Today, I concluded Jack London’s collected works by reading thirteen of his short stories. While diverse, we find some common themes. Most of the stories examine the lives of working people in desperate struggles for survival. We are not meant to pity these figures, empathize or feel compassion for, yes. Pity is too weak of an emotion for someone like London, heavily influenced by Social Darwinism and the socialist struggle. It is also to weak of an emotion for anarchists eager to crush an unjust system.
The protagonists in these stories are made indifferent to their fellow man by capitalism and greed. Others are rendered invisible by the forces of empire, the law, and profit. They are almost all fascinating and certainly add to the themes considered in this blog over the past two weeks. Throughout his career, London was an advocate for solidarity and socialism in what he saw as a hopelessly corrupted and fallen system. These stories are important to read because it is through these stories that London explored the question of empire in the Pacific most directly. Not many “great” American writers did this – perhaps Melville is one of the few. (I will correct this statement as I make my way through the American tradition.)
Let’s look at a few of these.
“All Gold Canyon” (1905) A gold miner strikes it rich, finally. This leads to a battle with a thief, a claim jumper. The miner triumphs over the thief, killing him. The story ends with the miner praising his great find and this contempt with the claim jumper. “Just a common an’ ordinary thief, damn him!” (794) The struggle for wealth, as always, facilitated indifference between people in similiar situations. Had the claim jumper won, we would expect a similar statement about the dead miner.
“The Apostate” (1906). Jack London’s attack on child labor and the human costs of the industrial system on younger workers. “His earlier memories lingered with hum, but he had no late memories. All days were alike. Yesterday or last year were the same as a thousand years–or a minute. Nothing happened. There were no events to mark the march of time. Time did not march. It stood always still. It was only the whirling machines that moved, and they moved nowhere – in spite of the fact that they moved faster.” (810) He abandones the industrial life for the life of a tramp, with a degree of satisfaction. Perhaps the first since he entered the factory.
“South of the Slot” (1909) This is an obvious but powerful tale on how our conditions and environment make us who we are. In this story a sociologist takes on a new persona to investigate the working conditions “south of the slot.” He maintains two lives for a while, but at the end rejects his life as a researcher and becomes a labor activist. Optimistically, the shift from conservative labor economist to socialist agitator only took the experience of labor.
“The Chinago” (1909) Some Chinese laborers are on trial for murder in a Pacific island. The coolie trade brought many East Asians to the Pacific islands to work on the plantations the European and American imperialists established in the Pacific. They are deemed guilty. Several are sent to prison and one is to be executed. However the French police care little about which is which and Ah Cho (instead of Ah Chow) is executed. The story details his final moments and his futile attempts to reason with the police.
“A Piece of Steak” (1909) This story is about a boxer who is literally fighting for his life in the ring. Victory will mean a purse. Defeat will mean continued deprivation. Lacking a good mean, “a piece of steak,” the boxer loses after a brutal match. The image of two working-class men smashing each other for a cash prize is quite powerful and works as a metaphor for the industrial system.
“The Mexican” (1911) This is another boxing tale, but in this one, the titular character is battling to raise funds for the Mexican revolution (which London supported at the time).
“Told in the Drooling Ward” (1914) The tale of a high-functioning inmate of an asylum for the feeble-minded. He is smart enough to know he is a prisoner. In fact, there seems to be little clear reason why he is imprisoned. He is aware of his legal rights and how the people running the asylum disregard them. The story documents his failed attempt to escape. London provides an early critique of these institutional efforts to enforce emotional and psychological conformity.
In summary, I think London can teach anarchists quite a bit. He provides systematic critiques of capitalism and less systematic critiques of institutionalized violence and empire. He was heavily influenced by Social Darwinism and individualism but almost always critiqued these at useless in the industrial world. He preferred socialism but doubted if it would ever be in place. The closest he gets to a vision of socialism in seven years in the future in The Iron Heel. This is fine for me because his vision of socialism as better management of resources, is lacking for me. I prefer the moments of camaraderie around “John Barleycorn,” the street smarts and shared culture of hobos, and the child laborer opting out of the system. These are models of freedom or community that can be lived and achieved now.