“THERE NEVER was a good biography of a good novelist,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed. “He is too many people, if he’s any good.” This dictum holds particularly true in the case of Jack London (pictured, 1876–1916). For biographers and critics as well, he is the most elusive of subjects. As a person, as a writer, and most of all as a man of ideas, he continually takes on different and sharply contrasting forms.
For nearly half of his short, turbulent and adventurous life he was a member of the Socialist Party. He wrote books and articles championing Socialist principles. He liked to end his letters with “Yours for the revolution.” Twice he ran as a Socialist for mayor of his hometown Oakland (he came nowhere near victory). Once, when serving as president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, he spoke with menacing rhetoric of an imminent violent revolution at Harvard and Yale. Long revered as a patron saint of the Left, he was for years the most widely read American author in the Soviet Union.
His best-known Socialist work is The Iron Heel (1907). Set in a future America, the novel expounds Marxist theory and vividly portrays the bloody suppression of a workers’ revolt by a Bilderbergerish cabal of plutocrats called The Oligarchy. Predictably, liberal-minority critics praise the book as a prophetic vision of the evils of twentieth-century fascism. Just as predictably, they deplore the shadowy presence of London the hereditarian. To him the book’s slum proletarians, “the people of the abyss,” are “the refuse and the scum of life,” a stock irredeemably inferior to the plutocrats and to the Socialist elite who are the heroes and heroines of the novel.
London was usually much more explicit about the genetic coloring of his Socialism. He once horrified some fellow party members by declaring: “What the Devil! I am first of all a White man and only then a Socialist!” And he wrote a friend, “Socialism is not an ideal system devised for the happiness of all men. It is devised so as to give more strength to these certain kindred favored races so that they may survive and inherit the earth to the extinction of the lesser, weaker races.”
London became a Socialist because first-hand experience — he once worked 14-hour days in a cannery for ten cents an hour — had made him an enemy of economic injustice. But Socialist theory was just one of the three strong intellectual currents of the time that shaped his world view and found expression in his writing. He was also drawn, by his instinctive belief in the primacy of the self, to the ideas of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Max Stirner. The third, probably the most profound influence on his thinking, was Darwinism and Herbert Spencer’s application of it to philosophy and ethics. This doctrine was for London an essential key to the pattern of existence.
The contradictions between such divergent sources, writes London’s most recent biographer, Andrew Sinclair (Jack, 1977), “suited his divided nature. . . . Jack was most a Socialist when he was depressed. . . . When he felt confident, he decided that the survival of the self and the race determined all human behavior.”
We cannot judge to what extent it is fair to describe London’s thinking in terms of manic-depressive psychology. But it is certainly true that throughout his work the writer gravitates from one theoretical matrix to another. For example, in describing his own climb to eminence, either in autobiography or in thinly disguised fiction (notably in the 1909 novel Martin Eden), he casts himself variously as a social underdog victimized by class barriers, as a man of indomitable will, and as a biological specimen superbly fitted for survival.
However he depicted it, his rise was an impressive story. He fought his way up from poverty, educated himself, served a grueling literary apprenticeship, and virtually by main force became a popular, well-paid and influential writer. Glorying in his hard-won status, he established himself in baronial (and un-Socialist) fashion on a sprawling California ranch and labored to maintain his lifestyle by grinding out an average of three books a year.
By instinct and by conviction, London was a literary naturalist — one of a new breed of writers who focused on the harsh, deterministic forces shaping nature and human society. Working at the top of his form, he had an enormous gift for graphically dramatizing primal conflict, and several of his books are classics of their kind. The most famous of these are two novels: The Call of the Wild (1903), in which the canine hero, Buck, learns “the law of the club and fang” in the Yukon; and The Sea-Wolf (1904), a complex and compelling portrait of a sealer captain who is a proto-superman.
Unfortunately, London is not at his best when he makes racial themes central in his fiction. The material, like most of his work, has raw power and vitality. But the modern reader will also find it full of operatic melodrama, stereotyped characters, and Kiplingesque assumptions about the imperial mission of the Anglo-Saxons. (Kipling was a major influence on London’s style and many of his attitudes.)
However, one of London’s themes, racial displacement, is more relevant now than when he wrote. It is the theme of his novel The Valley of the Moon (1913), a sympathetic study of poor, landless Anglo-Saxon Americans in California. They have lost the land to exploiters of their own kind, to more energetic immigrants, and through their own improvidence. They are “the white folks that failed.” Their salvation, London says, lies in returning with new dedication to the land that is their birthright. His prescription, simplistic as it is, merits respect as a pioneering attempt. And we should note that it has been followed in recent years by a small but significant number of Majority members, people who for various reasons have gone back to the land to start over again.
The innate superiority of Anglo-Saxon stock to all others is an article of faith in The Valley of the Moon and in London’s work generally. He was himself of Welsh descent on his mother’s side, English on the side of his presumptive father, a vagabond jack of-all-trades who never married London’s mother and never admitted his paternity.
Racial displacement on a larger scale is foreseen in The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914). The hero-narrator, obviously London’s persona, is a playwright on an ocean voyage whose atavistic instincts help him crush a mutiny of his genetic inferiors. But even as he exults in his victory, he judges it as all for naught in the long historical pull; and throughout the novel he delivers twilight-of-the-gods valedictories to his own kind, the blond, “white-skinned, blue-eyed Aryan.” Born to roam over the world and govern and command it, the paleface Aryan “perishes because of the too-white light he encounters.” The darker races “will inherit the earth, not because of their capacity for mastery and government, but because of their skin-pigmentation which enables their tissues to resist the ravages of the sun.”
This strange hypothesis the writer got from The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, a book by a Major Woodruff. It was a theory which had been made horribly real for London by the nightmarish skin disease he had contracted on a cruise in the Solomon Islands.
London’s racial pessimism was reinforced by the decline in his fortunes in the last years of his life and by World War I, which he viewed as an orgy of racial fratricide. But the writer who once had a heroine make the sensible observation that “white men shouldn’t go around killing each other” was outvoted by the inveterate Anglo-Saxon, and he became an advocate of American intervention on the side of England against Germany. (One reason he left the Socialist Party in 1916 was to protest its neutralist position. Another was his growing dissatisfaction with its dogma. “Liberty, freedom, and independence,” he wrote in his letter of resignation, “are royal things that cannot be presented to, nor thrust upon, races or classes.”)
Given to treating his increasing numbers of ailments, including alcoholism, with morphine and arsenic compounds, he died in 1916 of a self-administered drug overdose. Whether it was accidental or deliberate has never been determined
It is easy enough in retrospect to point out the flaws in London’s racial thinking. But the point to be stressed is that he knew, through his instinct and reason, how primary a factor race is, and he is one of the very few writers in this century who deals forthrightly with the fundamental role of racial dynamics in human affairs.
Like Proteus, London assumes different forms — the Darwinian, the Socialist, the self-styled Nietzschean “blond beast,” the man of letters, the man of action, the “sailor on horseback” of his projected autobiography, and the major American author. He is also reminiscent of the sea god in that he was something of a prophet. For example, the writer of such works as The Call of the Wild can be considered, to use biographer Sinclair’s words, “the prophet of the correspondences between beasts and men,” and a forerunner of Lorenz and E.O. Wilson.
Sinclair goes on to observe that London’s varied prophetic gifts make him “curiously modern as a thinker, despite the dark corridors of his racial beliefs.” Those of us who have made empirical journeys through our own “dark corridors,” will conclude that in this territory too London is “curiously modern” and prophetic.
* * *
Source: based on an article in Instauration magazine, June 1978