Jack London: “John Barleycorn”

John Barleycorn is the only alcoholics memoir I have ever read.  I have too much respect for Jack London to assume his words would be fundamentally different if produced today.  However, I am struck by how different John Barleycorn is from the following, which I pulled from the Alcoholics Anonymous website.  “We who are in A.A. came because we finally gave up trying to control our drinking. We still hated to admit that we could never drink safely. Then we heard from other A.A. members that we were sick. (We thought so for years!) We found out that many people suffered from the same feelings of guilt and loneliness and hopelessness that we did. We found out that we had these feelings because we had the disease of alcoholism.”  In my America, difference is either pathologized or celebrated.  It rarely is accepted as natural, exciting, challenging, or liberating.  Some forms of difference are rarely celebrated and almost always pathologized.  The child who has a projectural and active curiosity has ADD.  Other forms of diversity – usually racial, ethnic, or sexual – are celebrated but rarely taken seriously.  Multiculturalism suggests mutual indifference.  Assertiveness, creativity, anxiety, melancholy, intense sexual desire, and curiosity are as often as not seen as problems to be medicated as they get in the way of school, the test, work, a “successful” marriage, or that next promotion.

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I drink fairly heavily, much less than many but probably more than most.  I doubt I am what our culture would call an alcoholic, but I like getting drunk.  I have said and done hurtful things while drinking, but I also had moments of intense joy that I would not have had without alcohol.  Many precious memories are as clear as day to me although they were acquired under a cloudy haze of a drunken mind.  At 35, I never have found alcohol to be in control of my life, but she is a companion I do not want to say goodbye too.  Indeed, I am much less conflicted about alcohol than even Jack London.  More than anything else in John Barleycorn, I appreciate that ambivalence and his refusal to ever admit to being “ill” or under the control of a “disease.”  John Barleycorn also shows how drink can help create solidarity and community, something that is sorely needed.  I doubt it is the best way to recreate community, but I see it as a tool.

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On the first page, his wife asks London about why he voted for women’s suffrage.  London replied that it is because women would support prohibition.  When his wife questioned him on his history with and  “friendship” with John Barleycorn London replied: “I am.  I was.  I am not.  I never am.  I am never less his friend than when is with me and when I seem most his friend.  He is the king of liars.  He is the frankest truth-sayer.  He is the august companion with whom one walks with the gods.  He is also in league with the Nameless One.  His way leads to naked truth, and to death.  He gives clear vision, and muddy dreams.  He is the enemy of life, and the teacher of wisdom beyond life’s vision.  he is a red-handed killer, and he slays youth.” (935-936)  This conversation leads to London deciding to write up a book on the subject.  London laughs it off with the title “Memoirs of an Alcoholic.”  His wife corrects him reminding him that he was “no dipsomaniac” and the book should be called “Alcoholic Memoirs.”  What a powerful and liberating change in such a minor shift.

His next chapter identifies two types of drinkers.  “There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pin elephants.”  This is the one who gets drunk in the body.  He pays for alcohol less.  The other type of drinker is the “imaginative man”  who gets drunk in the mind.  “He may bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship.  Or he may see intellectual specters and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and that take the forms of syllogisms.  It is when in this condition that he strips away the husks of life’s healthiest illusions and gravely considers the iron collar of necessity welded about the neck of his soul.” (939)

And forgive the length of this following quote, but London’s clarify on this subject is important.  While the unimaginative drinker is the headache or the night in the gutter, the imaginative drinker faces – along  with his vice – the “white logic.”  It is this logic that makes drinkers a creative, but deluded, and potentially destructive philosopher.  It leads to a passive acceptance of fate and a cynicism that denies life’s meaning.  “He looks upon life and all its affairs with the jaundiced eye of a pessimistic German philosopher. He sees through all illusions. He transvalues all values. Good is bad, truth is a cheat, and life is a joke. From his calm-mad heights, with the certitude of a god, he beholds all life as evil. Wife, children, friends–in the clear, white light of his logic they are exposed as frauds and shams. He sees through them, and all that he sees is their frailty, their meagreness, their sordidness, their pitifulness. No longer do they fool him. They are miserable little egotisms, like all the other little humans, fluttering their May-fly life- dance of an hour. They are without freedom. They are puppets of chance. So is he. He realises that. But there is one difference. He sees; he knows. And he knows his one freedom: he may anticipate the day of his death. All of which is not good for a man who is made to live and love and be loved.” (940-941)

Over the next 30 short chapters, London describes the two major phases of his life where he indulged in alcohol.  The first was during his working class youth, when drink became a means for men to interact and establish a form of shared solidarity.  While working at a cannery and as an oyster pirate, drink was an essential part of the working class culture he participated in.  Treating each other with drinks was what, in that context, men did.  Alcohol also drove him toward intellectual pursuits in his youth.  Through conversations with the learned much from a Captain Nelson, who was one of the better-read workers in his drinking circle.  During this phase in life, London danced with this devil “John Barleycorn.”  Throughout the memoirs, “John Barleycorn” is a force of its own.  A companion, an instigator, and a tempter, but never quite the enemy.

The second period of his relationship with alcohol was during the peak of his writing career.  It is during this period that drinking undermined his friendship and led him to consider suicide.  It was during this period that the “White Logic” a corrupting pessimism was strongest.  “The things I had fought for and burned my midnight oil for, had failed me.  Success–I despised it.  Recognition–it was dead ashes.  Society, men and women above the ruck and muck of the water-front and the forecastle–I was appalled by their unlovely mental mediocrity.  Love of women–it was like all the rest.  Money–I could sleep in only one bed at a time, and of what worth was an income of a hundred porterhouses a day when I could eat only one?  Art, culture–in the face of the iron facts of biology such things were ridiculous, the exponents of such things only the more ridiculous.”  (1065-1066)  At the end of this memoir, London is no less ambivalent.  Even in the aftermath of his deepest, most isolating and anti-social phase of his drinking, London remains attracted to the socializing elements of drink.  “I like the bubbling play of wit, the chesty laughs, the resonant voices of men, when, glass in hand, they shut the gray world outside and prod their brains with the fun and folly of an accelerated pulse.  no, I decided; I shall take my drink on occasion.” (1112)

Well, I have much more I could say on this interesting book.  It is enough to conclude that I think London’s attitude toward drink is healthier and by far more interesting than the one promoted by AA.  Labeling excessive drinking a disease is too simplistic and serves to enforce conformity no less than the manias over ADHA or sex addiction.  I say this, however, fully open to being educated by people who have had different  and less positive experiences with drink.

Christopher Hitchens on his drinking.  Some interesting parallels here.

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A few last comments on this volume of Jack London’s writings.  It ends with four essays that speak to his socialism.  In “How I Became a Socialist”, he argues that socialism was the outcome of a long struggle with individualism.  “The Scab” is an attempt to empathize with this most hated figure in American labor history.  In a labor market, he argues, we are all scabs.  And the people who tend to strike-break are often the most poorest, most isolated, and easily abused members of the working class.  Indeed, these are the same men who have had their jobs taken by more skilled or more well-connected workers.  “The superior workman scabs upon the inferior workman because he is so constituted and cannot help it.”  The scab will strive for life even in the absence of equality.  There are important lessons on how to envision a broad, inclusive working-class movement here.  “The Jungle” is London’s positive review of Upton Sinclair’s novel, which he compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Finally, “Revolution” is an article predicting an inevitable class war.

Next entry, I will be moving onto the second volume of London’s writings published by the Library of America, which focuses on his short-fiction and Klondike writings.

 

 

Jack London: “Martin Eden”

Martin Eden functions as a critique of radical individualism and as a memoir of a young writer, struggling with his career.  The main character had working class roots and like London wrote extensively over the course of a short but vibrant career.  Martin Eden struggled against a peer group that either did not respect his career choice or overlooked him from his proletarian roots and a publishing industry that failed to provide much of a living to younger writers.  Despite frustrations and failings that often led him to temporarily give up a writing career, Martin Eden remained ruggedly individualist, influenced by writers such as Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche.  He resisted the socialism of a peer, Russ Brissenden.  Martin Eden’s frustrations, growing lack of fulfillment with a writing career, and eventual suicide suggest the weakness of the ideology of individualism that dominated the turn of the twentieth century.  We have seen enough of London’s writings to know of his support of socialism and his desire for community and solidarity (this is a theme that is strongly expressed in John Barleycorn).

What is the type of individualism embraced by Martin Eden?  It is much closer to the isolated, capitalist individualism of Horatio Alger or the robber barons than the association of free individuals envisioned by the American anarchists and socialists of London’s generation.  His strongest influence was Herbert Spencer,who embraced a Lamarckian evolutionary model and coined the phrase, “Survival of the Fittest.”   The reader cannot deny that this strong individualism got Martin Eden someplace.  He lifted himself from his proletarian roots, educated himself, and sent our endless manuscripts (and endured the rejections) with an amazing Stoicism that cannot help but impress.  London is not saying that individualism is incapable of inspiring great actions, but it is ultimately flawed.  Martin Eden is much like the protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” a rugged individualist who dies due to his own isolation.

When reading Martin Eden, I kept coming back to Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”  Wilde argues that only in socialism can true creative individualism be achieved.  Martin Eden believed, wrongly, that hard work and even brilliance alone could help he achieve creative success.  Not only did his efforts largely fail (as when his first published story was paid 1/20 of what he expected), but even when relative success was won Martin Eden felt drained.  Martin’s horrible realization at the end of his career was that all of his hard work led only to him moving from the manual labor proletariat to the intellectual proletariat.  Like Martin, the artists that Wilde describes are forever hampered by the needs of the intellectual marketplace.  Their energies will be directed toward questions of social justice instead of artistic liberation.  Essentially Wilde argues that socialism is not a route to serfdom.  It is a route to true individualism because every talent will be freed from the oppression of subsistence and can engage in creative enterprises.  I get the same sense from Martin Eden, although none of the characters (except maybe Russ Brissenden) can articulate an alternative to the the intellectual marketplace.  Martin’s love, Ruth, often reminds him that he needs to write for the public tastes and often critiques his work as unsuitable for mass consumption.  This is the same criticism often leveled by editors who pare down, transform, or shred Martin’s stories.  Martin figures most of this out, even as he rejects the salvation provided by socialism. “Surely they do not want me for myself, for myself is the same old self they did not want.  Then they must want me for something else, for something that is outside of men, for something that is not I!  Shall I tell you what that something is?  It is for recognition I have received.  That recognition is not I.  It resides in the minds of others.  Then again for the money I have earned and am earning.  But that money is not I.  It resides in banks and in the pockets of Tom, Dick, and Harry.  And is it for that, for the recognition and the money, that you now want me?” (913)

We are in an era of mass, market-driven education.  I suspect most intellectuals have felt similarly about their own work, whether it is as writers, researchers or teachers.  This exploitation of minds for money and name recognization is brilliantly discussed by Marc Bousquet in his article considering the popularity of the television series Spartacus.  In this piece, he suggests that American intellectuals are simply exploited labor, but like the gladiators of the Roman-era cling to the “glory” of their position.  The arena and the classroom are both venues for the the exploitation of a deluded proletariat.  At least the factory worker understand her exploitation.  The adjunct instructor (or the full-time professor at many schools) lives hand to mouth for the right to call himself an “intellectual.”  http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/we-are-all-roman-porn-stars-now/32195

I will sign off with that, realizing that I have another seven posts on Jack London  Martin Eden effectively puts you in the head of one of these long-deluded intellectuals.  I wonder how many English professors assigned this book without fully realizing that to the university administration, they were nothing but a part of a money-making machine, like Martin Eden.  And for the anarchist, as attractive as individualism is (Tocqueville called it “egoism” – seeing true “individualism” as a more mature feeling), London reminds is that that individualism is hollow and soul-crushing is it is not based on a broader foundation of community, solidarity, and cooperation.

Jack London: “The Iron Heel” Part 2

 

 

 

This post is a continuation of yesterday’s post “Jack London: The Iron Heel Part 2”

And for those just visiting this blog, my goal is a systematic reading of the Library of America (that is the American literary, political, and cultural tradition) from an anarchist perspective.  Please look to my first post for more details.

The second half of The Iron Heel explores the reaction of the oligarchy to the emergence of a credible socialist party in the United States, the co-option of the labor elite, the suppression of the socialists/Grangers/labor activists, and the uprising that suppression inspired.  The novel ends with the abrupt ending of Avis Everhead’s manuscript and the apparent execution of her husband.

Looking at the book as a whole we see the transformation of America from a stratified class society (something we know enough about) where the elite could engage in intelligent conversations with radicals like Ernest Everhead to a situation of intense class war and the rise of a fascist, corporatist oligarchy.  I think it is in this warning that The Iron Heel speaks most loudly to us.  London was also warning the working class to prepare for that class war, which they would almost inevitably lose.  Through Ernest Everhard, London condemned efforts of socialists to bask in electoral victories.   At one point he was confronted with optimistic socialists declaring after an election: “In another month we send fifty men to Congress.  Two years hence every office will be ours, from the President down to the local dog-catcher.”  Everhard responded: “How many rifles have you got?  Do you know where you can get plenty of lead?  When it comes to powder , chemical mixtures and better than mechanical mixtures, you take my word.” (474-476)  In the novel, the revolt when it came failed utterly and it would take 300 years for “The Brotherhood of Man” to finally overturn capitalism.  London gives us a bleak choice: either die in useless revolt or suffer injustice and oppression.

London lived in a time when radical movements were attempting various electoral challenges to emerging capitalist oligarchies.  The Populist Movement – first an independent political movement of farmers and later an adjunct to the Democratic Party – and the Socialist Party both achieved impressive electoral successes at the local and even national level.  In 1892, the Populist candidate won over 1 million votes and 22 electoral votes.  Eugene Debs received 900,000 votes in 1912.  London seems to have little faith in these movements, predicating the violent smashing of any threat to the oligarchy.  In one of Everhard’s last public speeches as a socialist member of the house of representatives, he condemned the entire political systems and was labelled an anarchist for his views.

London is careful not to idealize the class war that led to the rise of the Iron Heel.  The areas of most acute conflict experienced the self-destruction of working people in internal conflicts brought on by the co-option of the labor elite.  The “Granger states”, secessionist movements inspired apparently by the Farmer’s Alliance, were violently suppressed in military campaigns compared to the Indian Wars.  The socialists, ever London’s beacon of hope, survived because they devoted their energies to internal security, espionage into the Oligarchy, and the formation of military organizations.  I doubt Lenin directly influenced London here (had he even written on the role of a vanguard revolutionary party yet?), but London certainly predicated the essential role of a secretive, authoritarian movement.  “There was no trust, no confidence anywhere.  The man who plotted beside us, for all we knew, might be an agent of the Iron Heel.  We mined the organization of the Iron Heel with our secret agents, and the Iron Heel countermined with its secret agents inside its own organization.  And it was the same with our organization. . . Men were weak, I say, and because of their weakness we were compelled to make the only other reward that was within our power.  It was the reward of death.  Out of necessity we had to punish our traitors.  For every man who betrayed us, from one to a dozen faithful avengers were loosed upon his heels. . . . The Revolution took on largely the character of religion. We worshiped at the shrine of the Revolution, which was the shrine of liberty.  .  . We were lovers of Humanity.” (484-485).  Reading this novel after the 1930s, we have little doubt that had Everhard been successful in his revolt, the result would have been a revolutionary dictatorship.  By placing his utopia 700 years in the future, London can avoid these difficult questions.  The footnotes provide few hints about how the “Brotherhood of Man” emerged, except that it did take new revolts.

Despite some of my reservations, I think this novel is useful both as a product of a period of class warfare in American history – a history that is often forgotten in the elitist history of presidents and robber barons – and as a warning against oligarchy.  London also warns against putting our faith in the political system and suggesting the need for serious self-defense against corporate power.  These are all useful lessons.  As individualist as London was (a theme we will explore in future selections of his works) his socialism was essentially statist.  As displaying in People of the Abyss, London was not really capable of granting the working poor the agenda to rule themselves or make the right choices.  Everhard is needed.  Thankfully, the ever smitten Avis defended him as a hero and London did not need to truly imagine the post-revolutionary situation.

From Fritz Land’s “Metropolis” – An image that remained in my head during this reading of “The Iron Heel”

Jack London: “The Iron Heel” Part One

Ah, The Iron Heel has everything that a young leftist should love in a novel: lengthy dissections of Marxist economics, revolutionary conspiracies, an imagined future of socialist utopia, and most importantly a young, beautiful, bourgeoisie woman who falls head over heels for a labor activist after hearing his impassioned words.  This later point leads to a great deal of socialist rhetoric-inspired sex – certainly the best kind (at least until you grow up).  The problem in The Iron Heel is its heavy-handedness and its excessive lecturing to the audience.  Indeed, The Iron Heel makes the end of The Jungle appear like a gentle suggest for the reader to consider socialism.  The arguments made by the protagonist throughout the novel on questions of class conflict (instead of class hatred), labor theory of value and exploitation, and the role of worker’s parties are interesting enough and help make this a useful text for readers in a course “Early 20th Century Socialism 101.”  London showed himself to be a fairly good prophet in this text as well.  He predicted a war with Germany as a result of the capitalist competition for markets, he predicted the rise of an oligarchy, and the growing assertiveness of labor in American politics.  Whether contemporary America is a version of “The Iron Heel,” is perhaps a matter of interpretation, but there is certainly a domination of a oligarchy.  I suppose none of this was unpredictable – Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair posited similar futures.

I am not interested here in reciting the tedious socialist arguments London presented throughout the text.  In essence, he is making the same arguments he put forward in The People of the Abyss.  That is, exploited labor leads to a degradation of society and a form of barbarism and “mismanagement.”  In a post-scarcity situation, inequality is simply a matter of unjust distribution of wealth.  London makes this argument explicitly in the chapter “Machine-Breakers” where the protagonist challenges some Neo-Luddites to save their machines because those machines lead to post-scarcity, which is what workers should desire.  A socialist government will do a better job managing the resources of society and we should strive for the destruction of capitalism.

This novel is sometimes described as a “dystopian” novel, but I see it more as a critique of the turn-of-the-century American society and economy.  It is set only a few years in the future.  Unlike the most famous dystopias, London is more concerned with the transition to the future tyranny than a description of life under the “Iron Heel.”  We are also made aware that the collapse of the “Iron Heel” occurred a few hundred years after the events in the novel, ushering in a “Brotherhood of Man.”  As I see it, London is warning America of the consequences of industrial capitalism on freedom, solidarity, democracy, and equality (those old American values this blog is trying to unearth). Essentially, at this point in his life, London saw the socialist movement as the only force that could prevent the rise of the oligarchy.

I.W.W.-Image of Oligarchy

The Iron Heel is presented as the memoirs of Avis Everhard.  She spends most of the unfinished manuscript describing her relationship with Ernest Everhard and his political activities that led to a major revolt against the “Iron Heel” oligarchy.  The manuscript is lost and rediscovered by historians 700 years in the future, about 400 years after the establishment of the “Brotherhood of Man.”  The manuscript is edited and footnoted by these historians, which leads to some of the most interesting parts of the text.  As the historians attempt to explain capitalist terminology, or even early 20th century conventions, we are often humorously reminded how ridiculous our economic system is.  In one footnote, “Wall Street” is defined as: “so named from a street in ancient New York, where was situated the stock exchange, and where the irrational organization of society permitted underhanded manipulation of all the industries of the country.”  (434)  It works because it is obvious but so rarely stated.  Sometimes there footnotes are almost embarrassing obvious.  The “Brotherhood of Man” is certainly a society grounded in Jack London’s vision of socialism, which is rather unbelievable.  Again, this novel works only as a critique of the economy, government and society of London’s time, not as science fiction.

The plot of the first half of The Iron Heel coves the early career of Everhard, his burgeoning relationship with the manuscript’s author (by the way, I find no evidence that London had a clue to writing as a woman), and the rise of the socialist party in the United States.

What we can learn from this text will be the subject of the next entry, but for now, let’s listen to David Simon (co-creator of The Wire) talk about oligarchy.  As bad as this novel is at times, oligarchy remains something to be vigilant about and will keep The Iron Heel a contemporary novel for quite a while.

Jack London: “The Road”

Published in 1907, The Road is Jack London’s reflection and commentary on hobo life at turn-of-the-century America.  He based this book on his 1894 experiences as a hobo and convict for vagrancy.  It covers many of the same themes considered in The People of the Abyss: the ability of working people to survive in the face of long odds and the corruption of states and the oppression of the poor through institutions controlled by the powerful such as the prison, the courts, and the police.  He does not exert much energy in political lectures or expose his socialism.  In some ways this makes it a stronger work.  One reason for its strength is that London seems to prove that the working poor are not necessarily the hopeless, exploited masses described in The People of the Abyss.  Instead they show the ability to create alternative structures of power and subsistence.  His description of American hobos shows that it was not necessarily better “managament” that the working poor needed, but instead a release from the crushing hand of the state.

London begins with a story showing what excellent liars hobos could be.  He frames his illustration as an apology to a woman in Salt Lake City that he convinced to provide him subsistence.  He made an interesting point on how the ability to tell stories, invent a new past, and recreate ones identity is not only made easier by the anonymity of the hobo lifestyle, but was a requirement for survival.  I must admit a degree of attraction for their ability to put on new masks at will, even though this skill seems often used to run a game on the others.  A flexibility with the truth allows us in a class society to challenge some of the rigid boundaries imposed on us by the elite.  In the same way that a masquerade allows the transgression of class lines.

The next chapter examines some other skills of the hobo, the most important of which is the “holding down” of the train.  This meant maintaining their dwelling space despite the efforts of the workers to kick them off the train.  Again, the reader is struck by how the hobos had to create a unique set of skills that are not only necessary for hobos but seemingly easily acquired when the need approached.  A tool of power is the fear of the unknown.  How many people are stuck in boring jobs, dull marriages, or hideous monotony because they fear the unknown?  It is easier to be oppressed then to brave a life of freedom.  It is not surprising that so few people try to live free.  In this section of The Road, London reminds us how quickly we learn and how survival is not as difficult as we sometimes imagine.

In London’s mind the tramp life seems to exist between the natural institics and the civilized world.  When discussing a memory of a brutal beating of two children and a women he wrote: ”

Well, and what of it? It was a page out of life, that’s all; and there are many pages worse, far worse, that I have seen. I have sometimes held forth (facetiously, so my listeners believed) that the chief distinguishing trait between man and the other animals is that man is the only animal that maltreats the females of his kind. It is something of which no wolf nor cowardly coyote is ever guilty. It is something that even the dog, degenerated by domestication, will not do. The dog still retains the wild instinct in this matter, while man has lost most of his wild instincts — at least, most of the good ones.  Worse pages of life than what I have described? Read the reports on child labor in the United States, — east, west, north, and south, it doesn’t matter where, — and know that all of us, profit- mongers that we are, are typesetters and printers of worse pages of life than that mere page of wife-beating on the Susquehanna.” (226)

The relationship between the hobos and the law is explored in the next few chapters.  London was arrested, along with some other hobos, for vagrancy and sentenced to 30 days in jail.  London experienced first hand the capriciousness of the judicial system.  He was convinced he could say his peace to the judge, and was shocked when he was treated superficially like all other convicts.  In almost a humorous display of naivete, London recalls his sense of moral outrage and his desire to cling to his very American conception of rights and justice.  In reality, however, justice had but a small role in the decisions of these courts.  “I’d show what an American boy could do when his rights and privileges had been trampled on the way mine had. I had been denied my right of trial by jury; I had been denied my right to plead guilty or not guilty; I had been denied a trial even (for I couldn’t consider that what I had received at Niagara Falls was a trial); I had not been allowed to communicate with a lawyer nor any one, and hence had been denied my right of suing for a writ of habeas corpus; my face had been shaved, my hair cropped close, convict stripes had been put upon my body; I was forced to toil hard on a diet of bread and water and to march the shameful lock-step with armed guards over me -and all for what? What had I done? What crime had I committed against the good citizens of Niagara Falls that all this vengeance should be wreaked upon me? I had not even violated their “sleeping-out” ordinance. I had slept outside their jurisdiction, in the country, that night. I had not even begged for a meal, or battered for a “light piece” on their streets. All that I had done was to walk along their sidewalk and gaze at their picayune waterfall. And what crime was there in that? Technically I was guilty of no misdemeanor. All right, I’d show them when I got out.” (241-242)

“The Pen” turned out to be a place as exciting and dynamic as the tramp lifestyle itself.  They conveyed messages, ran an underground economy, and shared stories.  They all had unique backgrounds, coming from many nations, but all shared a common history of being jailed for crimes against the bourgeois life (debt, vagrancy, theft). “Our hall was a common stews, filled with the ruck and the filth, the scum and dregs, of society — hereditary inefficients, degenerates, wrecks, lunatics, addled intelligences, epileptics, monsters, weaklings, in short, a very nightmare of humanity. Hence, fits flourished with us. These fits seemed contagious.” (253)

The rest of the book details different aspects of tramp life, including their diverse backgrounds and “monicas.”  He also documents his participation in “Kelly’s Army,” which showed the ability of the hobos to participate directly in political agitation.  The final chapter of The Road goes back to the question of law and order and considers the paradox that the hobo is almost a necessity because of the large number of people employed in regulating them.  An entire industry of “bulls” was sustained by the hobo lifestyle.  And in an interesting dialectical way, the hobos and the enforcers danced in the towns, rail stations, camps, and jails of the great American interior.

Throughout The Road we are face with numerous examples of hobo ingenuity, creativity, adaptation, flexibility, and even freedom.  If we learn anything from this tale it should be that the hobos prove that we do not need our bosses.  The world outside of our cubicles and offices and cookie-cutter homes is only as scary as you make it.

Jack London: “The People of the Abyss”

I now have the pleasure to begin what I plan to be a two-week exploration of Jack London’s major writings.  As I see it, Jack London is one of a handful of authors who articulated particularly well the American dilemma between individualism and the reality of an industrial economy with a collective workforce.  Readers are often surprised to find in London a mixture of socialism and rugged individualism, support for radicalism and queer Social Darwinism.  This mixture makes sense in the context of a nation changing from one of individual small farming families to national markets, corporations, and industrial gigantism.

We also need to understand London’s life.  So, here are some of the highlights.  London was raised by his mother and a step-father, his real father abandoning him before he was born. From early in life, he worked to help support his family, taking on odd jobs in Oakland.   He worked as an oyster pirate and eventually when 17 he signed onto a sealing ship, which turned into a half-year voyage in the North Pacific.  When returning, he started writing, participated in the mass action Kelley’s Army during the Depression of 1894 and became a hobo for a period time.  When he returned to Oakland in 1895, he got involved in local politics and returned to school.  He later dropped out of college and joined the Klondike gold rush.  In 1898, London started his full-time writing career.  He wrote novels, short stories, journalism (reporting on the poor of London and the Russo-Japanese War), political tracts, and autobiography.  London died young, at age 40.  He remained a socialist for most of his life, married twice, and maintained an active life on the move – spending time in the South Seas and East Asia.  His biography suggests that he is a Pacific figure and not strictly American – like other California writers such as Steinbeck.  This explains some of my attraction toward his work.  His California is the California of a rising Pacific empire, not of farms and valleys.  San Francisco, for London, was always one boat away from Australia, Fiji, Alaska, Manchuria, or more rarely the “old world” of the Atlantic.  At the same time, he never ventured into the Pacific as a vulgar imperialist.  He went as a worker and a student but was not immune from American racial hierarchies of the day.

Jack London as a Sailor

The Library of America published two volumes of Jack London’s work, roughly divided between his non-fiction and his fiction, but this line is often confused in London.  Martin Eden seems semi-autobiographical, as does The Sea-Wolf.  The collection is not complete by any means and I do not know if the series intends to complete his work.  Most of his later fiction and many of his essays are not included (only four political and literary essays are provided).  These are also some of the first I purchased from my subscription when I started in late 2008.

The People of the Abyss, my reading for the day, (am I sounding religious with daily “readings”?)  is London’s report on the London “East End,” the working-class slums of imperial London.

1872-East End

His method was simply to live among the people of the East End for six weeks.  There are about four types of writing going on at the same time in The People of the Abyss.  Some is strictly sociological, describing the living standards, wages, rents, cost of bread, and the numbers in workhouses.  In a chapter on “Wages” London showed that the typical income was clearly not enough to support a family given the costs.  When faced with these brutal figures, London is capable of great empathy. “Good housewives of the soft and tender folk, imagine yourselves marketing and keeping house on such a scale, setting a table for five, and keeping an eye on your deputy mother of twelve to see that she did not steal food for her little brothers and sisters, the while you stitched, stitched, stitched at a nighttime line of blouses, which stretched away into the gloom and down to the pauper’s coffin a-yawn for you.” (123)

Another part describe London’s adventures as an investigative journalist.  For example, he goes into great detail about his attempts to let a room, work a job like his subjects, and night-time adventures (‘carrying the banner’).

Third, we can find many passages describing the lives of individuals living, working, and dying in the East End.  Some of the more colorful are a drunk sailor who spurs women and a young socialist.

Finally, we see London’s political commentaries on the conditions in the East End.  He speaks broadly of the East Ender’s ingenuity and hard-work, but also the numerous forces holding the back, not least of which is alcohol, unavoidable force in the East End as he sees it.  “It is of no avail to preach temperance and teetotalism to these people.  The drink habit may be the cause of many miseries; but it is, in turn, the effect of other and prior miseries.  The temperance advocates may preach their hearts out over the evils of drink, but until the evils that cause people to drink are abolished, drink, and its evils will remain.” (175)  What are these evils that, in such a productive  and rich empire, keep thousands in poverty and desperation.  London blames the primacy of property over people.  In a chapter simply called “Property versus Person” London describes how the criminalization of poverty was affected by harsh punishments for theft.  To make his point clear, he also showed how crimes against persons were resolved with simple fines.  For example, a worker was fined one pound for assaulting another man.  In another case, someone cause sleeping outside was jailed for 14 days.  The absurdity of the law is ever present in the East End.  Making it illegal to sleep at night in the public spaces, forced workers to sleep during the day in the same place, making it more difficult for them to find work and ensuring more people “Carrying the Banner” at night.  Like a good socialist, London blames “The Management” for most of the ills he sees.  Why, he asks at the end of The People of the Abyss, do the Inuit live more secure and stable and meaningful lives then the denziens of the most important city in the world system?  “There can be no mistake.  Civilization has increased man’s producing power a hundred fold, and through mismanagement the men of Civilization live worse than the beasts, and have less to eat and wear and protect them from the element than the savage Innuit in a frigid climate who lives today as he lived in the stone age ten thousand years ago.” (182)

London’s answer is socialism; better management.  Are the people of the East End capable of uplifting themselves?  Are they capable of saving themselves?  London does not see much hope of this.  While a few East Enders are politically conscious and active, the vast majority and living day to day and cannot make change themselves.  Help will have to come from the outside.  It is this that makes The People of the Abyss an unfortunate tract.  London exposes his sympathy for the working classes alongside his Social Darwinism.  When discussing the “Ghetto” he writes: “To make matters worse, the men of the Ghetto are the men who are left, a deteriorated stock left to undergo still furthur deterioration.  For a hundred and fifty years, at least, they have been drained of their best.  The strong men, the men of pluck, initiative, and ambition, have been faring forth to the fresher and freer portions of the globe, to make new lands and nations.  Those who are lacking, the weak of heart and head and hand, as well as the rotten and hopeless, have remained to carry on the breed.” (129)

But is it not the liberal tendency to reform “mismanagement” with better management.  No where does London suggest that management it self is the problem.  We, of course, looking at this text from the perspective of seventy years of a welfare state, of a century of reforms to the capitalist system, cannot help but be disgusted with this talk of more reform.  Been there, done that.  What else do you got for us?

Modern-day Slum Life

“The American Stage” 1963-present

I have finished another volume of The Library of America and I find my last post’s pessimism somewhat contained.  I still look around at American culture today and find it dominated by Hollywood and Broadway.  I still find most of its fighting words toned down.  No longer is it a working-class, participatory event.  Theater going is certainly not a time for the community to come together (although we still have carnivals, Renaissance fairs, and the like).  I have only gone to two Broadway shows and each time I had to wait to purchase tickets in a place in Southern Manhattan, on the day I intended to go, to have any chance to afford it.  Both time, the audience was polite and entertained.  I guess the best we can do is a series like Spartacus, which can actually present quite radical themes of class inequality, exploitation, resistance, and consciousness-raising, but has to do so through an onslaught of mind-numbing violence and sex.  The Wire, is a better model, using local actors, drawing from local themes, with a deep social, economic and political critique.  One of its creators, David Simon, said that it was always hard to build an audience.  Since its ending, its popularity has grown but I guess it still pales before the typical mass culture offerings.  It does seem to me that Adorno was mostly right that mass culture tended toward homogeneity and interchangeable parts.  Culture is, for lack of a better work, scientifically managed.

What is the anarchist alternative?  Certainly in the short term would be a varietn of life-style anarchist cultures, where people create, sustain, and nourish alternatives.  Much of this has been going on, of course, without a sizable impact on capitalist culture.  The sustaining of these alternatives will have the same value as intentional communities do.  Murray Bookchin’s vision of a post-scarcity anarchism would suggest the potential to have people invest more of their time in cultural creation – including community theater.  In his, “Forms of Freedom” Bookchin argued that democratic systems (his model was the Athenian polis) could be run by amateurs.  I suppose it make sense that culture could be sustained by amateurs as well.  There is historical evidence for this happening.  In the early days of film, working class organizations made films, but this vibrant sub-culture was crushed by the rise of the studio system (see Working Class Hollywood by S. J. Ross).  Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism made a compelling case for an artistic world independent of the government and of popular demands.  “Art should never try to popular.  The public should try to make itself artistic. . . . The one thing that the public dislike is novelty.  Any attempt to extend the subject matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter. . . . The fact is, the public make use of the classics of a country as a means of checking the progress of Art.  They degrade the classics into authorities. . .  The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.”  In a less egoist description of the role of the artist, the anarchist Jean Grave describes the artist needs to be an equal and companion of the people to avoid co-option by the ruling elite.  “To live their dream, realize their aspirations, they, too, must work–for the moral and intellectual elevation of the masses.  They, too, must understand that their own development is made up of the intellectuality of all; that, whatever the heights they believe they have attained, they belong to the multitude.”  (Both of these are quote from Robert Graham’s Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas).  Whether the artist is a radical Nietzscheian individual immune from the whims of the masses or a Maoist-style comrade of the masses, the mass culture, dominated by a handful of studios catering to the vulgar desires of the “public” is not suitable to anarchism.  In this, the mainstream of American culture may have little to teach us.

Now back to the final pages of The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner.  I actually little more to say.  I think the major themes of the text are articulated in the earlier entries.  I do want to give a shout out to the attempt during the counter-cultural years to create alternatives to Broadway and Hollywood, promoted by different radical or counter-cultural groups.  Most famous might be the Black Arts movement, sustained in larger part by the Black Power movement and its ideas. Some nostalgia for the 1930s attempt at community-based theater is reflected in John Houseman’s memoirs (Run-Through).  He discussed in great detail a production of The Cradle will Rock, which was a WPA/Federal Theatre Project-funded musical telling the story of a union-drive.  Enjoy a clip from a later production:

Even Broadway had become, by the 1990s, a shadow of its former glory, becoming a tourist site, not a place for innovative artistic creation.  “If Broadway’s musical menu is beginning to be almost as antiquarian as the Metropolitan Opera’s, the reasons are no further away than your radio and your cable-TV screen.” (767)  This is according to writer and critic Thomas M. Disch.  I would add here that it seems Hollywood is not much better, choosing the safe over the innovative and challenging.  We are in for three more years of Tolkien at Christmas-time.  If you have not seen Les Miserables on Broadway or a local production, it is coming to the silver screen, but do not worry there will be no new songs.  Spielberg is coming at you with another great man story – in case we were running out of super heroes we have Lincoln to fill the void.  For the kids, Monster’s Inc. is being re-released in 3-D.  In a time when audiences deserve a series reflection on inequality, debt peonage, and the serious imagination for the future, we are being told by the culture industry that there is nothing new for you to imagine.