Jack London (January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916)
Take everything London wrote – he produced more than 40 books in his time on earth, slightly more than one for every year he was alive – tear out several pages from each book, paper a wall with them, close your eyes and toss a dart. Open your eyes and read the page where the dart lands, you’ll find support for at least one of the following statements:
- Jack London was a socialist
- Jack London was a fascist
- Jack London was a racist
- Jack London was one righteous, enlightened white dude on race
- Jack London was the working man’s friend
- Jack London was an elitist
- Jack London was a reckless drunk
- Jack London was America’s first “recovering alcoholic”
- Jack London was an anarchist
- Jack London was a totalitarian
- Jack London was an imperialist
- Jack London thought America should mind its own business
- Jack London abused animals
- Jack London was PETA before there was a PETA
- Jack London was a worthless hack
- Jack London was a great American writer – one of our greatest.
Support for all the above statements is possible because Jack London has been all those things – and more – and sometimes several at once. A recent (excellent) biography by Jack Haley is called Wolf: The Lives of Jack London (2010) and the title could not be more apt. London lived enough lives, consecutively or concurrently, for a dozen men and he lived each of them with fierce commitment and at white-hot intensity. The word “driven” – in its contemporary locution – could have been coined for him. And he, of course, found time to write those 40-plus books, which is about the same number of books that present-day writing machine, Joyce Carol Oates, has written and she’s twice as old now as London was when he died. Unless Oates is keeping her sea excursions and prospecting adventures secret from the public, she has also lived only one, fairly quiet, academic life.
What all London’s living and writing left little time for, in my opinion, was much thought. And practically none of the deep, patient, reflective kind of thinking that can lead a writer to provide us with broad-based insights and well-formed conclusions. Ideas flowed through Jack London in the same way experiences did – directly from life to the page.
A lot of London’s literary output is commercial tripe and a lot of his ideas for shit. And, depending on the work and the day of the week when he wrote it, London was guilty as charged of being a socialist, a fascist, an anarchist, a totalitarian, a racist, an imperialist, an enthusiastic celebrator of mood-altering substances, a depictor of animal cruelty, and a bad poet (except in the best of his prose).
So what do we do with Jack London? Kick him and all of his books to the curb?
The local librarian in my suburban Indianapolis neighborhood growing up was a pinch-faced, purse-mouthed, McCarthyite old bat who saw her mission in life not as the dissemination of culture but its winnowing into a single approved channel. Sexless, painless, joyless, and “politically correct” … which for Pinch Face meant “not Communist.” I was in fifth grade, I think, when I wanted to check out Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “That book’s too old for you,” Pinch Face said, taking it from me and putting it out of reach behind the counter. Maybe she was thinking of the Lenny scenes, but she also refused to let me read The Pearl or The Red Pony or anything else by “Mr. Steinbeck,” as she referred to him, on the grounds that “his ideas were wrong.”
I had slightly better luck with Mr. London. “You can read the dog books,” Pinch Face told me. I gobbled them up and asked for more, including London’s many other books that weren’t about dogs, but Pinch Face refused. When pressed on her reasons, she pursed up her mouth and said, “Mr. London is a Communist. The most popular writer in Russia.”
I believe the theory back then – among the Pinch Faces of the world – was that encountering “wrong” ideas and attitudes at a tender age might permanently damage one’s thinking cap and make it impossible to have the “right” ideas later on. So how should we handle Jack London’s books now, full as they are not only with old wrong ideas but new wrong ideas and attitudes that many of us (including me) find offensive?
I say we read them. I’ve read dozens of them, including several in childhood, and they don’t seem to have damaged my thinking cap. Or inculcated me with bad ideas and attitudes. Books aren’t crimes. They aren’t viruses. And, even if they were, the antibodies can be found in other books … and, in London’s case, in other London books.
I would recommend starting on London – at a young age – with a selection of his superb short stories and the wonderful “dog books,” The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) that even Pinch Face liked. For bigger boys and girls – like you and me – I’d try his most personal novel, Martin Eden (1909), although it has its longeurs: London ran into trouble when he tried to stretch out. John Barleycorn (1913) is the first – and still one of the best – meditations on alcoholism. The Iron Heel (1907) is a fascinating science-fiction dystopia that precedes, by a lot of years, Orwell’s 1984. But my current favorites among London’s books are The Road (1907) and The People of the Abyss (1905), his two plunges into immersive journalism. In the former, Jack takes to the rails, riding trains with the hobos and fighting the “bulls.” In the latter foray, he impoverishes himself among the city of London’s desperately poor in order to write as truthfully as he can about their plight.
His best book is the one he didn’t live long enough to write … the group autobiography of all the Jack Londons. The recent Haley biography will have to suffice.