All About Jack London
February 3, 2005 5:53 PM   Subscribe

Jack London was a prolific writer best known for White Fang, The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf. However, he also wrote about his experiences as a hobo, a socialist and a journalist. While most biographies portray his life as vibrant and engaged, his legacy and arguable suicide has some troublesome baggage.
posted by sciurus (46 comments total)
 
I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.
posted by sciurus at 5:54 PM on February 3, 2005


Oh, and I almost forgot about The Cruise of the Snark.
posted by sciurus at 6:02 PM on February 3, 2005


I loved his short stories A Piece of Steak and To Build a Fire.

Awesome stuff.

(Probably never would have read them - but they were on my High School English curriculum.)
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:10 PM on February 3, 2005


As yet, to the average bourgeois mind, socialism is merely a menace, vague and formless. The average member of the capitalist class, when he discusses socialism, is condemned an ignoramus out of his own mouth. He does not know the literature of socialism, its philosophy, nor its politics. He wags his head sagely and rattles the dry bones of dead and buried ideas. His lips mumble mouldy phrases, such as, "Men are not born equal and never can be;" "It is Utopian and impossible;" "Abstinence should be rewarded;" "Man will first have to be born again;" "Cooperative colonies have always failed;" and "What if we do divide up? in ten years there would be rich and poor men such as there are today."

It surely is time that the capitalists knew something about this socialism that they feel menaces them. And it is the hope of the writer that the socialistic studies in this volume may in some slight degree enlighten a few capitalistic minds. The capitalist must learn, first and for always, that socialism is based, not upon the equality, but upon the inequality, of men. Next, he must learn that no new birth into spiritual purity is necessary before socialism becomes possible. He must learn that socialism deals with what is, not with what ought to be; and that the material with which it deals is the "clay of the common road," the warm human, fallible and frail, sordid and petty, absurd and contradictory, even grotesque, and yet, withal, shot through with flashes and glimmerings of something finer and God-like, with here and there sweetnesses of service and unselfishness, desires for goodness, for renunciation and sacrifice, and with conscience, stern and awful, at times blazingly imperious, demanding the right,--the right, nothing more nor less than the right.


Jack London, War of the Classes.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 6:11 PM on February 3, 2005


Martin Eden is one of my favorite books. Not to be missed.
posted by baphomet at 6:12 PM on February 3, 2005


Jack London also was a reporter for 1908 Johnson v. Burns fight in Sydney, Australia in which Jack Johnson be become the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World.

I found it quite shocking to learn that London was quite the racist.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 6:50 PM on February 3, 2005


For one thing, I totally loved his YA books like Call of the Wild and White Fang when I was growing up, but I can definitely see how a lot of the same values that can appeal to an adolescent boy can turn out to be borderline suspect, after the fact. (Heinlein's Starship Troopers is a great case in point.)

That being said, I'm having a hard time piecing out the negative implications from these links. From what I can tell, there's some sort of accusation that he wrote a certain essay under a pen name, and that that essay--because it advocates "Might makes Right"--could be construed as supporting racist agendas.

Is there some kind of more direct evidence that he _did_ write that essay? I'd be willing to entertain the possibility of some kind of controversy with more compelling evidence, but I just don't see it here.

(On preview, S@L, you say that he's "quite the racist"...did I miss something in one of the links?)
posted by LairBob at 6:55 PM on February 3, 2005


I found it quite shocking to learn that London was quite the racist.

Which Freeper thread did you get this one from, Steve?
posted by Space Coyote at 6:58 PM on February 3, 2005


hmmm...
posted by Space Coyote at 6:59 PM on February 3, 2005


That would be the Freeper Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness that just ran on PBS.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 7:00 PM on February 3, 2005


Maybe you should try pulling your head out of your ass next time before you have a knee-jerk reaction.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 7:01 PM on February 3, 2005


Your credibility is shot without me snickering at the bulletholes.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2005


Translation: I can't even save face properly.
posted by Krrrlson at 7:19 PM on February 3, 2005


Steve is right. I had the same reaction watching the Burns documentary about Johnson.
posted by homunculus at 7:20 PM on February 3, 2005


Jack London also was a reporter for 1908 Johnson v. Burns fight in Sydney, Australia.

It keeps on getting weirder. One of the provided links said he never went to Australia.

http://www.jack-london.org/suicide.htm



And what the hell is up with this link?

http://theoccidentalquarterly.com/jllp1/jllp-va.html

Why say something so inflammatory before awarding the Jack London Literary Prize? What are the criteria for receiving such a prize?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:28 PM on February 3, 2005


FYI: neckro23 has started a MeTa thread over the above exchange.
posted by mlis at 7:29 PM on February 3, 2005


Woops. From the same link:

The Jack London Prize is awarded to those authors whose work reflects the expansive, fearless spirit of Jack London, and is intended to promote the timeless values of Western civilization. The Prize honors those whose writings are intellectually intrepid and characterized by breadth of vision, scholarly rigor and lucid phraseology.

Still. The speech was rather odd to say the least.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:31 PM on February 3, 2005


One of the provided links said he never went to Australia.

That is very strange, and makes me doubt the validity of the site linked.
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 7:40 PM on February 3, 2005


Alright, having missed the Burns documentary, I guess I missed the point about London calling for Johnson to get beat just because he was black. (Found it by Googling the two names.) So that definitely is disappointing, but I still love the books.
posted by LairBob at 7:42 PM on February 3, 2005


The guy was a known plagiarist and violent racist. Sounds like a winner.
posted by TetrisKid at 7:43 PM on February 3, 2005


London: "[I] was with [Tommy] Burns all the way. He was a white man and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win."

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/fight/peopleevents/e_race.html

Space Coyote, this is the part where you apologize to Steve, and where everyone then thinks more highly of you for having done so.
posted by LarryC at 7:46 PM on February 3, 2005


Getting us back on the rails, London was one of our very finest writers, whatever your politics. My favorite is Seawolf, a terrific meditation on the meanings of manhood and bravery.
posted by LarryC at 7:51 PM on February 3, 2005


That is very strange, and makes me doubt the validity of the site linked.

He might appreciate an email. He certainly comes across as a stickler for accuracy.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:55 PM on February 3, 2005


...stickler for accuracy.

Bugger. Tautology.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:58 PM on February 3, 2005


Woops. From the same link:

The Jack London Prize is awarded to those authors whose work reflects the expansive, fearless spirit of Jack London, and is intended to promote the timeless values of Western civilization. The Prize honors those whose writings are intellectually intrepid and characterized by breadth of vision, scholarly rigor and lucid phraseology.

Still. The speech was rather odd to say the least.


For "timeless values of Western civilization", read "American paleoconservatism", somewhere to the right of Pat Buchanan -- defined by such gems as

The West is a cultural compound of our Classical, Christian, and Germanic past. Race informs culture; it is the necessary precondition for cultural identity and integrity. America and its cultural and political identity will endure only so long as the identities that created it and sustain it endure, and when they die, America will die.

The magazine is described as "racially-oriented" by fellow conservatives with a racial politics bent, and is connected with the well-known Regnery group.

Watch out, when you google, where google takes you. These guys are using Jack London's name to prettify their politics.
posted by dhartung at 8:24 PM on February 3, 2005


London was quite the racist.

I believe Jack London said something like "there is no room in the world for a half-breed" in an essay or similar (and I believe he was referring specifically to American Indians).

I'm searching for the quote, but in the meantime I'll ask my half-breed SO (who, ironically, is quite the London fan). He's used the quote in some of his work but I don't remember the source right now.
posted by MiHail at 9:10 PM on February 3, 2005


Well, I still liked Martin Eden.
posted by kenko at 9:30 PM on February 3, 2005


Don't forget The Wolf House -- perhaps the most pivotal turning point in London's life. London had devised a dream house on a floating slab designed for a forty-story building. Having sunk $80,000 (pre-WWI dollars) into this place, only a few days before Jack and Charmian were to move in, an unexpected fire destroyed it.
posted by ed at 10:17 PM on February 3, 2005


Does it neccessarily make Jack London a racist to want to see a white boxer win? Would you say a Japanese person is racist for rooting for a Japanese Judo champ, simply because they want to see a Japanese man win? I'm not sure I'll call Jack London a racist on account of that quote, but IIRC, some other more damning quotes of his were mentioned in "Unforgivable Blackness".
posted by VP_Admin at 10:37 PM on February 3, 2005


VP_Admin,

It, too, had the same reaction from watching the Ken Burns doc. The quotes here don't do it justice. Watch it and make up your own mind. I was quite shocked, like I can't remember being in a long time. One second I see Jack London and I think, great, this is gonna be good... then, that sinking feeling.

It is easy to sit here in 2005 and be judgemental. I'll say that. However, there was no "on the fence" feeling about his comments. They were plain ugly.
posted by e40 at 11:42 PM on February 3, 2005


Would you say a Japanese person is racist for rooting for a Japanese Judo champ, simply because they want to see a Japanese man win?

But London was supporting a Canadian against his fellow American. And yes, if a Japanese person supported a Japanese-American competitor against a Anglo-Japanese competitor solely because of ethnic origin then yes, the Japanese person would be being racist.
posted by alasdair at 2:02 AM on February 4, 2005


Most folk living today (black or white or whatever) might a hundred years from now be judged racist because they didn't intermarry, didn't have many friends of other races, didn't live in sufficiently mixed areas, and so on. We might all be judged racist for allowing such great economic and educational differences between races. Or we might be judged racist for even having noticed race, and who do you know who doesn't notice skin colors and facial features and automatically categorize the person by race?

In the Jack London case, I would have been surprised to discover he wasn't racist. By today's standards, who wasn't racist in 1908, in the days of the Great White Hope search? What London said was said unashamedly and was published unashamedly in the New York Herald without causing a stir in the readership. It would be better to try to see whether he was average, better, or worse than his peers and to judge him according to the standards of his day.
posted by pracowity at 4:20 AM on February 4, 2005


Does it neccessarily make Jack London a racist to want to see a white boxer win? Would you say a Japanese person is racist for rooting for a Japanese Judo champ, simply because they want to see a Japanese man win?

VP, that may be the dumbest comparison I have ever seen. Whiteness is (fortunately) not a nationality, nor a particular ethnicity, whereas being Japanese is both. London expressed his position from the point of view of someone who believed in Black inferiority, and in the likelihood of an impeding race war. This is hardly the same as someone expressing national pride.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 6:18 AM on February 4, 2005


I would have been surprised to discover he wasn't racist. By today's standards, who wasn't racist in 1908.

Why are you suggesting we use today's standard? There is plenty of historical data to allow you to use the standard of 1908 if you want. By this standard, London was also a racist. Simple as that.

I can't really understand the inclination of some to apologize for London's position or water-down its intention. The statement was racist, and London's view was racist. This IN NO WAY detracts from his value as a novelist, nor undermines his other political efforts in support of socialism and class equality. While the historical context of 1908 might help explain why London held particular views- racist or otherwise- it can never excuse them.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 6:24 AM on February 4, 2005


Interesting article at Reason.com on the issue of whether London was a racist.

http://reason.com/9704/col.freund.shtml


posted by theknacker at 6:26 AM on February 4, 2005


From and examiniation of London's philosophical perspective:

In "The Eyes of Asia," London continued his interest in racial dynamics:

"Children of ours would be an anguish to contemplate Neither fish, nor fowl. Nor white, nor Asiatic, nor European. Blended misfits of out-crossed bloods. It would be awful - we could not forgive ourselves. Fancy it - the Anglo-Saxon staring at me from almond; the Japanese staring at you from Anglo-Saxon eyes, inscrutable, foreign, utterly, abysmally alien."

posted by Cassford at 6:41 AM on February 4, 2005


The Reason article calls into question London's Marxist orientation, yet the following statement from the article:

In the end, London's revolutionary hopes were really about undermining trade and technology. These alienated man from nature, turned him effete, and prevented him from realizing his destiny.

Suggests strong Marxist roots, in the sense that wage labor alienates man from his role as Homo Faber- the creative producer. Marx ultimately goes a different route than London, proposing that technology will solve this problem via surplus, which will let everyone ultimately get back to their creative-productive roles. It is clear that London envisioned a romantic solution.

the knacker, good link by the way- effectively integrates London's racial and political views.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 6:43 AM on February 4, 2005


Thank you, theknacker. I'd found a Reason Hit and Run forum on him, but not an essay. Very nice.
posted by sciurus at 7:06 AM on February 4, 2005


John Barleycorn is an interesting discussion of his powerful drinking problem.

You can feel the racism really strongly in both the fiction and the journalism, it's that really clear kind of victorian terror of the other, this exactly "...the Japanese staring at you from Anglo-Saxon eyes, inscrutable, foreign, utterly, abysmally alien."

It's how you get people preaching the universal brotherhood and right to self-determination of (some) men.

It works as a good reminder that at least in polite company culturally we have come quite a distance in the last 60-70 years or sadly that we're just much better at covering up our racism.
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:07 AM on February 4, 2005


By today's standards, who wasn't racist in 1908, in the days of the Great White Hope search?

A short list:
  • John Dewey
  • Jane Addams
  • Henry Moscowitz,
  • Mary White Ovington
  • The rest of the NAACP membership
We can acknowledge that virulent racism was on the rise, not ebbing, in the US in 1908, but to say that he was just a creature of his time is unfair to the thousands of people who rejected the racist view London espoused.
posted by Cassford at 7:19 AM on February 4, 2005


By this standard, London was also a racist. Simple as that.

Of course he was racist, but that's not what I was getting at. Was he exceptional in his racism, was his racism remarkable given the age, or was he just as racist as everyone else was?

What did other people of his day believe? Did they happily eat and drink with people of other races? Did they want to live near people of other races? Did they think it was fine for their children to go to school with, befriend, and marry members of other races? Did they think people of other races were inferior? Was London's racism unusual, or did he just happen to be a published writer who expressed common sentiments?

And if his racism was not uncommon then, is it worth stressing London's racism without discussing it within the context of the age's racism?
posted by pracowity at 7:20 AM on February 4, 2005


I think one reason why there was a knee-jerk reaction to S@L's comment is that there is a tendency on the part of many on the right - a thread running through calling out Jack London's racism, the Reason article on Jack London that was linked to, and in many anti-environmental screeds of the right-wing/free market/property rights crowd that really annoys me, and I wonder if anyone else notices it. What I am talking about is that many conservatives will use any piece of information possible to discredit their political opponents, even when it is clear to many that they themselves espouse racist views far more strongly than their opponents.. It happened when the Sierra Club was struggling internally with the immigration issue - with right-wingers screaming - "SEE - those crazy enviros are all just a bunch of Nazis!" it happened this week with Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage calling Democrats racists for voting not to confirm Gonzalez, and goes all the way back to the cynical nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Michael Crichton's book State of Fear even goes so far as to equate environmentalists with the Bin laden crowd. Take the most extreme views of a tiny handful of people who care about the the environment, or social justice, or the Iraq War (remember the effort to divide anti-war protesters by linking them all to the fringe A.N.S.W.E.R leaders?), and then smear an entire movement. This kind of intellectual laziness sickens me.
posted by piedrasyluz at 9:18 AM on February 4, 2005


VP, that may be the dumbest comparison I have ever seen. Whiteness is (fortunately) not a nationality, nor a particular ethnicity, whereas being Japanese is both. London expressed his position from the point of view of someone who believed in Black inferiority, and in the likelihood of an impeding race war. This is hardly the same as someone expressing national pride.
posted by Dr_Johnson


Whiteness is (fortunately) not a nationality

Tell that to Poland!

My point is simply that I wouldn't judge people of East Asian descent who want to see Yao Ming beat Shaq because Yao Ming looks like they do. It's just not such a big deal to me.

For the same reason, I won't judge people of European descend who want to see a heavy-weight boxer of European descent win. It hasn't happened in a long time.

Personally, I was rooting for Jack Johnson when I watched the film, though I'm of European descent. He was fighting as a civil-rights pioneer. I was rooting for him as well when he took his white ladies around in public. That was admirable and courageous. I'm grateful for anyone that stands up for themself because they're standing up for all of us. That includes Iraqis.

When George Foreman was fighting his most recent fights, I rooted for him, because he was old. His age made him an underdog.

When one of the Klitchko brothers was fighting Lennox Lewis, I thought it might be cool to see a Klitchko upset. Heavyweight boxers of European descent are underdogs, statistically speaking.

During a winter olympics, I rooted for that black figure skater from France on similar grounds. There aren't many black figure skaters.

In martial arts, I have a tendency to root for east-asian competitors. They invented most of these arts, and it bugs me sometimes to see a bigger guy beat them out of sheer athleticism.

I'm just not inclined to judge those who root for people who look like they do in a sporting event. It's just a natural human short-coming. Of course this tendency is the source of many greater problems.

I'm more concerned with racism at the institutional level. I believe there should be affirmative action and even reparations in some cases.
posted by VP_Admin at 9:24 AM on February 4, 2005


I think you just like to fight.
posted by thomcatspike at 10:50 AM on February 4, 2005


I agree that most forms of racism are less overt and more insidious, and that in this respect London's comments on the Johnson fight were more-or-less innocuous. I'm not sure would accept it, however, even if it's a 'natural human shortcoming.'
posted by Dr_Johnson at 3:32 PM on February 4, 2005


Before this, I didn't know about London's coverage of the Johnson fight or the quoted comment. I had heard, though, of his xenophobic and anti-Asian sentiments in response to the ongoing influx of Chinese laborers into California during his lifetime. His futuristic short story The Unparalleled Invasion mentioned in the Reason article linked above, and set in 1976 when Chinese people are about to take over the world but ultimately killed off as a race, seems like a better gauge or example of his attitudes on race than a single quote does, even if there is a certain distance created by it being a fictional work.

There is no doubt in my mind that London is a great writer. I still count Call of the Wild and White Fang among my favorites and I think he was at his best when he vivdly described Alaska and the Yukon and brought me as a reader into the minds of dogs/wolves and how they might think.
posted by PY at 5:49 PM on February 4, 2005


« Older Nature & Wildlife Photography Magazine   |   Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate Papers Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments