Jack London: Assorted Stories

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.

Bye bye, Jack.  It has been fun.

Bye bye, Jack. It has been fun.

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.

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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.

Jack London: “Sea-Wolf”: Resistance and Other Themes

In my last post, we met Wolf Larsen, captain of the Ghost, and found him to be the logical consequences of the capitalist,dog-eat-dog world that London critiques throughout his career.  He was self-made and ambitious but violence, brutish, and would have died alone if not for the company of the novel’s narrator Humphrey van Weyden.  He is the logical consequence of the turn-of-the-century Social Darwinism that praised the struggle of individuals over the community and honored the captains of industry who rose to domination by crushing their competition, abusing the commons, destroying unions, and manipulating the political system.  Morality for these types is secondary to personal gain.

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One easy response to this, which is a response London may not have had access too, is that of Kropotkin.  In Mutual Aid, Kropotkin argued that evolution was not simply the struggle for survival between individuals, but was based on cooperation within species.  Species that “succeeded” tended to work together to achieve goals and care for each others, sharing resources and labor.  That is, the most successful species were communists (from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.)  The anarchist Kropotkin could also notice that for all of natural history this was one without the aid of a state distributing resources.  This is one of the origins of evolutionary ethics, another being Thomas Huxley who contrasted ethics as a gardener ensuring the stronger weeds do not kill the weaker but more valuable flowers.  London was either no aware of this idea or rejected it.  For London, nature was incompatible with socialism and cooperation.  Socialism would consist of overcoming our Social Darwinian tendencies to dominate or be dominated (The Law of Club and Fang).

Peter Kropotkin

What are the forms of resistance that London offers up in The Sea-Wolf.

The first method of resistance is that of van Weyden, who choose moral suasion and the modelling of an alternative.  In chapter eight, van Weyden attempts to reeducate Wolf Larsen on Herbert Spencer, suggesting that the Wolf has read Spencer all wrong.  For Van Weyden, Spencer demands that people practice altruism for their own self-interest.  Altruism benefits the individual, her children, and her “race.” As in every other moral argument presented by Van Weyden, and later Maud Brewster, Wolf is unimpressed and proclaims his own amoral reading of Spencer.  “But with nothing eternal before me but death, given for a brief spell this yeasty crawling and squirming which is called life, why, it would be immoral for me to perform any act that was a sacrifice.  Any sacrifice that makes me lose one crawl or squirm is foolish.” (545)  Wolf Larsen ends his life with little change in attitude after the many conversation

s with van Weyden.  If anything, van Weyden enabled him by providing a forum for Wolf Larsen to refine his philosophy.  Van Weyden even gets a bit of the Wolf in himself in the end when he alone repairs the Ghost, experiencing a moment of joy at his solitary accomplishment.  “I did it!  I did it!  With my own hands I did it!” (765)  Wolf would have been so proud.  The moral argument is a dud.

The crew takes another approach, that of open resistance.  The mutiny failed and Wolf Larsen remained in charge of his ship, but the mutiny at least provided a significant challenge, unlike van Weyden’s tedious moralizing.  The problem with the mutiny was that Larsen was fully capable of maintaining his power.  He was disciplined, powerful, intelligent, adaptive, and had an endless reservoir of will.  The international crew was too internally divided to overthrown Wolf Larsen.  Being unable to bring equal force of will to bear, the mutiny was doomed to failure.  The instigators of the rebellion hate Wolf Larsen for personal reasons.  The mutiny is not a revolution.  Instead it is an expression of rage.  Without direction, unity, or an alternative it is weak.

There two strategies needed unity.  The sailors were simply the other side o

f Social Darwinian coin.  The heads was the exploiter – Wolf Larsen, the tails the exploited – the sailors.  What they lacked was the clear vision of an alternative.  Van Weyden, a sideline obse

rver of the mutiny could have provided that.  He did not want to get his get blood on his hand and rejected his occasional ideas to murder Wolf Larsen.

The force that finally defeats Wolf Larsen is his brother, Death Larsen.  Death sh

ared many of the characteristics with his brother.  They are both Nietzsche’s  “supermen.”  Both have a ship.  Both are autodidacts (although Wolf has more academic curiosity).  After an earlier battle where Wolf achieved victor, Death is able to leave his brother for dead, alone on his ship.  This action is all told in flash back and takes place after van Weyden escaped the ship with Maud Brewster.  (It would have been interesting to see how he would have interacted with Wolf’s brother, but alas the novel is long enough as it is.)  The choice here is to choose our tyrant.  The crew chose “Death” because he paid them off.

A fourth method of resistance could be London’s socialism, which is never presented overtly as an option in the text.  It is, however, the only choice left.  The intellectual failed, the enraged violence of the unorganized working class fai

led, and victory of Wolf Larsen came only in finding his equal in brutality and amorality.

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I want to mention one more thing about The Sea-Wolf.  Underneath the enti

re plot is a story of American empire and environmental destruction.  The brutal destruction of the seals on the Arctic coasts parallels the brutality on the ship.  Wolf Larsen is a terror to his men, but the entire crew is a terror to the helpless seals.  “And north we traveled with it, ravaging and destroying, flinging the naked carcasses to the shark and salting down the skins so that they might later adorn the fair shoulders of the women of the cities.  It was wanton slaughter, and all for women’s sake.  No man ate of the seal meat or the soil.  After a good day’s killing I have seen our decks covered with hides and bodies, slippery with fat and blood, the scupper running red; masts, ropes, and rails spattered with the sanguinary color; and the men, like butchers plying their trade, naked and red of arm and hand, hard at work with ripping and flensing-knives, removing the skins from the pretty sea-creatures they had killed.” (603)  Passages like this remind us of the brutal war against nature that shaped so much of the American conquest of the Pacific.  From the slaughter of sea otters, to the deforestation of Hawaii, to the dropping of nuclear bombs on Bikini Island, the U.S. Empire in the Pacific came at the cost of nature.  It is to his credit that London, a participant in these activities, was aware that the Pacific was not an empty ocean to be secured for American shipping, but an alive world, mostly helpless against the force of capital.

 

Seal Hunting Then

 

And now.

And now.

Jack London: “The Sea-Wolf” – Wolf Larsen

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I want to use this first of two posts on The Sea-Wolf to consider the character of Wolf Larsen, the radically individualist, amoral, and near psychopathic captain of the Ghost.  Wolf Larsen is the Nietzscheian superman, the pinnacle of the Social Darwinian struggle for survival.  He does not respect rank or blood.  Wolf Larsen forces us to question whether someone can achieve the attractive characteristics of a radical individualist, without dominating others.  Having reading much of London’s work in the past days, I find only two examples of the isolated individual – Wolf Larsen, the cruel and indifferent tyrant, and Martin Eden (or the protagonist in “To Build a Fire”), an isolated, exploited, and expendable victim.  It seems these are two sides of the same coin.  Wolf Larsen, if not in a situation when his particular sociopathy and brute strength would not aid him, could easily have been Martin Eden.  Perhaps Wolf Larsen if Martin Eden if he had never left the ship and took up a literary career.

Wolf Larsen in the 1941 film.

Wolf Larsen in the 1941 film

London published The Sea-Wolf in 1904, not long after his time as a journalist in London.  It documents the experiences of Humphrey van Weyden, who was shipwrecked but saved by Wolf Larsen and the crew of Ghost, a sealing vessel.  Wolf takes him aboard and refuses Humphey’s attempts to leave the ship because Wolf Larsen has an interest in his intellectual work.  Larsen is an autodidact and interested in philosophy and literature.  He also seems to want someone dependent on him as an ally against the his alienated crew.  Van Weyden learns quickly that Larsen is a materialist, a bully, and amoral in his philosophy and the treatment of his crew.  Van Weyden speaks often of killing Larsen but his philosophy does not allow it.  During a battle between Larsen and his brother “Death Larsen,” van Weyden escapes the ship along with another intellectual rescued by Larsen Maud Brewster.   They escape to a North Pacific island and await rescue.  Eventually Larsen reappears with his ship but without a crew.  He is sickened with headaches and strokes, which eventually incapacitate him.  Van Weyden and Brewster care for him in his last days and respectfully dispose of his body.  They are rescued.

There is much to respect in Wolf Larsen, if we allow ourselves to overlook his cruelty and exploitation of his crew and the natural environment.  His world view does not allow deference based on money, title, hereditary, and rank.  His autodidactisism is impressive and while his lack of formal education holds him back in some areas, he is the intellectual equal of the professional thinker van Weyden.  He is intellectually curious, self-made.  Like Ahab in Moby Dick his power over his crew comes not from title or rank but from the force of his personality.  As we will recall, Ahad talked his crew into hunting the “White Whale.”  His atheism and materialism ensures he looks at the world with a brutal honesty that is often lacking in softer visionaries.  Larsen also faced his own death is a degree of nobility, not wavering from the worldview that got him through life.

The problem, of course, is the application of these talents and intellectual freedom.  Wolf Larsen does not seem able to move beyond using his individualism and his very real powers to dominate those around him.  When a sailor, Johnson, challenges Larsen (much like van Weyden often did), Larsen brutally beats him.  Larsen probably agrees with London on the utter futility of cooperation and altruism in a Darwinian world.  I see no evidence that London read Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, which shows that natural selection favors cooperation as much as it does conflict and struggle.  Larsen certainly did not.  “I held that life was a ferment, a yeasty something which devoured life that it might
live, and that living was merely successful piggishness. Why, if there is anything in supply and demand, life is the cheapest thing in the world. There is only so much water, so much earth, so much air; but the life that is demanding to be born is limitless.  Nature is a spendthrift. Look at the fish and their millions of eggs. For that matter, look at you and me. In our loins are the possibilities of millions of lives. Could we but find time and opportunity and utilize the last bit and every bit of the unborn life that is in us, we could become the fathers of nations and populate continents. Life? Bah! It has no value. Of cheap things it is the cheapest. Everywhere it goes begging. Nature spills it out with a lavish hand. Where there is room for one life, she sows a thousand lives, and it’s life eats life till the strongest and most piggish life is left. . . . You know you only mean that in relation to human life, for of the flesh and the fowl and the fish you destroy as much as I or any other man. And human life is in no wise different, though you feel it is and think that you reason why it is. Why should I be parsimonious with this life which is cheap and without value? There are more sailors than there are ships on the sea for them, more workers than there are factories or machines
for them. Why, you who live on the land know that you house your poor people in the slums of cities and loose famine and pestilence upon them, and that there still remain more poor people, dying for want of a crust of bread and a bit of meat (which is life destroyed), than you know what to do with. Have you ever seen the London dockers fighting like wild beasts for a chance to work?”
 (534)

Wolf Larsen is like the global capitalist class in that he does not feel the need to justify his actions because they are simply the logical extension of natural law.  This is the way the world is.  I would be a sucker to not take advantage of it.  To dream of alternatives where brutality and exploitation do not exist is a waste of energy.

My question: Does individualism lead either to being an exploiter who realizes her power over her neighbors, or the exploited, who failed to realize she needs others?   It is my belief that individualism build upon a foundation of solidarity and community is one way to negotiate this dilemma.  Unfortunately, we live in Wolf Larsen’s world and in Wolf Larsen’s world Wolf Larsen will rule.  We need to create a world in which the tyrant — petty or grand — is not capable of existing.

And one final word.  Wolf Larsen is a petty tyrant.  For all of his impressive skills he can only dominate a small space: the Ghost.  Maybe this is both a danger and a hope.  In the end Wolf Larsen, dominating only a small space could do limited harm and could easily be taken down.  The danger in a decentralized world of free association is a Wolf Larsen in every neighborhood.

Jack London: Klondike Tales

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This collection of Jack London’s writing that I am working through as part of my larger mission of reading the American canon from the libertarian left position, brings together twelve of his Klondike tales.  They are all drawn from life and were written between 1899 and 1908, and all but three were written before 1902.  They thus reflect London’s more youthful writing.  Most come before The Sea-Wolf, The Road, The Iron Heel, and Martin Eden.  His first purchased and published story was “To the Man on Trail,” one of these Klondike stories.  Like Melville, London drew heavily from experience in his earliest writings.

The last of these tales to be written was “To Build a Fire”, which every American has read at some point in their education.  “To Build a Fire” speaks like so much of London’s work on the failure of radical individualism.  Here it is personified by a man who recklessly and against better advice ventures out in bitterly cold weather (-50 to -70 Fahrenheit), gets his feet wet and is forced to stop and build a fire.  He fails due to inexperience, the cold’s burdens on his body, and the brutality of nature.  He makes a final dash to his destination hoping running will warm his body.  He dies exhausted, cold, and alone as even his dog leaves him.  Reading this story after spending over a week on London’s major works strikes home his common theme of the necessity of socialism.  Without our brothers and sisters, we are all one failed fire from disaster.

Of course, the Klondike gold rush, that London participated in, was another in a long line of capitalist frontiers that promised advancement for all but enriched a small handful of people.  Only 1 in 10 “gold rushers” found any gold. It was in most cases impossible for people without capital to make money mining gold in the bitterly cold Yukon.  Only those who could afford the wood to burn and thaw the ground could really strike it rich.  It is not surprising that gold plays such a small role in London’s Klondike tales.  They are at best a background character and rarely play much of a direct role in the plot.  Many who found a small amount of gold wasted their wealth looking for more.  Most worked others.

Hydraulic Mining Required Capital

Hydraulic Mining Required Capital

I want to briefly introduce four themes I discovered while reading these short stories (and I read them at a darkening playground while my daughter played so I am going for broad analysis, not a detailed reading).  I hope my reader forgives my sloth.

Working Class Frontier

The Klondike tales show the vibrant and diverse life of a working class frontier.  Unable to settle into ethnic neighborhood like in Chicago or New York, these immigrant workers made a meager life together.  Like sailors on the ship, diversity was a part of a life (not a multi-cultural “celebration” of difference).  French Canadians, Indians, “half-breeds,” Americans, and, yes, canines of many breeds lived, worked, drank, fucked, and died near each others.  It was a multi-lingual environment and culturally flexible.  Like the ship or the French-Canadian fur trades, these workers could not afford to ignore anything that seemed to work.  This leads me to…

Morality Based on Context

In this frontier condition, with the law of the state distant and mostly useless, people were forced to move “beyond good and evil” as dictated by their religious traditions.  “Batard” a story of a vile man and his vile dog.  The futility of traditional religion and the tendency of these frontiersmen to embrace naturalistic religions is played with in “The God of His Fathers.”  Brutal frontiers justice is described in “The League of the Old Men.”  Even the morality of leaving the injured to die takes on new calculus in brutal Yukon frontier.  The stories open with a rejection of Henry Ward Beecher’s temperance through a “Bacchanalian chorus”: “There’s Henry Ward Beecher/ And Sunday-school teachers,/ All drink of the sassafras root;/ But you bet all the same,/If it had its right name,/ It’s the juice of the forbidden fruit.” (290)

Confront with Environment

London was an environmentalist, as suggested in some of the other works discussed so far in this blog.  The Call of the Wild and White Fang showed how violence emerged from a dog-eat-dog capitalism or a natural world of deprivation.  While not an ideal test case since these gold miners failed by the thousands and died by the hundreds in a climate and environment people lived and prospered in for centuries, London does seem to mistrust the potential of the natural world to provide what we need unaided.  When it has show up it created periodic famines (as in White Fang) or a type of primitive barbarism.  Look to my last entry for a bit more on my thoughts on the violence or egalitarianism of Paleolithic and Neolithic humans.  Writing in an era of Social Darwinism, “progress,” and industry a suspicion of the natural world would be expected.  I am not sure what this perspective teaches us in an era when it is clear we are the cruel, indifferent destroyers of nature.  If nature were to write a short story, I wonder if it would share the same bleakness, futility, and pessimism of “To Build a Fire,” but with man, not nature, as the threat.

Failure of Individualism

The editor of this collection of tales (Donald Pizer) placed them in chronological order based on publication date.  This means that the stories begin with a celebration of working-class solidarity in “To the Man on Trail” to the solitary death at the end of “To Build a Fire.”  We can perhaps account for a growing pessimism on London’s part but I will take from it a lesson that in modern capitalism – an environment no less harsh or indifferent than what faced these gold miners – we should choose community and brotherhood.

But for those who seek to venture out alone we have a hero in Wolf Larsen.  Stay tuned for The Sea-Wolf.

Jack London: “White Fang”

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On the surface, White Fang is the opposite story of Call of the Wild.  White Fang considers the the domestication of a wolf and his acceptance of the human world.  Although being an opposing narrative, White Fang reinforces many of the themes in the earlier work.  The novel is extremely violent anfor this blog entry, I will focus on the causes of violence in the novel.

Part One: “The Wild” – Scarcity and Violence
The novel begins with humans facing off in a struggle for survival against a pack of wolves led by a red-furred “she-wolf.”  She will be the future mother of “White Fang” and is only half wolf.  The wolves are violently attacking the party, killing their dogs, and eventually threatening the lives of the men.  Their attacks are driven by an intense hunger.  This famine (as London describes these periods of starvation) forced the pack to cooperate, set aside internal grievances and work together in a furious struggle for survival.  The humans have food and the struggle for survival demands that the wolves take from those that have.  It would be too simple to read this as the core and the periphery of the global economy.  While the humans have, they are also in desperate circumstances, lacking the means to protect themselves and also subject to the deprivation and want.  For both groups scarcity is imposed by outside forces, yet in the struggle for survival the desperate prey on the weak.  Such is life for too many people.  Such is the consequences of scarcity imposed by inequality.

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Part Two: Born of the Wild: The cycle of scarcity and plenty

The violence in part two of the novel is of two parts.  The first is the wolves achieving temporarily a post-scarcity situation, which leads to the break of the pack and the beginning of mating.  Later, as the famine returns, the now smaller pack (made up of the She-Wolf and One Eye and their pups) struggles with nature for a meager substance.  Other acts of violence are worked out between the wolves as they struggle for access to the She-Wolf and the right to reproduce.  We are reminded that in these desperate circumstance, every basic animal needs demands some violence, on nature or on each other.  Hunger often deprived them of the basest instincts.  “Had there been food, love-making and fighting would have gone on apace, and the pack-formation would have been broke up.  But the situation of the pack was desperate.  it was lean with long-standing hunger.” (118-119)  I am reminded of Christopher Ryan’s criticism of Steven Pinker.  The essence of the debate is over the violence inherent in humanity.  For Ryan we are essentially cooperative and egalitarian, but driven to violence as a result of the state, hierarchies and cultural traditions that enforce division and conflict.  For him, scarcity was a by-product of civilization.  For Pinker, prehistoric humans were violent by nature and it is only through the long process of civilization that humans have grown more peaceful.  Well, I realize I am already reading too much in London, who probably agreed more with Pinker on this point.  But whatever the cause of scarcity, it does seem that violence is a typical response.  The solution to violence is ending scarcity and in a world as productive and prosperous as our, scarcity must be imposed.

The plot in the second half of part two documents the death of One Eye in a battle with a lynx and the survival of the She-Wolf and her son.

Part Three: The Gods of the Wild: Scarcity and Violence in Civilization

London does expose some of his racism in this part and the next, calling the Indians “The Gods of the Wild” and the Euro-Americans “The Superior Gods.”  Ultimately there is an interesting lesson here.  White Fang’s domestication is ultimately a religious process of coming to acceptance of the domination of the gods.  In this section we immediately learn that the She-Wolf (Kiche) was previously domesticated.  White Fang (the name he acquires at this point) learns that humans are law-makers, but law does not eliminate violence.  White Fang’s life is no less tormented by violence than it was in the wild.  A dog, Lip-Lip, torments him.  He learns to fear technology as a mixed blessing (he burns his mouth).  The human’s law-making also led to the breaking up of the family as Kiche is sold to someone else.  While the human’s laws sometimes protect White Fang, he is as often the victim of the law, which is always enforced with the club.  (We are instantly reminded of “law of club and fang” from The Call of the Wild). It is also in this section that White Fang chooses to stay with humans.

Part Four: The Superior Gods: Violence as a Way of Life

These chapters cover the maturity of White Fang.  Although domesticated, violence is a part of life.  When arriving at Fort Yukon, White Fang kills the “white man’s” dogs and is eventually purchased by Beauty Smith and used in dog fighting.  White Fang has entered the world of The Hunger Games, where his job is to battle other dogs for the pleasure and profit of humans.  A lifetime of scarcity, law, discipline, and profit transformed White Fang into a brute.  He is deemed untrainable, but his violence is tamed by those in control to their benefit.  “Under the tutelage of the mad god, White Fang became a fiend.  He was kept chained in a pen at the rear of the fort, and here Beauty Smith teased him and irritated and drove him wild with petty torments.  The man early discovered White Fang’s susceptibility to laughter, and made it a point, after painfully tricking him, to laugh at him. . . At such times reason fled from White Fang, and in his transports of rage he was even more mad than Beauty Smith.” (216)

Part Five: The Tame: Violence Under the Surface

White Fang spends the last part of the novel under the ownership of a new master, who treats him well and takes him to the California cities.  There he learns to control his violence, although he still kills chickens and uses threats and violence to defend himself from other dogs.  In the end he meets Collie and had children of his own.  They will not be raised in the Wild.  They will likely not experience scarcity.  I am not sure to interpret the next generation within this model I proposed above but any interpretation would require us to remember that White Fang’ children are still the product of the violence caused by and inflicted on White Fang.

In short, the lesson of White Fang is the violence of the law, of want, of profit.  Our own violence, whether against the system, each other, or our tormentors cannot be understood without this context.  And as tames as most of us might be – for we, like White Fang, often simmer in anger – it would be good for the masters to not forget that we are one generation from the wolves and like the She-Wolf at the start of the novel, will take what we need.

Jack London: “Call of the Wild”

Like Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel as an exploited worker, carrying sleds of supplies across the Klondike.  And like Martin Eden, he seeks to dominate his arena, but even through struggle and eventually success Buck can only be a high-ranking servant.  Many of the sled dogs are killed or left for dead when they become to exhausted to continue the treks.  Individualism fails for both Martin Eden and Buck.  None of Buck’s struggles for domination, none of his assertive resistance can defeat the “law of club and fang.”  Unlike Martin Eden, who found salvation only in suicide, Buck is able to return to a primitive equality by joining a wolf pack.  This is the equivalent of Martin Eden joining with his socialist friends – but of course Martin Eden rejected that choice.

call of the wild

This is the reading I would like to propose for The Call of the Wild, the next text in my adventure through Jack London’s writings.  When I last read London’s works 4 years ago, I read a greater ambivalence about individualism and community than I am seeing now.  I used to see The Call of the Wild as a text calling for radical individualism, reflected in Buck’s rejection of the human world.  But now, I see the harsh brutality of the capitalist machine that Buck was drawn into.  Like the East Enders in People of the Abyss, like the maritime workers London drank with in John Barleycorn, and like poor Martin Eden, Buck spends much of the novel facing exploitation.  As an animal, Buck is subjected to even worse torture and brutality and indifference.  Owners mock him, starve him, smash him with clubs, murder his companions at will, and encourage violence among the sled dogs.  As the recent fire in a Bangladesh textile factory shows, workers around the world today are seen as less than human and are allowed to die for profit.   Let’s not delude ourselves.  We are Buck except for some slight protections governments feel fit to bestow on us.  And but for genetic luck, we would be one of the billions of animals tortured, raped, murdered, dissembled and eaten/worn/discarded.

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The plot is well-known and straightforward.  Buck is owned by a gambler and drunkard who has to sell him to pay off some debts.  After being disciplined into submission with the “law of the club,” Buck joins a sled team.  Buck rises to dominance within the sled team by defeating Spitz in a battle to the death.  After a brutal mail run, Buck and his team were hungry and worn down.  Some had died or been killed.  Unable to make the return trip, the team is sold to some naive newcomers, who seem good-hearted but end up misusing the dogs when frustration brought on by their ill-planning and ill-experience overwhelms them.  Buck is eventually adopted by John Thornton, who is the one human who sees beyond Buck’s material utility.  Buck becomes more wild as he fights to defend Thornton.  It is at this time that Buck begins fraternizing with wolves.  When Thornton died, Buck joins the wolf pack.

The humans early in the book are all odious, symbolizing the cynical, experienced, iron-hearted capitalists of industrial America.  They willingly discard and kill and exploit.  Charles, Hal, and Mercedes, the greenhorns are more complex.  They lack the experience to properly manage the team.  They overfeed the team and are forced to starve them when the food runs out.  Despite their good intentions and comparable warm-hardheartedness, when things got hard for them they abuse of the animals increased.  “In excess of their own misery they were callous to the suffering of the animals.  Hal’s theory, which he practices on others, was that one must get hardened.”  (54)  London is clear that in practice the suffering of the team was worse under the inexperienced than under the professional exploiters.  With these characters we have the liberals.  They want to do good.  They are softer and less cynical.  But their good intentions cause as much harm as self-aware exploiters.  They mismanage resources and weep over their crimes as well as their own suffering.  We are surrounded by people like Charles, Hal and Mercedes.  These are the people who consume organic crops harvested by exploited immigrant workers.  These are the people who sponsor children in “developing” countries but own clothes sewn by slaves.  These are the people who proudly eat at Chipotle for its “locally-grown” vegetables, indifferent to the suffering of animals and workers in the slaughterhouse or the low-pay and scientific-managed regulation of the workers behind the counter.   These are the Obama voters who looked the other way at Guantanamo Bay, the destruction of unions, drone strikes, and forty years of stagnant wages.  John Thornton sees through them and knows who they are.  As should we.

John Thornton is their to make money, but he is the only one who seems to manage this without exploiting others.  Contrasted with the other characters, Thornton is the anarchist.  He works to liberate Buck.  Buck and Thornton work together and protect each other.  But rather than rehabilitating humanity, this brings Buck closer to the “wild.”  It is under Thornton that Buck has the freedom to encounter the wolf pack that will eventually lead to his liberation.

Who is Thornton for us?  My guess is that for London, Thornton is the socialist.  We will want to read him differently, but in any case he emerges as an authentic liberator.  It is nice to imagine that each of us through will or self-direction can free ourselves from dependency and slavery.  In reality, these struggles more often parallel the struggles between Buck and Spitz.  My guess is that we need to create Thornton for ourselves first.  He will not be waiting for us at a prospecting camp.

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.