Jack London’s Endless Journey

“He brought his readers on a trip to a landscape that seemed not only made for them but made by them, a peculiarly visceral American place that practically none of them would ever really see.”


The Inevitable White Man

But remember, my reader, whom I hope to have travel far with me through time and space — remember, please, my reader, that I have thought much on these matters … I have been alone with my many selves to consult und contemplate my many selves. I have gone through the hells of all existences to bring you news … 

— The Star Rover (1915)

In his 40 years, Jack London never could stop traveling. Born in San Francisco in 1876, the product of a one-year common-­law marriage between Flora Wellman and the footloose no-account astrologer William Chaney, he was John Chaney for nine months until Wellman married John Lon­don, whose name was given to Jack. He grew up in Oakland and on nearby farms; at 15, he tapped the African American wet nurse who partly raised him, the former slave Virginia Prentiss, for $300 — ”my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black breast I had suckled. She was more prosperous than my folks. She was nursing sick people at a good weekly wage. Would she lend her ‘white child’ the money?” (John Barleycorn, 1913). She would. Jack London bought the Razzle Dazzle for use in pirating oysters from the beds on the Bay, and he would spend the rest of his short life sailing away.

“I wanted to be where the winds of ad­venture blew” (John Barleycorn), which in London’s adolescence meant the Bay, the scrappy tumbling life of the Oakland docks, the doubled universe of sober hard work and inebriated fancy, “life raw and naked, wild and free … And more than that, it carried a promise. It was the beginning. From the sandpit the way led out through the Golden Gate to the vastness of adventure of all the world … ” (John Barleycorn).

So it did. By the age of 19, London had sailed across the Pacific, via Hawaii, to Japan and the Bering Sea, an able seaman before the mast on the Sophia Sutherland; he tramped across the U.S., briefly with Coxey’s Industrial Army of the Unem­ployed then on his own until Buffalo, where he was arrested for vagrancy and served 30 days in jail, returning west across Canada on a coal car, south from Vancouver as a stoker; he sailed to Juneau for the Gold Rush, wintered on Split-Up Island 80 miles from Dawson City, then rafted down the Yukon and, penniless, sailed home.

London would draw on his teenage ad­ventures for the rest of his life. But in 1898, back in Oakland, he realized that some travels are more difficult than others. Working at backbreaking manual jobs, sup­porting the family of his impecunious step­father, London decided that life as an in­dustrial worker would make him an animal. “I would be a laborer, and by that I mean I would be fitted for nothing else than labor” (1898). He had to escape: “[I]f I knew that my life would be such, that I was destined to live in Oakland, labor in Oakland at some steady occupation, and die in Oakland — ­then tomorrow I would cut my throat and call quits with the whole cursed business” (1898). He determined to travel out of his social class.

That’s never an easy trip; certainly not when you, as Jack London did, try to make it by becoming a writer. He never really explained why he chose writing over some more likely path; his earliest published let­ters are already full of ambition. In the event, he approached writing as an indus­trial laborer might. He faced down the ma­chine: a borrowed typewriter.

How my back used to ache with it! Prior to that experience, my back had been good for every violent strain put upon it in a none too gentle career. But that typewriter proved to me that I had a pipe-stem for a back … I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters burst and blistered again. Had it been my machine I’d have operated it with a carpenter’s hammer. (John Barleycorn)

His teenage life was a series of bouts, and he remembered it that way, in his letters, in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden, and his boozer’s memoir, John Barleycorn: bouts of writing, labor, education (brief stints in high school and a cramming acade­my, a semester at the University of Califor­nia, and, above all, feverish periods of inde­pendent study). “If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself” (1898). By the end of 1899, he had published 24 pieces — essays, stories, poems, jokes.

Within a few years London was a well­-established writer; within a few more, he ranked among America’s best-paid, most widely read authors. Though remembered now chiefly for his dog novels (The Call of the Wild and White Fang), he was never just a writer of complicated adventure sto­ries any more than Mark Twain was a crackerbarrel tale-spinner. London pushed American literature in new and strange di­rections. He created his own unique land­scape, a combination of Yukon and open seas, utterly American yet utterly bizarre: at once American and bizarre because the emphatic Jack London landscape, with its heartbreaking solitude, its violence, its mo­mentous choices made according to terribly simple codes, its Darwinism, greed, and straightforward racism, was evidently rec­ognizable to white Americans, and yet hardly any of them had or ever would mush their dogs into Dawson or sail the high seas. Many would, like young Jack, be working in jute mills or laundries — in other words, live the life he said he would rather die than perpetuate. He brought his readers on a trip to a landscape that seemed not only made for them but made by them, a peculiarly visceral American place that practically none of them would ever really see. London, the harsh realist, was from the beginning a writer of fantasy.

London succeeded, in a way. He became rich and famous. His travels through social class provided him with The People of the Abyss (1903), a pioneering nonfiction book on conditions in London’s East End; The Road (1907), a fictionalized account of his tramping experiences; numerous stories, sometimes set among the upper classes; the two autobiographical books; and a number of essays, often given as lectures, that ar­gued for the certain demise of capitalism in favor of socialism and a just, rational, healthy society. His radicalism was of long standing — he ran as a Socialist Democrat for mayor of Oakland in 1901 — and had his characteristic intensity.

I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat … I ran back to California and opened the books. I do not remember which ones I opened first. It is an unimportant detail anyway. I was already It, whatever It was, and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist . … [N]o economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom. (“How I Became a Socialist,” 1903)

London did not like the ruling class. His story “The Minions of Midas” (1900), for example, is a remarkably sadistic fantasy of working-class vengeance. London described The Iron Heel (1908), a sci-fi novel in which we look backward on the 20th century and marvel at its capitalistic idiocy, as “some very excellent socialist propaganda” (1906) in which “I handle … the inevitable breakdown of capitalism under the structure of profits it has reared” (1906).

Yet London’s socialism was of an espe­cially American kind. It foundered on indi­vidualism. The class struggle was too sharp, and its sharpness too romantically attrac­tive, for London to adopt the reformism through which individual effort is some­times rewarded. Moreover, socialism of­fered London no objective correlative, so to speak, in the world he knew, and thus no imaginative landscape comparable to his Yukon or ocean. The choices that mattered most to him were those made at the limits of real experience — individual choices.

London wrestled with the implications of individualism. He wrote in a 1905 letter of having “recently emerged” from the Nietz­sche “sickness.” The fight against individ­ualism became an article of faith for him. “I have been more stimulated by Nietzsche than by any other writer in the world. At the same time I have been an intellectual enemy to Nietzsche. Both Martin Eden and The Sea Wolf were indictments by me of the Nietzschean philosophy of the super­man” (1915).

But socialism, in the end, provided little more than a placebo for the Nietzsche sickness. London did agitate for socialism, emphasizing the cruelties of the existing sys­tem and the steady empowerment of the ground-down masses. However, he felt these masses would build their power less through organization than through one-by­-one conversion. As seen in “How I Became a Socialist,” London located the power of this conversion in a fear of the Social Pit. In other words, an individual would convert to socialism from terror of remaining in the lower class.

Hatred of one’s class position is probably not the best way to build class solidarity. London’s 1905 statement that he had trav­eled upward in society, then “went back to the working-class in which I had been born and where I belonged,” doesn’t hold up un­der biographical or artistic scrutiny. Lon­don managed to live with an unstated dis­tinction between individual superiority and socialist consciousness. He was not averse to terms such as “herd” for describing the mass of humanity. His heroes nearly always make their decisions alone.

Socialism leaves little room for tragedy — ­that’s partly the point of it — and London was in love with the tragic. A socialist world, as he envisioned it, wouldn’t be much to write about. “The Strength of the Strong” (1911), which London wrote explicitly as a defense of socialism, features a group of trib­al types sitting around bemoaning their inability to band together. Thanks to this lack of solidarity, they are always being de­feated. But some day, Long Beard says at story’s end, ”all the fools will be dead and then all live men will go forward. The strength of the strong will be theirs, and they will add their strength together, so that, of all the men in the world, not one will fight with another.”

Some day. Meanwhile, the passions that kept London traveling wouldn’t let him an­chor in socialism. The tension between the individual and the collective — between London and the world — that propelled his journey would have to be resolved elsewhere.

London sought the elemental, and the elemental qualities he located in American life were not the inevitability of socialism but selfishness and death. In “The Minions of Midas,” an exceedingly elemental story, the titular minions are a cabal of workers who blackmail a capitalist. He must give them $20 million, or they will kill people. They are, they explain, tired of being drudges and need capital to win life’s battle. The capitalist stands firm; the minions murder innocents steadily and with impuni­ty; the capitalist kills himself. The minions declare their intention to continue killing until the last capitalist generation. And there the story ends.

Despite this tooth-and-claw view of real existing capitalism, or perhaps because of it, London searched for a bedrock collective beyond class. He found one in an imaginary region at least as American as pitiless in­dustrialism: race. (Even in 1900 he wrote, in a letter, that economics only “plays one of the strongest leading parts in the drama of the races.”) The Yukon stories, in particu­lar, present race as central to the human experience. London frequently makes his heroes’ whiteness, their understanding of it and its requirements, the animating fact of their destinies.

What was this whiteness? Two things, mainly: an inexplicable tribal imperative and a historical force. London saw the white race — sometimes Anglo-Saxon, sometimes Western, often just white — as fulfilling a mission compelled by its special characteristics and taking advantage of his­torical conjuncture. In a famous essay on Kipling from 1901, he wrote: “The Anglo­-Saxon is a pirate, a land robber, and a sea robber … The Anglo-Saxon is strong of arm and heavy of hand, and he possesses a primitive brutality all his own … He loves freedom but is dictatorial to others, is self­ willed, has boundless energy, and does things for himself.”

London felt pride in his own race, or rather in the race he imagined for himself. He hated half-breeds. As a correspondent, he blamed the Mexican-American war on that portion of Mexico’s population he found to be of mixed racial parentage. “Like the Eurasians, they possess all the vices of their various commingled bloods and none of the virtues.” His 1916 letters to a Greek ex-friend, Spiro Orfans, show Lon­don in full cry: “You … who are too heterogeneous through your bastard mixture of uncountable breeds, get up on your little dunghill and announce that all life is mongrel … Your logic is as rotten as your 2000-years degenerate race.”

London’s hatred of the mongrel had a corresponding virtue, namely racial or trib­al purity and the guarding of racial distinctiveness. For example, his most famous rac­ist activity in an American context came in his coverage of Jack Johnson’s heavyweight title fights: against Burns, in Australia, in 1908, then against Jeffries, the Great White Hope, at Reno in 1910. ”Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He is a white man, and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win.”

What could be clearer? Many things: Jack Johnson won both fights, and London was delirious in his praise. He went on and on about Johnson’s intelligence, coolness, and grace, his ”pure fun, gentle wit,” this “amazing Negro from Texas, this black man with the unfailing smile, this king of fighters.” After Jeffries’s defeat, he wrote: “Once again has Johnson sent down to de­feat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them all. And as of old, it was play for Johnson.” London admired Johnson as a brilliant fighter; he doubly admired him because he was black. “And he played and fought a white man in a white man’s country, before a white man’s crowd.”

London’s racism may have been ahead of its time. It often sounds like a hard multi­-culturalism. He wanted the races to be true to themselves. This gave him the possibility of a worldview unlike that of socialism, one which accommodated both firm collective identities and human drama and tragedy on a global scale, without end. Life for London had to be a struggle; and racism, racial con­flict, was full of promise.

And yet, and yet: London also wrote, though not often, against racial prejudice. Furthermore, he doesn’t appear to have liked his own race much more than he liked his own class. “The Inevitable White Man” (1908) stands as a racial analogue to “The Minions of Midas.” A typical men-sit-­around-chatting yarn, it presents several white men in a New Hebrides bar debating the white man’s mission “to farm the world,” farming being understood as a met­aphor for conquest and control. One char­acter explains: “Tip it off to him that there’s diamonds on the red-hot ramparts of hell, and Mr. White Man will storm the ramparts and set old Satan himself to pick-­and-shovel work.”

All the characters recognize this as in some way stupid. And the bulk of the story is devoted to Saxtorph, “the one inevitable white man,” as Captain Woodward de­scribes him to his boon companions: “He was certainly the most stupid man I ever saw, but he was as inevitable as death.” Saxtorph has the brain of a gnat, but he’s a great shot. The story’s central drama con­cerns a black slave revolt. Saxtorph kills the rebels, one by one, in an excruciating slaughter. This is the murdering imbecile whom London presents as the one truly inevitable white man.

And so race does not quite deliver the happy marriage of individual and collective destiny. Where, then, could the lonesome traveler head for next? London’s science-­fiction and fantasy are difficult to find. The Library of America does not include them. Yet here London’s conundrums assume rare and telling form. He allows himself to travel across time and space. He fragments himself, tears himself up, and the joy he feels in this process is palpable. For once he can travel with a coherent pleasure. At last he frees himself from the collective; or rather, he spreads the individual self over time, creating an imaginary collective of selves unhindered by geography, liberating himself for adventures of identity that nei­ther class nor racial solidarity could ever allow.

As far as book-length work goes, the process began with Before Adam (1907, an obscure work today though widely read at the time. He told an editor: “[I]t is the most primitive story ever written … It goes back before the cave-man … to a time when man was in the process of Becoming.” In it, the first-person narrator reveals his special ability to dream himself into an ear­lier existence. “Some of us have stronger and completer race memories than oth­ers … I am a freak of heredity, an atavistic nightmare.”

Before Adam is a weak, nearly lifeless novel. Only a few passages stand out: the long description of the narrator’s simian father, whom he sees in infancy and never again; and the scenes involving Red-Eye, the youthful narrator’s unconquerable nem­esis, who takes a wife as it pleases him, beats her, then kills her and finds another. It’s hard not to read this novel in the shad­ow of London’s own paternity. All that lives on its pages are the body of the absent father and the inevitable Red-Eye — “Red-Eye, the atavism,” the book’s last words.

In Before Adam London found the dream-device, and he returned to it in his last completed novel, The Star Rover (1915). “All my life I have had an awareness of other times and places,” it begins. Lon­don’s narrator posits an idea of childhood (“You were plastic, a soul in flux”): Chil­dren can dream their previous existences. While still in flux a child will scream in fear — but the fear is not the child’s fear, it is the fear of the child’s “shadowy hosts of progenitors” whose voices scream through the child’s voice. The progenitors’ experi­ences are the child’s reality: “The stuff of our sheerest dreams is the stuff of our experiences.”

And at last the harsh realist London found the imaginary landscape he had been traveling toward, a vast non-place in which his individualism and his collectivism could play at will. In a 1907 letter to his editor he wrote: “[I]n all that I have said and written and done, I have been true. This is the character I have built up; it constitutes, I believe, my big asset.” An asset, but also a burden. In The Star Rover he shatters his character into pieces and scatters it over thousands of years. Where does the proud man choose to travel now that he’s free; now that the only collective is memory? He changes form at will. He is a Roman slave, a medieval European aristocrat. He is a beggar in Korea, and a king, and a frontier boy. He falls in love with nonwhite women, fervently in love, and displays a tenacious loyalty to them. He learns languages easily and merges with other cultures. The Star Rover is the only London novel in which the narrator has much fun. He manages, sometimes incongruously, to remain blue-eyed, male, smart, and physically fit.

The Star Rover‘s narrator — Darrell Standing, a former professor — is also, how­ever, a prisoner on death row. “They are going to take me out and hang me pretty soon. In the meantime I say my say, and write in these pages of the other times and places.” Standing has learned the trick of time travel from a fellow prisoner. He trav­els under special conditions: when the war­den has him laced into a straitjacket. The warden is torturing him to get information Standing doesn’t have. Unable to move and soon to be dead, Standing tells us:

I am life. I have lived ten thousand genera­tions. I have lived millions of years. I have possessed many bodies … Cut out the heart, or, better, fling the flesh-remnant into a machine of a thousand blades and make mince meat of it — and I, I, don’t you understand, all the spirit and the mystery and the vital fire and life of me, am off and away. I have not perished. Only the body has perished, and the body is not I.

Apparently London, late in his brief life, found a country and a collective big enough that he could roam without feeling bound, without hating or fearing his companions and surroundings. The country was every­thing he could remember about history; the collective was all the people he could imag­ine, and all the people he could imagine himself being. That London was only able to reach this destination through a charac­ter straitjacketed on the floor of a cell, an­ticipating death, is the sort of paradox one comes to expect of him. ❖

THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.96 (three volumes).
THE LETTERS OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.50 (three volumes).
JACK LONDON: The Novels and Stories. The Library of America, $27.50.
JACK LONDON: Novels and Social Writings. The Library of America, $27.50.
THE STAR ROVER. Westview, $12.95 paper.
BEFORE ADAM. Star Rover: $6.95 paper.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 17, 2020