Cecelia Tichi, author of Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America, talks with Gina Mahalek about the novelist’s role as a public intellectual.
Gina Mahalek: Jack London is well known for his adventure novels, like The Call of the Wild. But apart from tales such as the one about a dog in the Yukon, who was he? And why does he matter today?
Cecelia Tichi: Jack London (1876-1916) was the most popular U.S. writer of the early 20th century, the first to earn $1 million. In a career spanning twenty years, he published fifty books, hundreds of short stories, and numerous essays. His books sold well internationally and have been translated into several languages. He continues to be one of the most famous and esteemed writers in the world—arguably better known and respected abroad than here in the United States.
GM: So is his longstanding popularity the main reason to revisit his career?
CT: The deeper reasons for that popularity, yes. Appreciation for literary skill is, of course, a given. But Jack London’s importance today concerns the sociopolitical influence he had at a critical time in U.S. history, a time that is very much like our own.
CT: Meaning that the United States is experiencing conditions that mirror those of London’s lifetime: vast disparities of wealth, high unemployment and underemployment. Add to these our record-breaking levels of incarceration, the blight of factory farming, and other sociopolitical and economic problems. London’s career speaks directly to these issues. His lifetime spanned the post-Civil War Gilded Age to the Progressive Era of the 1910s, and his incredible output of fiction and nonfiction supported efforts that helped eliminate child labor, promote safe workplaces, raise wages, and shine the spotlight on other inhumane conditions in urgent need of correction.
GM: So are you saying that Jack London was writing in the tradition of the exposé? That he was somehow allied with the journalists we call muckrakers?
CT: To be clear: London’s output, with his self-imposed production quota of 1,000 words daily—fiction and nonfiction—was a vivid lifetime report from his many American “lives” as a child laborer, a jobless hobo, a prison convict, a sailor. When he became financially successful, he continued to report on troubling socioeconomic and cultural conditions that he faced as an adventurer, an undercover journalist, a war correspondent, travel writer, sports reporter, photographer, rancher, and lecturer.
GM: In this roll call of identities, didn’t he spread himself thin?
CT: Jack London’s career borders on the incredible. To capsule it here, in brief: his failed quest to discover gold in the Yukon Gold Rush of 1897-98 netted him plots and quirky characters for popular novels and stories. And his seafaring adventures as a crew member and, later on, as master of his own custom yacht yielded a treasury of material for fiction about Hawaii and the South Sea islands where he sailed. That sea voyage was a marine comedy of errors, and he wrote about it with good humor, making himself the butt of many jokes.
London also covered the 1904 Russo-Japanese War for the Hearst newspapers (and the Mexican war in 1914). As a journalist, he went undercover in 1903, disguising himself as a luckless American sailor in order to expose the shameful London slums of imperial Britain, supposedly the most civilized people on earth. Some have criticized him as a racist, but London’s stories show support for underdogs of every race. When he covered the racially charged 1904 championship prizefight between white Jim Jeffries v. the black Jack Johnson, he hailed the winning Johnson outright as the superior boxer. Realizing that he had become dependent on alcohol, London penned a much-admired autobiography, John Barleycorn. His superb eye for a good photograph is evident in his hundreds of photos, many recently published in a large-format volume, Jack London: Photographer. To this day, his Beauty Ranch in California’s Sonoma (today a state park) is a testament to Jack London’s determination to raise crops and livestock without chemicals. Ahead of his time, he was committed to sustainable agriculture.
In all of these endeavors, let’s not forget, London exposed social ills and championed progressive reform. With direct relevance for the twenty-first century, he speaks to us today as an American public intellectual.
GM: The Jack London resume leaves one breathless. But was he really a public intellectual? Can that label fit somebody who’s best known as a writer of fiction?
CT: Yes, indeed. Consider the American benchmark novels and authors who fall into this category: Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle with its revelations about the horrible meatpacking conditions in Chicago. In recent decades, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged have been highly influential in the conservative political movement. So we can think of a public intellectual as a figure who can reach a broad public on matters that have political or ideological weight, and do so by speaking in terms that people understand, terms that are easily accessible. Jack London fits that definition.
CT: With a mighty bootstrap effort and the aid of mentors along the way. To set the scene, let’s recall that London’s birth year—1876—marked the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. America’s 100th birthday party was an international fair in Philadelphia, where ten million visitors saw the United States proclaim itself to be an imperial colossus on the world stage. Posters showed a giant Uncle Sam straddling the continent, with one foot on the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean, the other on the shore of the Pacific. By this time, the country was linked by rail, and visitors were dazzled by exhibits of American manufactured products, from steam-driven farm machines to grand pianos. Commentators described the fair as “big,” “bold,” and “powerful”—all terms that Jack London embraced because they signified a “big” modern America and its “big” men. He fit the temper of the times.
GM: Aren’t you also saying that London was a familiar “Horatio Alger” story?
CT: Actually, he hated the Alger myth. Too many of those who struggled at the bottom, he felt, were exploited by employers who cynically held out the false hope of reaching the top according to the Horatio Alger formula. As a young man, London was once duped into thinking he could start at the bottom, rise, and marry the boss’s daughter. He took a dead-end, low-wage job that injured his wrists and would have left him permanently disabled if he hadn’t quit.
It’s true, however, that the future Jack London was born into poverty. His single mother, an Ohioan who was transplanted to San Francisco, was abandoned by Jack’s father and scraped by teaching elocution lessons and staging séances. She married a Civil War veteran and farmer named John London, himself a widower and father of two daughters. He adopted baby Jack (whose birth name was John Chaney, after the biological father). The newly “blended” family ricocheted around the Bay area, living mainly in Oakland. They struggled to make ends meet. Jack’s mother fried suppers in a broken skillet and laid “tablecloths” of old newspapers. Jack’s first boyhood jobs hawking newspapers and setting pins in a bowling alley were not intended to build character or self-discipline; the London family badly needed his earnings, every penny.
Despite the family’s woes, though, Jack was reading by age four and nourishing his imagination at the Oakland public library, where librarians spotted the scruffy, bright-eyed boy and helped him. He reportedly reached for a book in every spare moment, but Jack’s decision to try earning a living by professional writing was a desperate gamble to escape the crushing toil he’d experienced working in a jute mill, a cannery, a steam laundry, and a coal-fired boiler room where he hurt his wrists and worked to the point of total exhaustion.
GM: Obviously the “gamble” paid off. But here’s a quote from one of America’s most authoritative cultural figures of the time, William Dean Howells. He warned that “the American public does not like to read about the life of toil.”
CT: That’s so true, both then and now. Jack London’s fiction put him on a tight-wire act. To sell his stories and novels, he had to satisfy the market, as writers must do today. His readers were spending good money for entertainment, and they expected adventure and romance from the Jack London brand. His audience at the time ranged from working class artisans and tradesmen to the new middle class of professionals and managers, including women homemakers. For all of them London had to produce irresistible entertainment along with the scalding revelations about the miseries and injustices of his contemporary scene—and the urgent need for reform.
GM: How did he do this? Can you give an example?
CT: I could offer examples from his bestselling novels, such as The Sea Wolf or The Valley of the Moon or Martin Eden. But let’s take The Call of the Wild, a story straight from Jack London’s Gold Rush adventures in the Yukon in the winter of 1897-98. Readers feel the driving snow and the wind that “cut like a white-hot knife.” The dog-hero of the novel finally hears the irresistible “call” to the arctic wild and escapes to freedom in the far North.
But for long stretches of the story, readers are close to the miseries of the team of sled dogs. Their brutal masters never spare the whip and barely feed the dogs, all the while driving the harnessed team to the point of “dead-tiredness that comes through the slow and prolonged drainage of months of toil.” When a dog’s strength is depleted, it is “got rid of.” In other words, it has exhausted its capital, its muscles. As readers, we realize these dogs are standing in for industrial workers of the Gilded Age—as Jack London called them, “work beasts.” The Call of the Wild is no blatant allegory, but it sends a stark moral meaning about conditions of work in the industrial age.
GM: Is it an up-to-date version of Aesop’s Fables for the twentieth century? If so, do you think Jack London’s readers understood that point?
CT: Not everybody, but some surely saw the connection of the dogs with the classic animal tales that taught clear moral lessons. London’s sled dogs were shown at a distance from America’s industrial mills and factories, but their trials and suffering were close enough for comparison. Jack London was careful not to bombard his readers with horrors on every page. He understood the difference between fiction and propaganda and held that line in his work. At the same time, he deliberately tried to rouse Americans’ conscience and mold public opinion for a more just and humane future.
GM: Was that future to be a socialist one? Hasn’t Jack London been criticized for leftist, socialist political leanings?
CT: His comeback was always his strict obedience to all laws on the books. And he reminded critics that people want “to live in a society formed of social beings.” He called a socialist a person “who strives for a better form of Government than the one he is living under.” These days, when we hear what our elected lawmakers are doing in Washington D.C., I question whether Jack London would find America moving toward “better” governance. One thing for sure: with his goal of 1,000 written words daily, Jack London would be a public intellectual in the mix of social media. For the sake of a better world, he would go viral.
Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and professor of American studies at Vanderbilt University. She is author of Civic Passions, Exposés and Excess, and Embodiment of a Nation. Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America is now available.