“A Curious Sort of Book”: Jack London’s and the Politics of Prison Reform
Abstract and Keywords
A bold, imaginative work, The Star Rover demonstrates Jack London’s inventive approach to the social-protest genre. London mixes in the typical problem-novel ingredients: gritty, realistic details; sympathetic, downtrodden victims; greedy capitalist villains and their muscle-headed henchmen; brisk, often violent, action; outraged invective; individual and collective resistance; and radical action for precipitating change. But, in the process of exposing conditions within American prisons, London deviates sharply and creatively in The Star Rover—not only from the conventions of protest writing but also from the type of writing that normally assured him of good sales and positive reviews.
In a March 26, 1914, letter to Cosmopolitan editor Roland Philips, Jack London outlined his plan for an as-yet untitled “prison novel.” “I have thought of calling it The Star Rover, also calling it The Jacket, or The Shirt Without a Collar…. You will find it a curious sort of book.” (Letters 3:1314).
London’s tantalizing preview of this novel, eventually titled The Star Rover in the United States and The Jacket in Britain, was prescient in that it signaled a bold, if not risky, departure from the fictional products mass-audience consumers expected of this popular American writer. Although London did not elaborate on the novel’s “curious” ingredients, he shared with Philips his conception of a book designed to expose prison conditions:
It is a book that cuts various ways. It truly states prison conditions. It is the law today that a man can be hanged by the neck until dead, for punching another man in the nose. It is the law in California. It is also legal in California to sentence a man to life-imprisonment in solitary. The board of Prison Directors has this power on a life convict…. I have really understated the severity of the use of the jacket.
London assured Philips that he had omitted some of the more “grewsome” features of incarceration and opted instead for replacing the unrelenting gloom of prison conditions with a more “optimistic tenor.” His goals were lofty and large scale. He explained that the novel’s hero managed to reap “the largeness of the centuries” by means of love, romance adventure, “and the life everlasting” through protracted straitjacketing and solitary confinement” (Letters 3:1315). London did not explain how he intended to put a positive spin on institutionalized torture.
(p. 388) However, in his letter to Philips, Jack London situated The Star Rover in a literary category firmly rooted in early twentieth-century Progressive-Era protest and reform movements: the social protest novel. Such diverse issues as food safety, social welfare, labor conditions, child labor, animal rights, agricultural economics, and minority and women’s rights were addressed in an impressive body of journalistic, nonfictional, and fictional writings aimed at heightening public awareness and prompting social and legislative action. Throughout his highly productive writing career, London embraced a number of social and political causes in a range of essays, newspaper articles, nonfiction narratives, short stories, and novels. Some London texts that seem on the surface to advance no overt political agenda can be classified as reformist writing.1 Despite its strikingly unusual content and structure, The Star Rover offers a powerful example of writing aimed at righting a social wrong.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prison conditions and reform strategies persisted as volatile, hotly debated topics in political and journalistic arenas.2 London’s fictional project not only connects with contemporary debates about prison conditions and policies but also probes the deeper economic, philosophical, and social underpinnings of the American prison system. In his letter to Philips, London identifies critical flaws in the California prison system, stressing that he has “understated the severity” of straitjacketing, a practice that had been abolished, one historian notes, in 1902 at Folsom but was still used extensively at San Quentin (Bookspan 56). The Star Rover is, more than anything, a sharply focused critique of a penal system already under scrutiny by early twentieth-century reformers.
According to Shelley Bookspan, Progressive-Era penologists emphasized rehabilitating prisoners and returning them to productive citizenship. Other western states like Washington and Utah, she explains, had adopted such improvements as one-person cells, gender and age-segregation, and determination of the length of one’s sentence by means of earned parole or probation (50). These measures appeared to cut violence and recidivism. But, California, whose state prisons had been constructed by convict laborers, lagged far behind in grappling with overcrowding, budgetary stresses, violence, and corruption. In sum, California’s prison authorities resisted reforms, opting instead for the “short-term goal of trouble-free custodianship.” Any rehabilitation of prisoners was achieved “principally by breaking the will of defiant men” (Bookspan 51).
Jack London’s fictional representation of San Quentin accurately reflects the state’s regressive penal practices.3 As Shelley Bookspan observes, California took enormous pride in its wealth, hospitality, and postcard-perfect Bay Area landscape. But, San Quentin, with its breathtaking views of Berkeley and the Bay of San Francisco, was essentially an “overgrown county jail of the old style, a jumble of old buildings” cramming 1,500 inmates into 640 cells and offering only a small yard where they could huddle “like cattle” (Bookspan 56). Interestingly, London refrains from limning the physical details of San Quentin, offering minimal descriptive details, if any, about the carceral edifice. Instead, he focuses on the psychological and interpersonal relationships of prisoners and their jailers. Christopher Gair suggests that this is precisely where the reader “sees London’s subversion” (123). He aligns London’s version of San Quentin with the (p. 389) disciplinary system Foucault anatomizes in Discipline and Punish (1973). Discipline permeates every level of the penitentiary as a means of “controlling the individual.” To be subjected to discipline, Foucault emphasizes, the prisoner must be visible at all times and thus be objectified. Such objectification and control, Gair argues, is the ultimate goal of “a capitalistic system” seeking compliant, predictable functionaries (118). Under round-the-clock surveillance, the inmates absorb and internalize the disciplinary code and are thus depersonalized and dehumanized.
Jack London’s writerly objectives can also be linked to a brief but unforgettable thirty days of incarceration beginning on June 29, 1894. Arrested and convicted for vagrancy in Buffalo, New York, the eighteen-year-old London was thrown into a nightmare world of filthy, constricted quarters dominated by a hierarchy of toughs, degenerates, and career criminals. Later, London incorporated many “grewsome” details of his incarceration, including sexual exploitation of prisoners, enhanced disciplinary tactics, and squalid conditions in his tramping memoirs, The Road (1907), and in his temperance-themed autobiography, John Barleycorn (1913). Imprisonment was a critical formative experience for Jack London. It was something he never forgot.
Not surprisingly, prison-themed literature made its way into Jack London’s library. London’s highly diverse personal book collection, catalogued in David Mike Hamilton’s “The Tools of My Trade”: Annotated Books in Jack London’s Library, contains several titles germane to London’s interest in prison reform and, ultimately, relevant to his composition of The Star Rover. Although London’s annotations reveal more interest in non-prison topics, Henry S. Salt’s 1896 two-volume study, Cruelties of Civilization: A Program of Human Reform contained chapters on the incarceration of women. Another book, Oscar Wilde’s Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life (1896) provided London with insights into an especially tragic prison population. London also studied Florence Maybrick’s Mrs. Maybrick’s Own Story: My Fifteen Lost Years (1905). The attractive Alabama-born Maybrick, who had been imprisoned for complicity in the arsenic-poisoning death of her philandering husband, wrote a retrospection on her years in Woking and Aylesbury prisons in England. After her release, Maybrick became an activist in the prison-reform movement. Hamilton notes that London’s marginalia indicates the writer’s interest in the threadbare evidence convicting Maybrick and the judge’s mental instability (203).
Even London’s own copy of The Star Rover contained a clipping bearing notes indicating plans to do more writing about the American prison system. Especially notable is a reference to an inmate of the Ossining State Prison. This prisoner, known as Number 1500, published his prison-house journal in the form of a book straightforwardly titled Life in Sing Sing (1904). This book provided the writer with vivid descriptions of prison life, including some highly useful paragraphs describing the cell of a prisoner who had allegedly been “framed.” London’s marginalia indicate several pages that provide the germ of a “story idea or part of a prison setting for a novel” (Hamilton 217). An active, purposeful reader who pored over texts with pencil in hand, Jack London prepared thoroughly for writing his “curious sort of book” about the American prison system.
(p. 390) A bold, imaginative work, The Star Rover demonstrates Jack London’s inventive approach to the social-protest genre. London mixes in the typical problem-novel ingredients: gritty, realistic details; sympathetic, downtrodden victims; greedy capitalist villains and their muscle-headed henchmen; brisk, often violent, action; outraged invective; individual and collective resistance; and radical action for precipitating change. But, in the process of exposing conditions within American prisons, London deviates sharply and creatively in The Star Rover—not only from the conventions of protest writing but also from the type of writing that normally assured him of good sales and positive reviews.4
Unlike most London fictions that follow a conventional linear plot line, The Star Rover employs an arresting multi-narrative, nested-box structure that coalesces in a single argument, advanced through a single “frame” narrator, about the transcendent durability of the human consciousness, even in the most wretched conditions. By the end of the novel, the reader not only grasps the injustices within the American prison system but also apprehends the optimistic message about “the life everlasting” that London alludes to in his letter to Roland Philips. Jay Williams characterizes the story as “a condemned man’s written record of two worlds” (“The Cell” 133). This bi-planar story line thus provides the narrative premise of The Star Rover, a novel employing the classic “found manuscript” device. The frame story of a contraband manuscript delivers the writer’s testimony about his life in prison. Within this frame, narrator Darrell Standing relates seven embedded adventures, via self-induced trances that access what he believes to be inherited memories. Finally, London constructs an all-embracing frame that is subtly indicated by a single footnote at the close of chapter 19. This citation has been attached by sympathetic editors now in possession of Standing’s manuscript, which has been smuggled out of San Quentin. This footnote, which confirms the death of Darrell Standing, also verifies the claims articulated in one of his interpolated stories (285). This note further suggests that Standing’s amazing story can be disseminated to readers clamoring to see the inner workings of the prison industry. Ultimately, Jack London transmits Darrell Standing’s prison memoirs to a wide audience.5
Central to London’s attack on the American prison system is one of his most charmingly subversive narrators, Darrell Standing. Writing from his death row cell, Standing declares that “I am neither fool nor lunatic” (3), a claim that strikes the reader as suspect. An ex-professor of agronomics at Berkeley, Standing has been sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a colleague, Professor Haskell. He admits to killing this man and accepts the state’s punishment, but he offers few specifics about or a motive for the crime. He cannot account for his actions, other than succumbing to a sudden eruption of a primeval force he calls the “red wrath,” an atavistic human predisposition toward killing an adversary in order to survive. He explains the incident: “And the snarl of my anger was blended with the snarls of beasts more ancient than the mountains” (3). The “red wrath,” as Standing explains it, is the residue of man’s primeval being, a genetic holdover, passed down through the human “germ plasm” as an essential part of human heredity.6
But this deterministic rationale is undercut when Standing announces to the reader that he is on the verge of execution, not for murdering Haskell, but, oddly, for (p. 391) accidentally striking a prison guard in the nose—a capital offense in California. Even though Standing has only slightly injured the guard, California law absurdly decrees that Standing must be hanged for the assault. In the little time remaining, Standing composes an account that outlines not only his encounters with the institutionalized brutality and corruption of the prison system but also his sanity-saving method for surviving years of straitjacketed solitary confinement.7 Standing’s harrowing narrative unveils the anatomy of the America prison ethos, where traditional moral values are inverted, and human potential is squandered. As a San Quentin inmate, Standing is subjected to years of physical and psychological torture after a fellow prisoner concocts a story about Standing smuggling a parcel of dynamite into the prison.
Darrell Standing accepts that he will never leave prison. But, his ability to endure the continuous physical and mental torture is severely tested in chapter 4, where Standing throws glaring light onto the realities of prison life. A closet alcoholic-depressive, Warden Atherton relentlessly browbeats Standing as he seeks to pry information about the nonexistent cache of explosives. On the heels of a loom-room rebellion, Atherton confronts Standing, who offers an unwelcome professional critique of the prison-factory’s efficiency: “The whole of this prison is stupid…. You can weave the political pull of San Francisco saloonmen and ward heelers into a position of graft such as this one you occupy; but you can’t weave jute. Your looms are fifty years behind the times” (9–10).
Later, after Standing emerges from a term of physical punishment and water deprivation, the warden summons him to his office for further pummeling. He hoists the emaciated prisoner into a chair and harangues him about the dynamite. Standing cannot answer. The warden and his minions repeatedly smash Standing’s skeletal body into a succession of wooden chairs, shattering each one in the process. Standing calmly reflects upon the enhanced interrogation he has survived: “I don’t know how many chairs were broken by my body” (25).
But, the seemingly insouciant Darrell Standing is never the same again. He is sentenced to five years in solitary. When he emerges from the dark cell, he accidentally strikes a guard. Now a capital offense, an ex post facto law against assaulting a prison guard prompts Standing to recognize that he has lost the constitutional right to due process. Relegated to murderer’s row, Darrell Standing must now confront his own death. Writing affords him a means of enduring the limited time he has left. More, it provides a channel through which he can protest an unjust, amoral prison system and, ultimately, reach out to allies in his cause.
While incarcerated, Darrell Standing enters into an unlikely, mutually supportive community of felons, outcasts, and cons. In his previous life as an academic, Standing was safely insulated from the non-law-abiding segment of society. His refined discourse and academic status would likely alienate Standing from the social degenerates and prison operatives he coexists with. At one point, Captain Jamie exclaims, “Crazy ginks, these college guys” (73). Nonetheless, Standing earns the respect of convicts like Ed Morrell and Jake Oppenheimer. Mock-deferentially addressing him as “Professor,” his prison confreres admire his toughness and loyalty to the incarcerated community, (p. 392) ultimate credentials within the prison ethos. Expressing admiration through “knuckle-talk,” Oppenheimer admits that the “Professor” is “a good guy,” adding that “I was always suspicious of educated mugs, but he ain’t been hurt none by his education. He sure is square” (292). The feeling is mutual. Standing reciprocates with genuine respect for Oppenheimer, a jailhouse killer awaiting execution. In Oppenheimer, Darrell Standing observes “all the cardinal traits of right humanness.” He extols Oppenheimer’s loyalty, bravery, and innate sense of justice (73). In this oppressive space, such seemingly incompatible inmates form the kind of solidarity needed to undermine an unjust system. Reflecting on the personal bonds he has forged, Standing comments:
In fact, I who am about to die have the right to say it without incurring the charge of immodesty, the three best minds in San Quentin, from the warden down, were the three that rotted together in solitary…. I am compelled to the conclusion that strong minds are never docile. The stupid men, the fearful men, the men ungifted with passionate righteousness and fearless championship—these are the men who make model prisoners. I thank all gods that Jake Oppenheimer, Ed Morrell and I were not model prisoners. (39)
London is at his best as a Progressive reform writer in his delineation of the relationships between Standing and his prison-mates. Throughout the novel, Standing’s close bonds with Ed Morell and Jake Oppenheimer provide an alternative vision of incarcerated human beings. On a practical level, Standing realizes that they probably “kept one another from insanity” (162). The food is “filthy, monotonous, unnutritious,” and the surroundings are “vile.” Worse, there are no books, newspapers, or news of the outer world. When information does seep in, it is usually too old to be meaningful. Standing grasps the profundity of their dispiriting shared condition: “We were buried alive, the living dead. Solitary was our tomb, in which, on occasion, we talked with our knuckles like spirits rapping at séances” (162–23).8 Through these bonds, London demonstrates that prisons are fundamentally human communities where surprisingly beneficial interactions can occur. Above all, he shames the state’s rejection of enlightened penal philosophies that encourage rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into law-abiding society.
Thus, the first eleven chapters of The Star Rover offer an intense, eye-opening introduction to the “prison conditions” that London believed the public needed to see. In this section, the novel most closely conforms to the social-protest genre. Through a convincing narrator, the reader encounters an array of excesses: the corrupt prison hierarchy, the institution’s stultifying make-work industries, and the disciplinary system’s reliance on corruption and betrayal as enforcement tools.
Through the brashly self-affirming Darrell Standing, London proposes an alternative vision to the disciplinary machine. Standing’s expansive, analytical mind, combined with a mordant sense of humor, makes him a foil for dim prison operatives like Warden Atherton, his henchman Captain Jamie, the prison doctor, and other bureaucratic minions. At the outset, Standing explains that, prior to incarceration, he had been an (p. 393) academic agricultural efficiency expert, whose scientific analyses of land use and productivity aligned him with the progressive mindset of full-steam industrial America. Boasting of increasing “the annual corn yield of every county in Iowa by half a million of dollars,” Standing establishes his superior intellect. Waste of time and motion are anathema to him. But in the prison, he quickly discovers that efficiency cannot be achieved. The prison is, by its nature, a system dedicated to soulless mechanical production and protracted stretches of nonproductive time spent in a prison cell.9 Opportunities for rehabilitation, education, or character reformation are unavailable to prisoners locked into this irrational domain. With its fluid ethics and ad hoc codes of punishment and rewards, jailhouse society annihilates identity as well as sanity. Few inmates of this lunatic inversion of extramural society can resist soul-killing machinations of the penal system and the culture that puts it in place. Those who do resist—like Darrell Standing, Ed Morrell, and Jake Oppenheimer—invite enhanced punishment and torment, usually in the form of solitary confinement.
From the outset of his narration, Standing follows the pattern of many driven but disillusioned London heroes. Christopher Gair contends that these resisters against a regimented, money-driven society, for example, Martin Eden, and Saxon and Billy Roberts of The Valley of the Moon, envision escape to idealized, egalitarian alternative spaces. But their revolts end in disillusionment. Still, Gair suggests, the “good place” remains a possibility for these characters. Their search, he observes, continues (119). In many ways, Darrell Standing fits Gair’s profile of London’s questing heroes. But, Darrell Standing differs appreciably in his physical inability to venture into territories of possibility. He is trapped behind prison walls. Idealistic, utopian breakaways are impossible. Caught in a cycle of confrontation over a mythical box of dynamite that can never be found, Standing has no prospect of fleeing to a better place. He is a locked in a no-exit, absurd universe that conspires daily to destroy him.
However, Darrell Standing discovers that he can escape through self-induced trances into an interior space affording respite from a pointless existence that will end in death. For the incarcerated Darrell Standing, the “good place” is unreachable. Still, he expresses confidence that he will indeed return—over and over—in some other form or identity. He proclaims that he will indeed achieve the “life everlasting” that London alludes to in his letter to Philips.
Throughout the novel, Standing asserts that the human spirit never really dies, that it survives through the ages via a “genetic memory” encapsulated within the human cell. He substantiates this belief through his own case history. Standing claims that from early childhood, he has been haunted by “other voices” mingled with the snarls of creatures roaming the landscapes of the prehistoric past. Inborn memories, emotions, and reflexes are, he posits, confirmation of past lives and times, and that his person was more a “flux” than a fixed identity anchored within a particular span of time (41). To illustrate, Standing recounts a startling incident from his childhood. A missionary raising funds for his work abroad paid a visit to the Standing home. Sharing a set of photographs with the Standings and their guests, the missionary identified one pictured site as the Tower of David. The six-year-old Darrell quickly objected to the image, pointing out certain (p. 394) discrepancies. He claimed that a village had actually been located in Samaria but that “it’s different in the picture.” The child calmly described previous features of the village and incidents that had occurred there. The stunned missionary identified the hill near the village as Golgotha—the Place of Skulls—a site of crucifixion. This startling incident is recalled in chapter 17, where Darrell Standing recovers the consciousness of Ragnar Lodbrog, an eyewitness to the trial and execution of Jesus. Standing goes on to expand on his thesis that “a Golconda of memories of other lives” exists within himself (51). By gaining access to this hoard of inherited memory, Darrell Standing finds a means of escaping the claustrophobic confines of his solitary cell.
Thanks to Ed Morrell, Darrell Standing discovers that he can revisit the long-past worlds and identities he believes to be passed down through his genetic makeup. Morrell first teaches him to communicate to others in solitary confinement through tapping his knuckles in a form of code. Once the “knuckle-talk” code has been mastered, he instructs Standing in a sanity-saving technique through which he can lose total awareness of his tormented body and transcend awareness of conditions he must endure in straitjacketed solitary confinement. After Standing detaches his mind from his body, he embarks on “star roving,” a mental progress facilitated by the past-life memories lurking within his cellular composition. Just prior to his execution by hanging, Darrell Standing captures these dream-like journeys with paper and pen, thus unifying the outer and inner narratives in a single document.
Standing introduces his reader to his remarkable ability to transcend the body and recover long-lost memories. After one of many conflicts with the warden, Standing is thrown into straitjacketed solitary confinement, where he feels intense bodily pain and physical exhaustion. But, Morrell’s fakir-like techniques admit him to a psychic state of release from time and place. With his mind fully detached from his physical being, Darrell Standing enters into seven discrete identities, all preserved in the bio-chemical material of his “germ plasm.” Standing begins to hear the “clacking sounds of many hoofs moving orderly on stone flags” (83), indicating that Professor Standing has thus entered the persona of Count Guillaume Sainte-Maure, a swashbuckling courtier enamored of a young aristocratic widow who has also attracted the Duke of Aquitaine.10 Standing’s first regression delivers the stuff of mass-produced romantic adventure: athletic swordplay, court intrigue, hoisted tankards, strummed music, well-born ladies, and a cast of scheming courtiers. Darrell Standing’s commentaries on the action are notable. Just as Sainte-Maure parries and thrusts against his opponents, Pasquini and Fortini, Standing, the time-and-motion expert, steps in, offering his professional opinion on the slick efficiency of killing with a sword that “perforated so … ” (94). Sainte-Maure’s intense awareness of the rationalized timing of a thrust rapier or strategic movement across a floor aligns the sword-fighting protagonist with the proudly Tayloristic Darrell Standing, who is preoccupied with paring away split seconds of fruitless, unprofitable motion. His analysis of the action is so good that he admits actually feeling the sword slicing precisely through the flesh.
The aristocratic sword-fight ritual anticipates the similarly scripted rites of the state-mandated execution awaiting Standing. Thus, the clash between the idealized, (p. 395) moonlit world of medieval romance and the regimented life behind bars is striking. Sainte-Maure mounts the fight of his life, only to be stabbed. Standing’s audience never knows if Sainte-Maure survives the rapier’s plunge into his flesh. The Frenchman’s narrative halts when Standing is jarred into wakefulness by a splash of cold water. He finds the warden and the prison doctor hovering over him. Here, Standing realizes that the boundary between the trance world and the waking-life prison can be quite porous and, at times, fragile.
A succession of psychic flights ensues. In the next episode, Darrell Standing finds himself in the parched deserts of the Utah territory. Standing has now elided into the persona of eight-year-old Jesse Fancher, a member of a wagon-train party of roughly 120 Arkansas emigrants heading through the “Mormon corridor” to California. For the weary Arkansas emigrants, California is a promised land, an idealized good place, offering land, a congenial climate, and a calm political atmosphere.
Here, London incorporates a controversial historic event. According to Klaus J. Hansen, on September 11, 1857, “there occurred the cold-blooded massacre of at least 120 men women and children traveling in a wagon train from Arkansas … to California.” The emigrants were camped at the grassy, oasis-like Mountain Meadows in the Utah territory. On the morning of September 11, Hansen explains, they came under gunfire attack by assailants who appeared to be Indians. The emigrants fought for five days. A Mormon militia “carrying a white flag,” rode toward the “exhausted but wary travelers.” Hansen explains that they had been “brutally murdered by the militia,” aided by some Paiutes. “Only seventeen children under the age of eight were spared” (Hansen 503). This horrific event has been the subject of a number of scholarly and popular studies.
As Jay Williams notes, Jack London had probably learned of the incident through Charmian London’s aunt, Ninetta Eames. Charmian’s father, Captain Kittredge, had lived in Salt Lake City in the nineteenth century. Mrs. Eames was familiar with Kittredge’s life and with Mormon history (Williams, “Authorial Choice, Part Two” 3). London gathered information about the massacre from Josiah Gibbs’s The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Geronimo’s autobiography (Hamilton 39). Hamilton says that London’s personal library contained “many books about Mormonism” and other historical accounts of the massacre. From these sources, he pieced together the embedded story Jesse Fancher related through Darrell Standing (138).
Jack London’s attitudes toward Mormonism are unclear. However, anti-Mormon attitudes circulated widely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Terryl Givens explains that negative representations of Mormons turn up in a range of transatlantic writings, among them Mark Twain’s Roughing It, Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, Zane Grey’s The Riders of the Purple Sage, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Dynamiters, Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, and London’s The Star Rover. Givens believes that Mormonism has had “a long and tumultuous relationship with American society” because of its “religious peculiarity based on ongoing revelation and additional scripture” as well as its vigorous missionary efforts (5).
Jesse Fancher’s narration, one of the longer interpolated stories in The Star Rover, is ruptured at several points by Standing’s waking moments and his philosophical (p. 396) reflections on the content of his dream-rovings. Standing shifts quickly from San Quentin to the stern landscape of the old West, once again hearing hoof beats and “the grind of wheels on axles and the grate and clash of iron tires against the rock and sand” (109). But the scene is nothing like Guillaume Sainte-Maure’s France. Rather, a procession of roughly forty covered wagons rolls over the parched plains of the Utah territory. Jesse Fancher’s father leads a party of Arkansas emigrants headed for California. Water is running low. After sundown, as the emigrants light the campfire, a party of “hard-faced, stern-faced, somber men” confronts the Fancher family, accusing them of complicity in Mormon persecutions in Missouri. Here, young Jesse exhibits “the red wrath,” screaming that his people are from Arkansas, not Missouri. The deputation warns the Fanchers that Brigham Young, who has declared martial law, refuses to sell encroaching migrants food and water. They offer them the option of obtaining provisions at other, more welcoming settlements ahead of them and that, at the very worst, they can eat their own cattle (115). Jesse falls asleep, envisioning Brigham Young “as a fearful malignant being, a very devil with horns and tail and all” (116).
Struggling to recover images of the “chain-locked wagon circle,” Standing launches into a peculiar brief scenario—the third episode—which is prompted when the Warden mentions the word “priests.” Standing finds himself in another parched, rocky setting, acutely aware of his calloused hands and emaciated body. No longer speaking as Darrell Standing, the narrator identifies himself as a third-century desert ascetic occupying a hole carved into a rock. He devotes his days to “mortification of the flesh” and contemplation of God (120). The hermit’s meditations are inspired by four crumbling colossi. Staring at these ruined sphinxlike images, he ponders the “vanity and futility of earth men and earth aspirations” (118). The ascetic fixates upon the mistreatment and murder of his teacher Arius—“a presbyter of the city of Alexandria” (120)—over a theological clash with Alexander.
This brief trance-state narrative closes at sunset, as the sleepy ascetic fixates on the “once-proud works of men” (121). The desert-mystic sequence moves seamlessly back to Darrell Standing’s cell, where the delirious inmate condemns Warden Atherton as “blasphemous and heretical” and that he, like “the blasphemous and heretical Alexander” (120), will find his feet “[having] fast hold of hell.” Like a rhetorical wave, the ascetic’s rant washes into Standing’s outburst as the prison officials hover over the straitjacketed incorrigible. Standing taunts the jailers into tightening the straps. As if channeling the hermit, Standing pronounces Atherton “conceived of the devil “(122). Left hanging about the resolution of the Jesse Fancher story, Standing tries to will himself into a trance that takes him back to Mountain Meadows.
Before he can fully recapture the mental imagery of the threatened wagon train, Standing launches into a remarkable disquisition on the unreality of physical existence. He tells the reader that “[l]ife is the thread of fire that persists through all the modes of matter.” Even if all parts of his body were subtracted from the whole, he would still exist through “the vital fire of life” (123). He poses a series of ubi sunt? interrogatives: Where are Jesse Fancher and the other embattled members of the ill-starred wagon train? Where is the body of Guillaume de Sainte-Maure? What has become of the “many and (p. 397) nameless hermits of Egypt?” He answers his own questions, reminding his reader that he is “under sentence of death” and that his physical self will soon cease. But, he argues, “The spirit is the reality that endures. I am spirit, and I endure” (124). All of these vanished beings, he believes, endure within him and his genetic legacy.
In chapter 13, Standing wills himself back to the desolate, parched Utah landscape. The weary procession makes camp at the oasis Mountain Meadow. Wagons are parked in a loose, unsecured circle. Water is in short supply; no one has thought to circle the wagons around the freshwater spring. By the next day, the Arkansas migrants are fired upon. Women and children burrow into the ground while the men gather in defensive rifle pits. A scout reports that the assailants are Indians accompanied by a few white men.
The migrants attempt to forge a truce with white sheets, but the white leader, James D. Lee “took no notice” (137). At one point Jesse’s father asks Jesse and another boy to dress as girls to take buckets to the spring. Eventually, the gunfire ceases, leading the migrants to believe that the Lee and his party have relented. Events move quickly after Jesse glimpses a man with a white flag approaching the besieged encampment. After the men confer with the leader of the shooters, Lee begins to cull women and children. He orders the women to walk in file, then the men.
Jesse describes the beginning of a long march with an unclear destination. As the men parade in front of the militia, Major Higbee orders the soldiers to start shooting until every adult male has been executed. Jesse Fancher’s narration gradually shifts from first-person to third-person, where Standing’s voice takes over for Jesse’s. He says that Jesse “has ceased forever in bodily form” but endures as “an imperishable spirit” (153), a comment that meshes with Standing’s earlier statements about the durability of the human essence.
Except for its scorching-hot setting, Standing’s compact interruptive story seems to have little connection to Jesse Fancher’s account of a brutal desert ambush. But, the hermit’s invective against those who conspired against Athanasius over the nature of God, forges an interesting connection with Mormon theology. Joseph Smith grappled with the concept of the unification of God, concluding that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were separate entities. Maurice Wiles explains that Arius advanced the heretical idea that the Son—traditionally viewed as a part of the Trinity—is “not one of essential Godhead” (7). Rowan Williams’s Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Eerdmans, 2002) offers an excellent historical and theological analysis of the fourth-century internal struggles within the Christian Church. Jack London’s sources for the hermit episode are unclear.
Standing awakens in chapter 14 to yet another encounter with his nemesis, Warden Atherton, accompanied by Captain Jamie and the Dr. Jackson. By this time, Standing has lost nearly half his weight. Still seeking a confession, Atherton encourages Standing to “rest up and recuperate,” so that he can spend “another ten days in the jacket” (156).
From the chess game, played through “knuckle-talk,” Standing shifts into the fourth self-induced trance, in which he enters the character of Adam Strang, a sixteenth-century English sailor. Strang is thirty years old as the narrative opens; but, as Standing later admits, he cannot retrieve the details of preceding parts of Strang’s life (165). Strang and his shipmates on The Spahrwehr have been trolling the eastern oceans as part of a Dutch colonialist venture.
(p. 398) At the outset, the Strang episode follows the shipwrecked-sailor formula that London uses twice in The Star Rover. Once again, London melds fiction with fact, drawing upon historical and cultural materials. Like the Jesse Fancher persona, who is entrapped by bitter sectarian clashes with the US government, Adam Strang is another ordinary human similarly enmeshed in the inescapable conflict, degradation, and brutality prompted by a repressive power structure. Most of the action is set in sixteenth-century Korea, where, in the span of forty years, Strang curries favor with a warlord, marries a princess, rises to power, and vanquishes a succession of enemies, only to fall out of favor and finally plunge into excruciating penury.
The only bright spot in Strang’s tumultuous history as an outsider penetrating a closed society is his marriage to the high-born Lady Om. Together, the disgraced Strang and his wife ply the countryside, begging and picking through detritus to survive. Strang’s dramatic saga closes with the kind of revenge Darrell Standing would like to exert upon the prison authorities who have made his life unbearable. Like the Mountain Meadows sequence, the Adam Strang episode showcases authoritarian limitations on movement, conduct and—ultimately—existence. Violence, upheaval, and totalitarian control over powerless masses link this disquieting saga not only to Standing’s other out-of-body explorations but also to his inescapable predicament as a condemned man.11
At the close of his tale, the impoverished Strang describes the ultimate moment of his life. A ruined old man, Strang encounters his nemesis, the similarly wizened warlord Chong Mong-ju. Ordering his coolies to lower his litter, Chong Mong-ju pauses to rest. Spurred by an explosion of “the red wrath,” Strang bursts through the curtains and locks the old man’s throat in his hands. Attendants and outriders jump on Strang, attempting to pull him away. “I was dizzy, but not unconscious,” Strang says, “and very blissful with my old fingers buried in that lean and scraggly old neck I had sought for so long” (205). Strang’s long-time enemy is dead; but he intimates that as darkness closes over the cliffs where his vengeful outburst occurred, he, too, will expire.
In chapter 17, Standing directly addresses the future reader of his death row manuscript, prompting recall of his childhood identification of long-past sites in the Holy Land. He invokes Wordsworth’s theory of pre-birth existence, intimating that “memories of other times and places” are alive within him, even as “the shades of the prison house” envelop him (214). He tells his reader that he “had witnessed the healing of the leper” and that he had told the visiting missionary “he was a big man with a big sword astride a horse” (214). He says that in this incarnation, he is the orphaned “Ragnar Lodbrog,” a heroic, Beowulf-style Dane who has marched with the Romans into Alexandria and then on to Jerusalem during the time of Christ’s clash with competing authorities and his ultimate execution. Once again, the motif of the doomed man facing state-imposed execution comes into play.12
Lodbrog’s narration opens in Scandinavia, where he is an orphan pitted against an unforgiving landscape and a harsh feudal system. The early scenes of this story evoke the elegiac conventions and tonalities of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The rootless, wandering narrator struggles to make his way in “the fens” where “wild men, masterless men, fled slaves and outlaws, who were hunted in sport as the wolves were hunted.” The homeless (p. 399) Lodbrog, who “has never known roof or fire” (206) is captured by Roman troops who enslave him and transport him to Alexandria and, later, to Jerusalem during the time of Christ’s trial and execution.
Now a Roman soldier, Lodbrog penetrates the center of Roman imperialist power: Pilate’s court. There, Lodbrog is introduced to the religious turmoil of the city, particularly as it finds its way into Pilate’s private chambers. Lodbrog sees in Pilate a distraught, triangulated figure struggling to appease Rome and to quell Jewish internecine battles. At one point, Pilate explains the local sectarian tensions to Lodbrog, citing a more troublesome problem: “a fisherman turned preacher and miracle-worker” (223). Pilate fears both civil upheaval and his own disgraced return to Rome. His fears lead to anguished indecision.
While in Pilate’s private domain, Lodbrog meets and becomes emotionally involved with Miriam, a friend of Pilate’s wife. Through Miriam, Lodbrog learns more of Jesus, whom she has encountered. “I have heard Him. I shall give all I have to the poor, and I shall follow him” (239). She describes Jesus and his family—including his sisters—as “a simple folk, more common people” (235). As political events come to a boil in Jerusalem, Miriam urges Lodbrog to take action to save the condemned Jesus. Lodbrog, too, succumbs to “the charm of Jesus” (242). Lodbrog is struck by Pilate’s inaction when pressed by competing political factions to deal with the crisis surrounding Jesus. After Jesus is taken to be crucified, Miriam pleads with Lodbrog to intervene. Caught between his passionate love for Miriam and his fidelity to Rome, Lodbrog admits that he cannot take action. He pleads with her to flee with him to Syria. But Miriam rejects the proposal and exits through the curtains. Ragnar Lodbrog’s dramatic narrative ends indecisively as he dutifully proceeds to Syria to join his Roman leader. Unconverted and largely unenlightened by his encounter with the charismatic Jesus, Lodbrog closes by opting to resume his role as an agent of a world-conquering force.
Reawakened in his solitary cell, Darrell Standing offers another meditation on the plasticity of life. “I am all of my past, as every protagonist of the Mendelian law must agree. All my previous selves have their voices, echoes, promptings, in me” (253). Standing admits that he has been both male and female in past genetic lives and will “be born again” (253). Yet, within this swirling, expansive meditation on his cellular endurance over the ages, is his confrontation with his own death by hanging, which is soon approaching. He envisions confronting physical death and contemplates the ratio of rope length and body weight required to put an end to his existence. Oddly, he claims that in a past life he has been an executioner. Standing then proclaims that he is considered one of the most dangerous and “toughest” inmates in the prison. Crediting the long hardening process of “steel hard experiences” relived through his rovings through past lives, he sets the stage for a narrative exemplifying a Darwinian struggle for survival.
Contemplating his own suffering, the straitjacketed Standing elides into a past-life experience that “was sort of a nightmare” (255). In this trance-recovered existence, Standing finds himself “on a rocky surge-battered” island. The shipwrecked Daniel Foss, an actual historic figure, recounts through Darrell Standing his solitary life on a desolate shore in the Friendly Islands. A sailor from Elkton, Maryland, Daniel Foss had signed on (p. 400) to the brig Negociator. On November 25, 1809, the ship hit ice and foundered. London owned a copy of Foss’s amazing survival story, A Journal of the Shipwreck and Sufferings of Daniel Foss (1816). Hamilton notes that London had marked the first twenty-three pages of this brief publication, making note of the shipwreck, Foss’s exclusive diet of seals, a catastrophic storm, a beached whale, and the ritual of keeping a journal (124). Foss spends years incising “minute letters” on a wooden oar with a knife. The marooned sailor relives the uncertainty of the voyage and the horrors of being jarred from his sleep by the ship’s collision with an iceberg. Foss prides himself on maintaining “curiously cool and deliberate conduct” as the ship sinks. Preparing to abandon ship, Foss wraps himself in warm clothing that he has pillaged from the trunks of his doomed shipmates. His goal is to float with the captain and other survivors on the frigid seas in an open boat and to find land with a hospitable climate: “It was a matter of the survival of the toughest and the luckiest” (261). Taking a fully Darwinian approach to the calamity, Foss escapes the sinking vessel.
Five weeks later, Foss explains, “[t]he trouble over food came to a head” (263). The captain catches a sailor stealing from the common pork barrel and a knife fight ensues. The conflict is resolved by simply throwing the mutineers overboard. The three remaining survivors subsist on small doles of meat.
Eventually, the lifeboat floats to warmer seas. Foss’s group is now on “dead reckoning,” By February 20, they run out of food. Foss omits the actual events of the next eight days, commenting only on the lax winds. Here, Darrell Standing interrupts Foss’s story “to note a conclusion of my own.” He asks how it is possible for Warden Atherton to “break down my spirit” when the spirit is more than capable of enduring the kind of isolation and hardship besetting sailor Daniel Foss.
Comparing his own predicament to Foss’s eight lonely years of “learned patience in that school of rocks in the far South Ocean” (282), Standing admits that his “ten days and nights in the jacket” are much easier. Returning to Foss’s narrative, Standing recounts the acts of a cunning survivalist who is imaginative, forward thinking, and practical. Unlike the doomed man in London’s “To Build a Fire” (1908), Daniel Foss apprehends his circumstances and takes appropriate action, often resorting to his trusty pocketknife as a versatile tool for survival. In the grand Yankee tradition, Daniel Foss masters his environment through rationality, making the best of his solitary existence until a ship rescues him.
In a postscript to Foss’s story of endurance, Standing admits that he had “wondered if Daniel Foss had been true in his resolve” and had actually deposited the inscribed oar in the Philadelphia Museum. Standing describes a letter of inquiry that he has smuggled out of San Quentin. In it, he asks about the existence of the oar. He receives a reply from the astounded curator, who—until receiving Standing’s surreptitious letter—has had no knowledge of the oar. Hosea Salsburty, the curator, closes his letter by asking Standing how he could possibly have knowledge of Foss, whose artifact has been relegated to “a disused attic lumber-room” (284). Here, Standing appears to receive confirmation of his theories of inherited memory. Too, he grasps the precariousness of written (p. 401) documents: his own manuscript must avoid the fate of Foss’s writings. It must be preserved and somehow brought to light.
As Darrell Standing draws closer to his appointment with death, he reflects on a quotation by Pascal, which argues that “the philosophic mind should look upon humanity as one man, and not as a conglomeration of individuals.” He reiterates his belief that each human being has evolved through time “from life’s beginning” and that man’s evolution is contained within each individual’s cellular makeup: “Once we were all fish-like you and I, my reader, and crawled up out of the sea to pioneer the great, dry-land adventure in the thick of which we are now” (296). What Pascal advanced, Standing suggests, he has actually lived. Reciting a litany of long-past life experiences, Standing identifies himself broadly as “a Son of the Plough, a Son of the Fish, a Son of the Tree” (298). He affirms that he is “that one man” who has endured through the ages (303) and explains that his memory reaches far back into an Era when he fashioned “a snare and a pit … for the taking of Sabre-Tooth. Standing accesses memories of his mate, a pelt-clad woman with “hands that were calloused like foot-pads and were more like claws than hands” (304). With his “savage mate,” this Stone Age incarnation of Darrell Standing—Ushu the archer—traverses the flat grasslands in search of animals.13
This sequence, reminiscent of Jack London’s prehistoric novel Before Adam, has—as suggested by Charles Crow—possible links with Ishi, the last surviving member of the California Yahi tribe (53). Considered “the last wild man in North America” (Crow 47), Ishi survived in the wild until August 1911, when he wandered into Oroville, California. He was suffering from starvation. Relying on his handmade flints and arrows for survival, Ishi was eventually taken in and studied by Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. He also served as a research assistant. He died in March 1916, several months before Jack London. As Crow explains, Jack London was aware of Ishi. Between 1911 and 1915, he read a copy of Stephen Powers’s Tribes of California (1877) and noted in the margin that the Mill Creek Indians, as they had been called by settlers, were “Ishi’s tribe” (53). Crow suggests that the Ishi story provided the germ for the Ushu the archer story.
Like Ishi, Ushu is “lost from [his] own people … and was taken in by a strange people, kin in that their skin was white, their hair yellow, their speech not too remote from mine” (304). Ushu’s hunting methods and customs do not mesh with those of the strange tribe that has taken him in. But, he mates with a robust woman named Igar. Together they produce children and grow old together. The tribe he has attached to is suddenly attacked by “dark men, flat-browed, kinky-headed” (306). Igar tries to keep Ushu out of the fray, but he pulls away and joins the fight in an effort to teach “the kinky heads” how to fight. Ushu is mortally wounded and listens as fellow warriors sing mournful dirges (306). Like other wounded protagonists of Standing’s trance adventures, Ushu fades away. His fate can only be surmised.
Moving out of his Ushu incarnation, Standing enters a fluid, expansive swirl of ancient lives he has led and the women he has encountered in his migration through time. Standing floats impressionistically through the sweep of time in a mythological, anthropological succession of images until he is jarred into consciousness. Ultimately, (p. 402) he claims that woman is the most powerful force in a chaotic universe and that in his future lives he will draw strength from his union with a female.
In the closing chapters, the novel returns to its prison-reform agenda. Proclaiming total victory over Warden Atherton, Darrell Standing congratulates himself for surviving the straitjacket, a torture device that he says has caused lesser men to be carted off to hospitals to die. He adds that he has remarkably survived a double-jacketing after he, Ed Morrell, and Jake Oppenheimer were called before a state senate inquiry into prison abuses. A San Francisco working-class newspaper, he explains, spurred an investigation of prison conditions and abuses. A succession of intimidated prisoners attests to the decent food, clean conditions, and fair treatment enjoyed at San Quentin. But Standing and his fellow incorrigibles refuse to whitewash the facts. Morrell testifies that the food is “noisome” (287), and Oppenheimer tells the commission to “go to hell” (287). Even though Standing’s testimony lapses into an obfuscating academic lecture on the efficiency of operations in San Quentin, the warden comes down hard on him and his fellow truth tellers by ordering even tighter lacings on their jackets.
When Atherton visits the recalcitrant inmate, the immobilized Standing calls him “an ass, a coward, a cur, a pitiful thing so low that spittle would be wasted on your face” (289). After Atherton orders a second jacket, he thanks the warden for the extra protection against the cold (289). But, in an aside, Standing confesses that years of binding have taken their toll on his internal organs and ribs (290). Despite his impressive mental capacities, his unstinting rebelliousness, and his deployment of life-saving trances, Standing has been physically and emotionally damaged by extreme punishment. For him, death will be a release, an opportunity to become a “dream-farmer” surrounded by alfalfa, “efficient Jersey cattle,” and scientifically tilled fields (320).
The extent of his physical depletion is evident in a remarkable scene in which he recounts the fateful moment when he broke out of his cell and, as a consequence, sealed his fate. Learning that Cecil Winwood, the inventor of the dynamite plot, has landed back in prison, Standing finds inspiration in Adam Strang’s long-nursed plan for revenge against a tormentor. He has nothing to lose. Sawing his way out of his cell with needles, Standing bolts into the empty “vastitude of the prison yard” only to find that he is unable to negotiate the conditions of exterior space. Physically debilitated and blinded by years in darkness, the agoraphobic Standing falls over his own shadow and breaks into tears. Overwhelmed by freedom, Darrell Standing gropes along the walls (323). A guard rushes at him. But Standing cannot clearly recall the struggle in which he may or may not have struck the guard. Other guards and trusties jump into the melee. One of them, Standing speculates, may have bloodied the guard’s nose. What he recalls, though, is the beating “the prison dogs” inflict on him as he is rushed back behind walls. Ironically, he feels security and comfort back in his cell: “I felt like a lost child returned home again. I loved those very walls I had so hated for five years.” Agoraphobia, Standing concludes, is much worse than hanging (324). The disciplinary process, which Standing has dedicated the bulk of his incarcerated life to resisting, has accomplished its purpose: absorbing the prisoner into the mindset of a controlled, compliant subject of the system.
(p. 403) Standing’s final days are devoted to his manuscript, which will be smuggled out to a world hungry to know what really goes on behind the towering walls of San Quentin. As his hanging draws near, Darrell Standing considers the calculus of execution, the length of the rope, and the scientific efficiency with which the state will terminate his present existence. With some amusement, Standing holds court in his cell, welcoming a stream of visitors that includes Warden Atherton, who launches into a bizarre recitation of his own pathetic life circumstances: an invalid wife, two costly children, and spiraling money problems. As the warden pours out his woes, Standing notices that the self-pitying Atherton has been drinking. Even more amusing to Standing is the paradoxical presence of a grizzled old soul performing the “death watch.” Standing finds irony in the state’s insistence that he must be kept alive so that he can be killed.
Just before heading to the gallows, Standing entertains a ceremonious retinue of nervous “officials and dignitaries” in his cell. After putting finishing touches on his prison memoirs, Standing permits a clergyman to accompany him to the hanging. He wryly comments, “The poor man—why should I deny him that solace?” Moving toward his mortal fate, Darrell Standing closes his narration by reiterating his genuine belief that “spirit cannot die” (329) and that he will simply move to his next incarnation.
Despite its unconventional format and harrowing subject matter, The Star Rover is a remarkable synthesis of Jack London’s wide-ranging intellectual and artistic interests. It is also the culmination of a long list of social-protest writings by Jack London. And, as Joan London suggests, The Star Rover is “Jack’s last attempt at a serious work.” She continues: “Into this extraordinary and little-known book he flung with a prodigal hand riches which he had hoarded for years, and compressed into brilliant episodes notes originally intended for full-length books” (362). Most notable is its fresh approach to a social problem whose actual conditions had been carefully shrouded from public or official scrutiny, either by intimidation or official white-washing. Journalistic exposés, official hearings, and activist movements, as Darrell Standing reminds his reader, cannot always get at the truth. Bureaucratic stonewalling, concealed beatings, double-speak public relations, and political maneuverings were, and still are, barriers to public scrutiny of the lucrative prison industry.
Even though Darrell Standing’s psychic peregrinations seem to bear little connection to the realistic social-protest frame story, let alone to each other, they are vitally linked to London’s argument about an excessively brutal prison system that a money-driven society has put it in place. Standing seldom reflects upon the bearing his trance-recovered episodes may have on his existence as a condemned man. But, London’s reader may grasp the many subtle connections between and among Standing’s escapist ventures into alternative times, places, and identities.
All segments of The Star Rover, as disparate and disconnected as they may seem on the surface, synthesize into a condemnation of the cruelty and exploitation enshrined in the American prison industry. Violence, entrapment, powerlessness, and thwarted resistance are the common denominators of the embraced stories. Guillaume Sainte-Maure is caught in a triangular, no-win sword fight, most likely because he is competing with a more powerful man for the same woman. With cool efficiency, he is eliminated—much (p. 404) as Darrell Standing will be—in a shadowy place removed from public view. Jesse Fancher is entrapped, not only by hostile forces with rifles but also by the precipitating conflict between the US government and a religious hierarchy trying to establish a theocracy in the American West. The hermit, mourning the assassination of his beloved mentor, burrows into the earth. A ruined Adam Strang finally exacts revenge on an aged enemy but fades into the darkness. Rognar Ladbrog witnesses political upheaval, only to emerge as a loyal, sadly compliant foot soldier in an imperialist adventure. He evaporates into the mists of unheroic history. Daniel Foss suffers through five years on a lonely island—another form of solitary confinement—relieved only by scratching his memoirs on a chunk of wood. But, Foss’s survivalist inscriptions offer a clue to the unifying concept of The Star Rover: the written word. Like most of his trance-world incarnations, Darrell Standing will fade into oblivion. But his words endure.
Even though Standing embraces the prospect of connecting to a primal female force and living forever through human germ plasm, the only true agency remaining is the ability to tell his story as a prisoner. At one point, a working-class newspaper investigation of prison conditions results in a public inquiry. Standing doubts that anything will come of the uproar, but at least he knows that someone on the outside is alert to the corruption behind prison walls. Although the “editors” of Standing’s death-row exposé appear only in a minimalist footnote, their presence suggests a force working in the grand American muck-raking tradition. How the editors use Darrell Standing’s manuscript lies beyond the text. But the words he writes, like his affirmative, enduring spirit, have the power to survive, to be replicated and disseminated, and to jolt an audience into awareness and action. This is precisely the office of protest writing.
Jack London’s creative decision-making sets The Star Rover apart not only from the bulk of his own work but also from other examples of Progressive-Era social-protest fiction. In some ways, London anticipates modernist approaches to social-protest writing. Within ten years, John Dos Passos and William Faulkner would publish ground-breaking, stylistically inventive fictions addressing issues of race and class. Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, in particular, has structural and thematic affinities with The Star Rover as an elevated train circulates through the city, unifying vignettes of human beings of disparate classes and ethnicities. More, London’s protagonist, Darrell Standing, connects with such later twentieth-century incarcerated figures as Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, Wright’s Bigger Thomas, Camus’s Meursault, and Kesey’s Randle P. Murphy. Neither fools nor lunatics, these entrapped figures confront overwhelming, obdurate structures conspiring to annihilate their identities and humanity.
The idea of the unconquerable spirit, preserved and transmitted over generations, was attractive to Jack London, who—in fact—had little time left. Illness, financial stress, and professional frustrations at times “jacketed” the popular writer. As Clarice Stasz observes, London intellectually dismissed spiritualism and genetic memory as “pseudo-scientific and pseudo-philosophic.” But, in his letter to Roland Philips, London betrays “the truth” that he was “taking these ideas seriously” (286). Jack London died on November 22, 1916, not long after The Star Rover was published. A mature, probing novel, London’s “curious sort of book” showcases the skills of a writer who was still on (p. 405) his game, still more than able to rattle the status quo, and still capable of posing serious ethical questions about America’s commitment to justice and equality.
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(1.) A committed socialist, Jack London addressed the uneven power relations promoted by industrial capitalism and plutocratic corporate structures. Even the 1905 boxing-themed novella, The Game, can be read as an important reformist study of a working-class athlete who puts his body on the line in a dangerous, unregulated sport as a means of moving into the middle class. See my article, “Jack London on Boxing: The Manly Art of Making It,” Jack London Newsletter (1988): 77–85.
(2.) A survey of early twentieth-century newspapers, periodicals, and books shows that prison conditions, prison contract labor, and prisoner rehabilitation were hotly debated issues. In her comprehensive study of the prison reform movement, Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776–1941 (New York: Cambridge UP, 2008), Rebecca McLennan probes the lengthy “continuum of conflict and instability” in the American penal industry. She opens her book with the 1913 Sing-Sing “bread riot,” in which 1,500 inmates hurled heels of rock-hard bread and shattered glass windows of the prison, thus rattling the nerves of guards and villagers in Ossining, New York. McLennan locates the bread riot and other outbreaks of prison unrest “squarely within the long, broad American tradition of debate, riot and political and moral crisis” over such issues as “the rights and wrongs of legal punishment,” the extent of state powers over individual prisoners, and the “just deserts of convicted offenders” (2). The American prison, she contends, has long been “an unstable and highly contested institution” embodying the highest degree of state coercion and determination over life and death. It is, she offers, an ironically “unfree institution within a putatively free society” (3). Her book anatomizes the essential struggle between the drive for a punishment system conducive to an orderly, moral society and the enlightened attempt to transform wrong-doers into good citizens through rehabilitation, education, and productive work.
Many early twentieth-century commentators focus on a particularly bitter conflict over prison contract labor, an issue in which London’s jailhouse hero, Darrell Standing, becomes embroiled. To generate funds for upkeep, prisons put their incarcerated population to work in intramural factories, mills, or plants. Southern states augmented prison funding by leasing prisoners to agricultural enterprises as fieldworkers or to construction projects, often as members of chain gangs. State or municipal entities usually provided the capital for these enterprises. Undercutting the prices of commodities produced by extramural producers, in-house factories became the target of labor unions and a range of business interests.
According to Carroll D. Wright, US Commissioner of Labor, prison industries negatively affected wages and prices “to some extent.” In a June 3, 1902, article, “Prison Labor and Social Progress,” published in the New York Observer and Chronicle, Wright recognized organized labor’s opposition to the practice of contracting prison labor over free labor. Contract labor in prisons and physical labor outdoors, e.g., “chain gangs” or farm labor crews, lay at the crux of many prison-reform debates. Central to these controversies was concern over the way convicts were expected to spend their time. Religious and reformist groups, e.g., the Society of Friends, viewed prison labor as an essential part of personal reformation and a strategic preparation for post-release employment. They argued that idleness and punitive constriction were counterproductive. More stringent penologists advocated a system that obviated any “coddling” and prevented competition with honest members of outside society. As G. Larry Mays and L. Thomas Winfree, Jr., explain, “The history of punishment is closely related to the use of work as punishment” (141). Premodern prisons, they note, often provided “pools of surplus labor” for physically onerous jobs like mining, farming, or public works. The idea of prison industries “caught hold” in Britain and the United States, offering both an opportunity to build skills and combat idleness (142). Articles surveyed cover an interesting range of penal, legal, and judicial topics: indeterminate sentencing, prisoner rights, physical layout of prisons, sanitation, health, spirituality, rehabilitation, occupational training, and enlightened administration.
(3.) Robert M. Freeman traces the evolution of the California prison system that London anatomizes in The Star Rover. California’s first prison was an old ship named The Waban, which had been anchored off Point Quentin in 1852. One hundred and fifty male and female prisoners were jailed together. Prisoners were used to build the prison at San Quentin, which was known as the “Old Spanish Block.” In 1861, the State of California assumed control of the prison from a private system. Freeman adds that prison laborers began construction on Folsom in 1858, which opened in 1880. Interestingly, during the 1800s, male and female prisoners were typically housed in the same prison. It was not until 1933 that female inmates of San Quentin were moved to a women-only facility at Tehachapi (2). Each prison, Freeman explains, was under the supervision of a warden until 1944; thereafter, all state prisons answered to single director of corrections. The Star Rover does not feature any female prisoners. However, the novel amply confirms the foot-dragging and resistance to reform that prison historians observe in the California system.
(4.) From a marketing standpoint, The Star Rover, which had incubated in London’s mind for many years, was a risky enterprise. London had built an international reputation for delivering precisely the kind of product that publishers and readers wanted: high-interest reading material featuring lean, direct prose; authentic characters; vivid description; and brisk, linear plotting. At the time he began working on The Star Rover, Jack London registered some anxiety over his status as a best-selling writer. At the time The Star Rover was published, London’s ambitious farming enterprises, the costly Snark expedition, and mounting family expenditures had nearly wiped out London’s financial resources. In a 1914 letter to his teenage daughter, Joan, he reacted to her request for additional spending money by claiming that he was down to “a balance in the bank of $3.46.” He told Joan that he was skating on “thin” financial ice (Letters 3:1298).
For most of his career, London’s relationship with the literary marketplace was generally positive and professional. But he probably realized that, for most writers, there were no guarantees. James W. Williams points out that London’s close friend, Cloudesley Johns once said that London aspired “to sell any kind of work merely on his name” (“Commitment” 16). It didn’t take London long to realize “the fragility of his position as subject—author.” Williams adds that although London had signed a contract with Macmillan in 1913 for publication of The Star Rover, he was concerned that it might not be automatically accepted (“Commitment” 24). Indeed, London’s anxieties may have been justified. Jonathan Auerbach argues that London had essentially priced himself out of the literary marketplace (236).
(5.) Due to its unconventional approach to the subject of prison conditions, The Star Rover is an unusual example of early twentieth-century social-protest fiction. It is also one of Jack London’s least well-known, least critically addressed novels. Some critics have scored the novel as the product of a disillusioned, weary writer forced to repurpose unused research and project ideas. Maxwell Geismar, for one, rated the style as “an absolute frenzy of hyperbole and capital letters” (211). Although Gorman Beauchamp acknowledges the novel as “a vigorous expose of and protest against inhumane conditions and capital punishment,” he finds weakness in the stories of previous lives: “they have no common denominator; they vary in length, quality and interest, and neither singly nor collectively support the novel’s ‘triumphant spirit’ thesis” (301–302). However, closer inspection reveals that London achieved a stronger connection between the inner and outer frames than the book’s detractors have suggested. In fact, The Star Rover’s parts brilliantly coalesce into a powerful indictment of the American penal industry and the system that puts it in place.
Certainly, frame-story fictions have long existed. Classics such as Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, texts employing a frame-and-story format, have also challenged readers and scholars to tease out “common denominators.” A writer committed to exposing brutal prison conditions, Jack London works on two complementary dialogic levels. Far from a pastiche, The Star Rover is a powerful, well-synthesized argument about entrapment, violence and—ultimately—revolt against repressive state-supported systems. Both frame story and embedded narratives come together on this point: human beings must find ways to break out of bonds forged by uneven power relations.
(6.) Jack London was aware of various “germ plasm” theories circulating in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although it is difficult to pin down London’s reading and research on this topic, his library offers a starting point. Hamilton lists Gustave Bjorkland’s Death and Resurrection from the Point of View of Cell Theory (1910), Paul Carus’s The Religion of Science (1899), Herbert William Conn’s The Method of Evolution ((1900), Michael Hendrick Fitch’s The Physical Basis of Mind and Morals (1906), Walter Thomas Mills’s The Struggle for Existence (1904) and Evolutionary Politics (1898), John Howard Moore’s The Universal Kinship (1906), and Caleb W. Saleeby’s The Cycle of Life (1904). In a July 22, 1899, letter to Cloudesley Johns, London extols August Weisman’s “Essay on the Duration of Life” (1891). London says that the essay is “a wonderful piece of work, and gives food for immeasurable thought.” He added that “much good” would devolve from Weisman’s “labors for the welfare of humanity” (Letters 1:96). The editors of the letters point out that Weisman diverged from Lamarck’s theories of inherited characteristics, articulating his own “germ plasm” theory. Weisman contended that “certain continuous lines of dividing cells persist from generation to generation” (Letters 1:96).
Laura Otis points out that “germ plasm” debates have managed to survive, emerging as a “critical issue” in conflicts where “ethnic cleansing” comes to light. Otis offers a helpful introduction to nineteenth-century theories of a single “inherited memory” passed down to modern society from ancestors (1–2). Theories of genetic memory, she explains, gradually moved from metaphysical to physical explanations of inherited knowledge. She adds that the rise of “fascination” with the subject of memory and heredity parallels heightened interest in biology, philology, and nationalism. For some political leaders, Otis argues, these theories could be quite useful in consolidating power (3). Otis discusses two influential figures organic memory theorists: Lamarck and Haeckel (5). David Mike Hamilton says that Jack London’s personal copy of Ernest Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe (1901) has been lost. However, London did list this title in “Books I Have Read” in August 1901 (147). Hamilton also notes that Darrell Standing praises Jake Oppenheimer as a would-be “Marinetti or Haeckel” (148).
(7.) Caleb Smith explains that segregation of prisoners and solitary confinement were tactical strategies for “atomizing the threat” of riots, a problem that had plagued most American prisons. Based on the early nineteenth-century Auburn system of prison organization, solitary confinement promoted optimum management of prison populations. More, solitary degraded the felon by providing the prison community with a “concrete sign of [the individual’s] civil death.” (83). Smith points out that even some progressive prison reformers saw spiritual benefits in putting a prisoner in “solitary.” Drawing on a long tradition of Christian monasticism, some penologists believed that solitary confinement could foster a “miraculous rebirth” through isolation, meditation, and sincere penitence for crimes (84). The errant soul, they argued, could enter a quasi-religious asceticism and undergo a process of moral healing (91). Clearly, London’s representation of solitary confinement reflects the more tactical uses of this strategy. Standing has already been identified as a troublemaker whose containment is deemed necessary to the orderly management of the prison he inhabits.
(8.) In his biography, Jack London: An American Life, Earle Labor connects Darrell Standing’s comment about séances with London’s spiritualist mother Flora Wellman London. As a child, London was embarrassed by his mother’s séances (17). Labor notes that spiritualism plays a significant part in the chilling short story “Planchette,” in which supernatural forces, communicating through a Ouija board, conspire to thwart a marriage (3).
(9.) Christopher Gair rightly places Darrell Standing alongside other London “efficiency experts,” such as Freddie Drummond of South of the Slot and human word-machine Martin Eden. Because of his professional devotion to combating the “crime of waste,” Standing ends up in solitary confinement (121–22). Biographer Clarice Stasz offers an insightful analysis of the relationship between Jack London and Luther Burbank, a scientist interested in agricultural efficiency. London became acquainted with Burbank after moving to Glen Ellen, California. The two men, she says, had both been “influenced by Darwin.” Around the time they met, Burbank had articulated his theory about the genetic benefits of “planned interbreeding” in his Training of the Human Plant (1907), a work advocating “a blending of the races” (Stasz 158). Stasz notes Darrell Standing’s similarity to Luther Burbank (in Furer 166). See also Larry X. Besant’s “Jack London and Luther Burbank: Friends and Neighbors?” Jack London Newsletter 21 (Jan.–Dec. 1988): 66–73.
(10.) Jay Williams has done important, exhaustive work on tracing the sources of London’s heavily researched novel. To date, he has not found any literary or historic antecedents for the Sainte-Maure episode. He does suggest that Spiro Orfans, a visitor to Beauty Ranch, reintroduced London to fencing around the time the writer was researching the novel. Interestingly, Williams says that the names of Sainte-Maure’s opponents were most likely borrowed from two Italian laborers—Pasquini and Fortini—whom he hired to do work on his property. London was displeased with both men and, as James Williams suggests, “vented his ill feelings towards the Italians in the Sainte-Maure episode” (Williams, “Authorial Choice, Part Two” 1).
(11.) The Adam Strange saga is perhaps most closely linked with Jack London himself, who sailed to Asia in 1904, during the early days of the Russo-Japanese War as a correspondent for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. David Mike Hamilton explains that London packed a “small library of books that would explain the culture, history and politics of the region he was visiting” (xi). Primary resources for the Adam Strang story are William Griffes’s Corea: The Hermit Nation, Alex Krauss’s The Far East, Isabella [Bird] Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbors, and John Foster’s American Diplomacy in the Orient. John Hodges’ Corean Words and Phrases proved helpful with the language that Strang miraculously masters in short time (Hamilton 21–22). London took notes on “the Korean system of government” and Korea’s political and social structures (Hamilton 179). Bishop’s travelogue limned the “average Korean” and indigenous marriage customs (68). See Williams, “Authorial Choice, Part Two” for a helpful discussion of London’s sources for the Korean episode and Victor R. S. Tambling’s “Adam Strang in Cho-Sen: The Korean Episode in The Star Rover,” Jack London Newsletter 15 (1982): 1–36.
(12.) Like previous trance journeys, the Ragnar Lodbrog sequence illustrates Jack London’s authorial methods. As Jay Williams explains, London usually found “a suggestive plot and characters in a magazine or a book.” As early as 1899, Williams adds, London expressed an interest in retelling the story of Jesus. He studied the New Testament and read over twenty titles—among them John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus (1903), and Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907)—on the subject of Jesus. But, F. E. Roessler’s ethnological pamphlet The World’s Greatest Migration: The Origin of the “White Man”(1913) and James F. Hewitt’s two-volume study, The Ruling Races of Prehistoric Times (1894) provided the fact-seeking London with material needed to develop the story of a man who was on the scene “during Christ’s time” (Williams, “Two Sources” 1). London abandoned plans for a “Christ novel” around the time he wrote The Star Rover. Williams points out that this project “became derailed” as he became more impatient with the socialist party (“Authorial Choice, Part Two” 16).
(13.) This sequence is reminiscent of Jack London’s prehistoric novel Before Adam and short stories such as “The Strength of the Strong.”