surf,” which is one of London’s most reprinted articles and which popularized the sport on the mainland.) The islands became his second home as he revisited them in 1914. His contact with the ancestrally diverse Hawai‘ians, more than any other segment of his travels, caused him to embrace the racial diversity that he described in “The Language of the Tribe.” The Hawai‘ians became the cultural benchmark for all subsequent peoples that he met on his world cruise. It is also noteworthy that the Japanese are well represented in Hawai‘i, being the second-largest segment of the population. This was likely a determining factor in granting his heroine, Cherry, Japanese ancestry.
“First Impressions” was the first in a series of articles that London wrote while visiting Australia. It appeared in The Australian Star on January 7, 1909. The article illustrates his sense of humor as he describes his stay in a hotel where he is trying to write and the electricity goes out. He lighted the single candle in his room, and, when it was exhausted, he asked for more candles—an unprecedented request. Since there was a one-candle-per-room rule at the hotel, London was unable to get more candles. He moved to a flat on Phillip-street where “garbage barrels are metal. The sidewalks are cement, the streets hard macadam, the buildings on either side are of brick and stone. The acoustics of Phillip-street are splendid … I leave Phillip-street tomorrow, and I shall never return to Phillip-street.” Here London colors his journalism with storytelling ability for a very entertaining effect.
“Stone Fishing of Bora Bora,” written in April 1908, was first published in the April 1910 edition of Pacific Monthly. The essay begins with a description of stone fishing in which the islanders circle their canoes and repeatedly drop stones secured to ropes into the water driving the fish toward the shore in a narrow lagoon where the women are waiting with coconut leaf nets. After having a sumptuous lunch of fish accompanied by dancers in costumes, the Londons watch a stone-fishing demonstration. The fish drive ends in an empty lagoon, and London is told that one in five drives fails. He concludes by saying, “Well, it was the stone-fishing that had brought us to Bora Bora, and it was our luck to draw the one chance in five. Had it been a raffle, it would have been the other way about. This is not pessimism. Nor is it an indictment of the plan of the universe. It is merely that feeling which is familiar to most fishermen at the empty end of a hard day.”
(p. 193) “Cruising in the Solomons” was written in September 1908 and first published in Pacific Monthly in July 1910. London and his boat mates are battling “Solomon sores” and fever as they are invited on a plantation-labor-recruiting cruise aboard the Minota. They encounter “head-hunting cannibals.” “Their perforated nostrils were thrust through with bone and wooden bodkins the size of lead-pencils. Numbers of them had punctured the extreme meaty point of the nose, from which protruded, straight out, spikes of turtle-shell or of beads strung on stiff wire. A few had further punctured their noses with rows of holes following the curves of the nostrils from lip to point. Each ear of every man had from two to a dozen holes in it—holes large enough to carry wooden plugs three inches in diameter down to tiny holes in which were carried clay-pipes and similar trifles.” They end up abandoning the Minota, which was severely damaged in a storm.
Due to the serious illness of London and other crew members, the intended seven-year cruise ended prematurely in Sydney, Australia, in April 1909. Much as his gold prospecting trip in 1897 ended short of its goal, this voyage also failed to achieve its goal. However, in both cases London absorbed much of the local culture and geography that he was able to effectively translate into his fictional work. London’s travel writings provide a chronicle of his world cruise and a diary of his thinking regarding culture and race. The broadening effect on his thinking over time and distance is apparent and very much coincides with the changing tone of his racial writings as described above.
London was not a journalist by trade. Journalism was essentially a diversion from writing essays and fiction. He only practiced the craft if presented topics interested him socially, for example, the Russo-Japanese War, or if he needed money quickly, for example, the Schutzenfest. Auerbach notes that London’s contract with the San Francisco Examiner called for the paper to run his photo captioned with his name above each article thereby encouraging readers to seek out and read his fiction—a testament to his marketing skills.
These writings are grouped because of their common newspaper style of writing (who, what, when, where, and why) and purpose—informational rather than the argument or persuasion used in his essays and other articles. Although London’s journalism is topically diverse, the majority of it is either war reporting or sports coverage. The only other example discussed here is his reporting of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, “Story of an Eyewitness.”
“The Home-Coming of the Oregon” was London’s first assignment as a news reporter. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on June 6, 1901. London describes the battleship, Oregon, aboard which he is quite at home, and compares her with the other nearby ships as she returns home from a victorious tour of duty in the Spanish-American War. He goes aboard the ship and interviews crew members whom he calls heroes. His conversations with the crew upstage his description of the ship as (p. 194) they describe the various battles. Once again London’s concern for the common man shows through such that it becomes a subtle criticism of the war machine that London becomes much more critical of in his later journalism.
“Study of Physical Traits of Men Who Shoot the Best” is one of a series of ten articles that London wrote describing the Schutzenfest, a sharpshooters’ contest, held in San Francisco from July 15 to July 24, 1901. This is the next to last article that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on July 23. London had a genuine interest in people and an instinct for human-interest reporting. Just as he had focused on sailors during his reporting of the Oregon’s homecoming, here he writes about the participants of the shooting competition. He describes each of the finalists in detail. Here is a Nietzsche “superman-like” description of “W.W. Yaeger, the crack Colorado shot, is also native born and a blond. But he is a big-game shot as well, and wind and sun have bronzed his skin and put upon it the weatherbeat common to men who live in the open…. He has all the steadiness and solidarity of poise and carriage that one would expect to accompany 250 pounds.” Although, as other writings show, London was antiwar, he does not here link the ownership of guns or the demonstration of skill in using them to the violence of war. He treats the event in an objective reportorial manner and as simply a sporting contest.
“Gladiators of the Machine Age” is the first reporting of a boxing match that London did, which prepared him for his later reporting of the Johnson-Jeffries match in 1908. This article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on November 16, 1901, and it describes a fight between Jim Jeffries and Gus Ruhlin. London drew heavily from his reporting of this contest in the descriptions that he used in his novel, The Game, published three years later. The writing is very graphic and emphasizes the brutality of the contest. “So they came together, these big-thewed men, with great muscles swelling and bunching under satiny skins…. And when they missed, and chest to chest, the sound of the impact was like that of young bulls in rutting combat.”
“Jack London’s Graphic Story of the Japs Driving Russians Across the Yalu River” is one of a series of twenty-two articles that London wrote for the San Francisco Examiner covering the Russo-Japanese War. This is the first actual combat that London observed at close range, and it doubtlessly created strong and lasting impressions of war that he used in later fiction and lectures. (London earlier described a skirmish between Cossacks and Japanese cavalry that he saw from a distance.) One can see similarities between these articles and London’s short story “War” in which an undefined but Cossack-like combatant kills a military scout. This article appeared on June 4, 1904. London writes about the “fearful execution” of the Japanese batteries and the “precision of their fire” and the “absolute thoroughness with which they do everything.” London describes the retreat of the Russians: “Cut to pieces, destroyed, the rear guard failed in its task of protecting the retreat of the Russian guns.”
“Story of an Eyewitness” describes the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. This article, written on April 18, the day of the earthquake, appeared in Colliers on May 5, 1906. The article demonstrates London’s ability to improvise as he writes. London’s proletariat background shows through as he starts his description: “On Wednesday at quarter past (p. 195) five came the earthquake. A minute later the flames were leaping upward. In a dozen different quarters south of Market Street, in the working class ghetto and in the factories, fires started.” Later he moves to Nob Hill to show how the earthquake and fire have reduced the capitalist to the same level. He interviews a man sitting on the steps of his home. “Yesterday morning,” he said, “I was worth six hundred thousand dollars. This morning this house is all that I have left. It will go in fifteen minutes.”
London mentions this article in a June 13, 1906, letter to Albert Lee, editor of Colliers: “Now, it stands to reason that if I get paid far less for a news story than for a piece of fiction, that I’ll do the fiction and let the news story slide. Fiction has given me the small place I occupy in the writing world, and fiction alone will enable me to hold that small place. Your offer of ten cents a word is less than my fiction-earning power…. You paid me five hundred dollars for a 2400-word earthquake story—that is double the rate of ten cents a word you now offer me.” This negotiation puts in perspective London’s interest in journalism and how he evaluated writing assignments—he would undertake them only if they paid more than his fiction did, making his more lowly paid essays truly a labor of love. London declined to do the article even though the rate was increased to fifteen cents a word.
London went to Reno, Nevada, to write a daily series of twelve articles for the New York Herald leading up to the Jim Jeffries-Jack Johnson fight on July 4, 1910. The article, “Negro, Never in Doubt, Fear or Trouble, Played All the Time Says Jack London,” written on that date, describes how the “great white hope,” Jim Jeffries, loses to the Negro with the “golden smile.” London’s treatment of race is very subtle in this article; he is very respectful of Johnson even though he backed Jeffries to win. His description of Johnson entering the ring: “He is a marvel of sensitiveness, sensibility and perceptibility. He has a perfect mechanism of mind and body. His mind works like chain-lightning and his body obeys with equal swiftness.” His final words are “Johnson is a wonder. No one understands him, this man who smiles. Well the story of the fight is the story of a smile. If ever a man won by nothing more fatiguing than a smile, Johnson won to-day.”
London apparently moderated his views on boxing from the time he reported on the Jim Jeffries and Gus Ruhlin bout in 1901, the brutality of which he reflected in The Game in 1906. His description of the Jeffries and Johnson match, which was longer and bloodier than the earlier fight, is focused on his admiration of the skill and agility of Jack Johnson. In the meantime he had joined the Olympic Club in San Francisco, a male athletic organization that hosted weekly prize fights. He also enjoyed sparring with boxing gloves in his personal life. He had evidently sublimated the activity into a physical art form. Also, in his 1913 novel, The Abysmal Brute, London focuses on the financial corruption of professional boxing, ignoring its brutality.
In 1914 London went to Mexico to report on the war. He wrote a series of seven articles for Colliers of which “With Funston’s Men” was the second published on May 23. London went to Vera Cruz to join General Funston who led the American expedition there. Although London did not see any actual fighting, he did witness the bloody aftermath, and he seems to lose the reporter’s objectivity that he had during the Russo-Japanese War as he takes an antiwar stance. He visits a Mexican naval school that has (p. 196) been bombarded by American ships and sees bloody cots among the rubble. He sees the poorly equipped Indian soldiers and writes “it seems to me that it would not be war, but murder.” He later writes, “War is a silly thing for a rational, civilized man to contemplate. To settle matters of right and justice by means of introducing into human bodies foreign substances that that tear them to pieces.” These comments reflect the same sentiment that he earlier expressed in his short story and lecture both entitled “War.” His war reporting had gone from admiration of the efficiency of the Japanese army in cutting down the Cossacks to the murderous slaughter of Mexican peasants by the US Navy.
London’s lecturing was an outgrowth of his nonfiction writing and a product of his growing celebrity. Many of his lectures were later documented as essays, and a few were derived from essays. These are classified as lectures rather than essays. He used lecturing as a vehicle to promote both his political and economic philosophy and his fiction, from which he freely quoted. His lectures were often, but not always, based on his writing as in the “Revolution” tour, although he also lectured on his travels and other personal experiences. London frequently gave readings from his fictional work either as solo topics or in conjunction with his lectures. There were at least sixty-five different topics (not counting readings and discussions of his fiction) on which London lectured, most of them multiple times, with “Revolution” being the most frequently repeated lecture—more than sixty times.
There are no reliable transcripts of London’s lectures. Newspaper accounts typically only provided the topic and a brief synopsis of the talk, frequently focusing on London’s style and appearance. However, many of London’s lectures later appeared in print as essays. Since the actual text of the lectures was not recorded, the following discussion of their content is based on the comparable essays, the assumption being that they are very similar to the lectures.
According to an article, “Jack London, Socialist,” appearing in the San Francisco Examiner on December 25, 1895, London’s first known public speaking experiences were on street corners in Oakland earlier that year where he held forth on socialism. In this same article he was first called the “boy socialist.” These speeches continued through early 1897 when, on February 10, he was arrested for violating a city ordinance. He was tried later that month. He defended himself in court and was acquitted. There was extensive newspaper coverage of the trial in both the San Francisco and Oakland newspapers.
London’s formal lecturing career was launched on November 16, 1899, when he addressed the Oakland Chapter of the Socialist Labor Party on “The Question of the Maximum.” This lecture evolved into an essay of the same title that was collected in The War of the Classes published by MacMillan in April 1905 and is synopsized below.
At the beginning of “The Question of the Maximum,” London declares, “For any social movement or development there must be a maximum limit beyond which it cannot (p. 197) proceed.” A society must either change direction or “retrograde.” The successful societies undertake an economic evolution. As the limit approaches, competition increases and, due to “the shrinkage of the planet” (a concept London expanded in an essay written the following month and discussed above), the competition becomes global. Thus economies rise and fall. London offers the example of England being outdistanced by the Orient and observes that the United States is on the rise but will eventually meet the same fate. He concludes by saying, “as the exploitation of the planet approaches its maximum, and countries are crowded out of the field of foreign exchanges, there is a large likelihood that their change in direction will be toward socialism.”
Just as London had applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to cultures in “The Salt of the Earth,” he now applies it to economics in both “The Question of the Maximum” and in his next series of lectures “What Communities Lose by the Competitive System” that he first presented on September 28, 1900, to Oakland’s Third Ward Equality Club. (This lecture was derived from an essay of the same title that London submitted in a contest sponsored by Cosmopolitan in August of the previous year. He won the first prize of $200.) He first talks about how man’s survival instinct and the ability to successfully compete have given him primacy in the animal kingdom. Now there is competition among social units which leads to division of the land and resources. London states, “[T]he community to-day possesses the chaotic system of competitive production. It is a war of producers, also of distributors.” London concludes, “Altruism and industrial competition are mutually destructive.” In other words London believes that the competition of capitalism, unlike socialism, kills the love of one’s fellow man.
In his January 5, 1901, letter to Cloudesley Johns about the essay form of this lecture published in the November 1900 issue of Cosmopolitan, London wrote, “I haven’t had any decent work published recently—work which I would care to have you read—socialist essay excepted.” London made this statement despite the fact that he had published seven short stories in the preceding three months, again demonstrating his affinity for essays over fiction.
“The Impossibility of War” was London’s topic on January 4, 1901, when he addressed the Ruskin Club. In both his reporting and his fiction London had stated his antiwar sentiment. As such, he was probably drawn to the optimism of this subject. He began by quoting the Polish economist M. Bloch’s book The Future of War that describes the impossibility of frontal attacks on entrenched troops where the size of the forces are approximately equal as demonstrated in the Boer War, which ended in a truce and on which London had contracted to report. Bloch offers that advances in the rapidity of fire, the range of weapons, and the force of explosives are all deterrents to modern warfare. Bloch concludes that “when the nations in their harness go up against each other a condition of deadlock will inevitably result.” It follows that nations must maintain well-equipped armies to ensure this deadlock and that they must endure the economic burden of so doing. London infers that this economic repression will lead to an antimilitary revolt. He states, “The world has lifted itself to a higher morality. The aim of the human is to alleviate the ills of the human. Among all classes the opposition to war is keen and growing.”
(p. 198) London continued lecturing on his amalgam of socialism and evolution on August 1, 1901, with “Wanted: A New Law of Development.” He begins by discussing the ancient “law of development” wherein the weak succumb to the strong and they suffer or die. Now the economically weak, the common man, outnumber the economically strong. “His civil and religious liberty make him a free man, and his ballot the peers of his betters. All this has tended to make him conscious, conscious of himself, conscious of his class. He looks about him and questions the ancient law of development. It is cruel and wrong, he is beginning to declare. It is an anachronism. Let it be abolished…. Down with the old law.” London continues by discussing the labor movement, the growing solidarity of labor, and the advances in hours and wages. He predicts that the labor movement will merge with socialism to achieve the necessary political gains. As discussed in London’s political writings, this is about the time that the Social Democratic Party became the Socialist Party of America, and London appears to be trying to reconcile the labor reform emphasis of the Social Democratic Party with the politics of the Socialist Party of America.
In his “The Salt of the Earth” essay London describes how one cultural group that is fitter to survive displaces other groups that are not as fit. Although London is merely describing and not endorsing that progression in the earlier essay, here he takes a moral stance that suggests it is wrong.
London’s next lecture topics were “The Tramp” on January 2, 1902 (essay version published in the San Francisco Advance on January 25, 1902); “The Scab” on April 5, 1903 (essay version printed in the Atlantic Monthly in January 1904); and “The Class Struggle” on October 9, 1903 (essay version printed in the New York Independent on November 5, 1903). All these lectures were socialistic in nature with a strong labor orientation. All the foregoing lectures were building to a climax that came on January 20, 1905, when London first gave his “Revolution” lecture at the University of California at Berkeley. The essay form of “Revolution” was published by Macmillan Co. in March 1910, and it is an elaboration of the lecture.
This lecture and essay are an elaboration of the previously cited speeches. London begins by describing a worldwide army of 7,000,000 comrades, including assassins in Russia. “They intend nothing less than to destroy existing capitalist society and to take possession of the whole world. If the law of the land permits, they fight for this end peaceably, at the ballot-box. If the law of the land does not permit, and if they have force meted out to them, they resort to force themselves.” He briefly describes the socialist movement in other countries but focuses on working conditions in the United States. He describes the morbid circumstances of a garment worker in Chicago, an evicted mother of four in New York, a suicide in San Francisco, and the child workers in the southern cotton mills that are reminiscent of his own teen work experiences.
London writes at length about the economic and productivity gains made by the capitalistic system and indicts the system for its failure to share the gains with the workers. This issue was part of the Socialist Labor Party platform when London joined the organization. He cites the indifference of the government, in the person of President Roosevelt, and the press. London concludes, “Seven million men of the working-class (p. 199) say that they are going to get the rest of the working-class to join with them and take the management away. The revolution is here, now. Stop it who can.”
London doesn’t waver here as he did in earlier political writings, but there is a nuance in his language. The essay is written in the third person: “the socialists.” However, when London spoke, he used the first person, “we socialists,” to include himself; otherwise he wouldn’t have received the enthusiastic response that he did. Why make this change in the printed version? Likely, as suggested by his earlier discussed political writings, it represents a type of disclaimer in the written record to distance himself from the more radical assertions of the piece. Hence he becomes a sympathetic observer, not a participant, which is consistent with his earlier cited letter to Hartwell Shippery in which he confesses to being a “propagandist” and not having taken “any part in the policy of the party.”
In Standing Room Only, Mark E. Zamen, who extensively researched newspaper coverage of London’s lectures, states that the press’ consensus regarding London’s “Revolution” lecture was: “It was widely held that London spoke such caustic words only for shock value—and the consequent headlines—rather than out of a sincere commitment to the quick and complete destruction of plutocracy.”
If, in fact, this was London’s strategy, it was highly successful. The popular response to the lecture was sensational, both pro and con, and the controversy that followed sparked London’s famous midwestern and eastern lecture tour from October 1905 to February 1906. The first stop was at the University of Kansas on October 18. There were forty more stops on the tour, with the zenith at Yale University on January 26, 1906, where the lecture was billed as “The Coming Crisis.” Newspapers throughout the country daily carried front-page stories about the lectures. London’s carefully orchestrated speech had become immortal at this point.
“Revolution” articulates London’s socialism at its most passionate and most radical. His passion for and interest in socialism declined after this point in time. In fact, he does not write another significant piece on socialism until six years later when he prepared to publish his earlier discussed introduction to Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.
It is important to note that the above classifications of London’s nonfiction are intended only as a device to facilitate discussion and not to create immutable boundaries between groups. To the contrary, these divisions are quite permeable. The social writings inform the racial writings which inform the political writings and so forth, and vice versa. One obvious example of this from the above discussion are the two Molokai articles. They are classified as social writings because of their main themes, but they also discuss interracial marriage and the corrupt politics that obstruct the health care of the lepers, such that London proposes a socialistic alternative to their health care. There are innumerable examples of this throughout his nonfiction. Also the journalism and lecture (p. 200) classifications are the most fungible of these categories since they share thematic content with the other groupings and differ primarily in their form.
The introduction to this chapter referred to London’s first published work, his essay “Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan,” and the last work published during his lifetime, the essay “My Hawaiian Aloha.” The first references the Japanese, and the second the mixed Asian ancestry Hawai‘ians. There is a broader point to be made here as suggested by James Williams in the introduction to volume 6 of the Jack London Journal. Williams draws an even broader arc from London’s first publication to the novel that he was working on when he died—Cherry—whose protagonist was a Japanese woman. In other words, London’s literary journey begins and ends in the Pacific with many stops in between: California, the Yukon, Hawai‘i, the South Pacific islands, and Australia. Today we know this area as the Pacific Rim, which London helped define through his writing and lecturing, and, in turn, the Pacific Rim helped define London as a writer.
London’s political essays, articles, and lectures show that he became a member of the Socialist Labor Party in support of its labor reform platform, and he was absorbed into the Socialist Party of America whose politics rankled him and eventually led to his resignation. Consequently, he wrote guardedly about socialism.
This is not to say that London did not have a social conscience or a belief in social justice. His social writings demonstrate both of these in the way he wrote about the working class and, especially, his concern for the young and the seriously ill. Nowhere is his social concern more apparent than in his The People of the Abyss essay collection in which he empathizes with the disenfranchised inhabitants of London’s East End.
London’s politics were complex, and, even though they did not fit comfortably under the cloak of socialism, he was progressive and far from the conservative status quo. As noted above, he was in the vanguard of labor reform, women’s rights, environmental conservation, government-sponsored health care, and care for minors. However, he was definitely a reformer, through his writing and lecturing, rather than a revolutionary in his approach.
His racial writings reveal no racial prejudice but rather a belief in cultural evolution that had no basis in skin color but rather in the cultural characteristics of an ever-changing dominant group. He treated his racial subjects with dignity and respect, finding something to like about each. London was obsessed with Darwin’s theory of evolution, which he misapplied to cultural development as he did with the premise of all political and economic processes evolving into socialism.
Based on the popular and press response to London’s public appearances, his speaking was more radical than his writing, which he “toned” down for the written record. The “they” socialists of his “Revolution” essay would not have elicited the passionate response of the “we” socialists speech or resulted in a five-month lecture tour. London had a symbiotic relationship with the Socialist Party: the party exploited London’s celebrity as a propagandist, and London enjoyed performing as the revolutionary socialist, welcoming the publicity that it brought him.
His literary writings repeatedly emphasize the profitability of writing fiction over essays. London’s social conscience was conflicted by this choice, and although he tried to (p. 201) balance the two forms of writing and incorporate essay themes into his fiction, he largely gave up writing essays during the last seven years of his career in order to meet debt obligations. This resulted in a career-long internal conflict that he never resolved. This is not to say that his fiction was inferior to his nonfiction or that his fiction was without artistic merit, but rather it produced a sense of guilt that he was able to initially assuage with interludes of essay writing. Ironically, much of London’s fiction has withstood the test of time, whereas much of the nonfiction has not.
In addition to previously mentioned examples of London’s nonfiction inspiring his fiction, there are two other noteworthy cases from writing not discussed herein: the description of the young woman in the “Girl Who Crossed Swords with a Burglar” who was the prototype for Frona Welse, the heroine of Daughter of the Snows, and the description of the dogsled-pulling contest in “Husky, Wolf Dog of the North” that became the centerpiece of The Call of the Wild.
However, since the nonfiction is autobiographical in nature and more thematically intimate than the fiction, it is worthwhile to explore for the insight it can provide. The conclusions drawn from London’s nonfiction are dramatically different from the interpretations commonly made of his fiction. Currently the scholarly work around London’s nonfiction is both sparse and superficial. Hopefully this limited introduction will inspire additional analysis and discussion.
Auerbach, Jonathan. Male Call: Becoming Jack London. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1996. 22–25.Find this resource:
Berkman, Alexander. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1912.Find this resource:
Brennan, Stephen. An Autobiography of Jack London. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.Find this resource:
Campbell Reesman, Jeanne. Jack London’s Racial Lives: A Critical Biography. Athens, GA: U Georgia P, 2009. 122–125.Find this resource:
London, Charmian. The Book of Jack London, 2 Vols. New York: Century, 1921. 2:340.Find this resource:
London, Jack. The Abysmal Brute. New York: The Century Co., 1913.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “The Apostate.” Woman’s Home Companion 33 (Sept. 1906): 5–7, 49.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “Big Socialist Vote Is Fraught with Meaning.” San Franciso Examiner 10 Nov. 1904: 3.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “Cherry.” Jack London Journal no. 6 (1999): 4–76.Find this resource:
London, Jack. The Game. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1905.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “Girl Who Crossed Swords with a Burglar Tells How Her Athletic Training Saved Her Life.” San Francisco Examiner 11 July 1901: 1.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “Husky, Wolf Dog of the North.” Harper’s Weekly 44 (June 1900): 611–612.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “If Japan Awakens China.” Sunset Magazine 23 (Dec. 1909): 597–601.Find this resource:
London, Jack. John Barleycorn. New York: The Century Co., 1913. 220–221.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “The Language of the Tribe.” Mid-Pacific Magazine 10 (Aug. 1915): 117–120.Find this resource:
London, Jack. The Letters of Jack London. Eds. Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz III, and I. Milo Shepard. 3 Vols. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988. 1:163–167, 1:181–182, 1:233–234, 2:581–582, 3:1122.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “My Hawaiian Aloha.” Cosmopolitan Magazine 61 (Sept. 1916):36, 39, 170–174; pt. 2 (Oct. 1916): 38–39, 142–144; pt. 3 (Nov. 1916): 60–62, 172, 175, 178.Find this resource:
(p. 202) London, Jack. “Negro Never in Doubt, Fear or Trouble, Played All the Time.” New York Herald 5 July 1910: 3–4.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “Riding the South Sea Surf.” Woman’s Home Companion 34 (Oct. 1907): 9–10.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “Unparallelled Invasion.” McClure 35 (July 1910): 308–315.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “Washoe Indians Resolve to Be White Men.” San Francisco Examiner 16 June 1901: 3.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “What shall Be Done with this Boy?” San Francisco Examiner, American Magazine Section, 21 June 1903: 3.Find this resource:
London, Jack. “The Yellow Peril.” San Francisco Examiner 25 Sept. 1904: 44.Find this resource:
Lye, Colleen. America’s Asia; Racial Form and American Literature, 1893–1945. Chapter 1. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004.Find this resource:
Zamen, Mark. Standing Room Only: Jack London’s Controversial Career as a Public Speaker. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1990. 89.Find this resource: