Excerpt: Jack London, by Cecelia Tichi

Jack London: A Writer's Fight for a Better America, by Cecelia TichiJack London (1876–1916) found fame with his wolf-dog tales and sagas of the frozen North, but Cecelia Tichi challenges the long-standing view of London as merely a mass-market producer of potboilers. A onetime child laborer, London led a life of poverty in the Gilded Age before rising to worldwide acclaim for stories, novels, and essays designed to hasten the social, economic, and political advance of America. In this major reinterpretation of London’s career, Tichi examines how the beloved writer leveraged his written words as a force for the future.

Tracing the arc of London’s work from the late 1800s through the 1910s, Tichi profiles the writer’s allies and adversaries in the cities, on the factory floor, inside prison walls, and in the farmlands. Thoroughly exploring London’s importance as an artist and as a political and public figure, Tichi brings to life a man who merits recognition as one of America’s foremost public intellectuals. 

In the following excerpt from Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America (pp. 37-43), Tichi recounts how London went beyond the pen to fight the wretched conditions of the American working class.


To stand up is the point of the game, to stay on one’s feet, to not lie down, to not run away. This is the point of it, and the spirit.
—Jack London, “The Jeffries-Ruhlin Fight,” 1901

The “springlike” break in the mid-January weather in early 1906 did not fool Jack London. To the Californian, New York was always cold, even on that “scorching” hot summer day back in the depression year of 1894 when he first ventured into the city to sightsee as a jobless teenage tramp and got cracked on the skull by a bull cop’s billy club. No matter how much money poured in from his writing or how great his fame, the cop’s blow never faded into from memory. London saw the billy club, along with the batons and guns of the Pinkertons and the state militias, as versions of the overseers’ whips in this era of industrial slavery. Its overthrow was his life’s mission, and public support was vital to success. The stakes of the game were never higher than on this January evening, when four thousand New Yorkers gathered in the midtown Grand Central Palace Exhibition Hall to hear a rousing political speech by the famous author of The Call of the Wild.

Spirits ran high as the 8:15 P.M. hour of London’s speech approached. A reporter in the audience noted the many “red dresses or red hats or red ribbons” of the women, each one a political hurrah for the revolutionary spirit that enveloped the name Jack London. Women naturally flocked to him, and from the newspapers many of them knew of his controversial recent divorce and remarriage to a woman named Charmian Kittredge—both headlines conveying the hint of scandal, especially since the papers repeatedly published rumors of his illicit amours. His publicity photographs fed those notions. They showed a rakish figure in various soft wool caps, loose neckties, and silk crepe shirts. His “burning eyes” were boyish and smoldering, alluring and a bit dangerous. One observer thought him “all sweetness and ferocity.”[1]

The audience eagerly anticipated a larger-than-life figure, a novelist, journalist, sailor, war correspondent, exponent of modern marriage, sportswriter, and, most recently, a gentleman farmer-rancher. His audience reached from the workers with “hard hands and strong arms” to the affluent bourgeoisie of “placid . . . sedentary existence.” Awaiting his appearance in the hall, many in the audience opened purses or dug into trouser pockets to snap up the ten-cent “‘genuine’ blood red flags, the ‘Jack London souvenirs of a great and momentous occasion.’” The fiery female union organizer from the coalfields, Mother Jones, was in the hall, and her shout-out later in the evening was to be memorable for its typical “crisp” and “clipped speech.” The atmosphere was amiable, though the speaker was overdue because his train was late. When London finally took the stage at 9:15 P.M., no one in the audience (not even the New York Times reporter) guessed that the celebrated Jack London was half-sick from lingering effects of the flulike grippe. This was America’s epicenter of capitalism, and Gotham could flatten a man who didn’t show himself fit in body and mind. Such a man wouldn’t last one round.[2]

London held forth this January night with a fiery lecture titled “The Coming Crisis.” Slightly edited, it was the speech he’d delivered all over the Midwest these past weeks, a reprise of a talk entitled “Revolution” that he had first delivered to students at the University of California in Berkeley last April. In New York’s Grand Central Palace, the famous author embodied entrepreneurial success but spoke on behalf of growing numbers of Americans who knew to the bone that the captains of industry and finance had failed millions with their exploitative economic system. The titans’ names were American bywords of the era: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington, and others. Historians later called them “The Tycoons” and the “American Colossus.” But many Americans, including Jack London, agreed with the caustic economist Thorstein Veblen, whose best-selling Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) profiled them in terms of their “outlawry,” “barbarian temperament,” and “spectacular quasi-predatory careers of fraud.” Their success in a “pecuniary culture,” Veblen wrote, depended on their “freedom from scruple, from sympathy, honesty and regard for life.”[3]

An admirer of Veblen, London had brought the economist’s words to life in his popular recent novel, The Sea-Wolf (1904). Audience members in the Grand Central Palace doubtless linked the “blind and greedy” capitalists London denounced in his speech with the amoral, monstrous ship captain in the novel. The tycoons were flesh-and-blood versions of the fictional Wolf Larson, a lone predator who ravaged others and was motivated solely by self-interest.

It was not the tycoons’ wealth as such that rankled, London insisted in his speech, but their spectacular failure at managing the social world they had made. They had “organized the machinery of life and made possible a wonderful era for all mankind,” an era that ought to provide plentiful food, opportunities for “education, for intellectual and spiritual uplift,” an era “wherein no creature should cry aloud because it had not enough to eat.”[4]

Instead, London charged, their system produced shocking periods of joblessness, chronic hunger, and misery nationwide. Materially, the great capitalists had triumphed, London acknowledged, but socially they had failed “deplorably, ignobly, horribly.” London never relied on flamboyant rhetoric or hearsay; instead he marshaled a barrage of numerical facts to seal his indictment. In a national census of over 80 million, 10 million Americans’ bodies were weakened for lack of sufficient food, London reported, and “all over this broad, prosperous, enlightened land, are men, women, and children who are living miserably.” The system that enabled his own success, he argued, had lost its legitimacy. Even in prosperous times, “the bottom of the social pit” awaits “a hearty, well-fed workingman . . . [who] sees the shambles waiting for him and his children and recoils from the descent.” Surrounded by the largely admiring, politically sympathetic audience, London issued this threatening challenge to the regime of the tycoons: “The workers of the world, as a class, are fighting the capitalists of the world, as a class. . . . It is the world’s workers that are in revolt.” He pulled no punches. “We of the revolution which is at hand want all you possess. We want the power of Government in our own strong hands. We are going to take all you have away from you.”[5]

The fight for America’s future had taken a fierce turn at the start of the twentieth century, and Jack London prepared to do battle. Over his lifetime, the captains of industry had transformed America into an economic system that was the marvel of the modern world. A country that was formerly dotted with small farms and artisans’ shops was now an industrial powerhouse welded by railroads that carried raw materials and finished manufactured products everywhere. The last quarter of the nineteenth century—the years of Jack London’s life—was aptly branded as the era of Big Business, which is to say the era of triumphant laissez-faire capitalism, and the names of its founding fathers veined London’s writings. Their achievement, London knew, brought unprecedented bounty and convenience to homes and workplaces, and their enterprises provided jobs for millions and radically revamped the nation’s economy. In the new twentieth century, the corporations and trusts were the legacy of the last decade’s tycoons, and, in effect, these institutions now governed the country. The whole period has been termed the era of “the incorporation of America.”[6]

Another famous American, however, viewed the era more critically and much more in line with London’s own experience. The Gilded Age, the 1873 novel written by Mark Twain (and coauthor Charles Dudley Warner), became an enduring indictment of the era by pointing to a hidden dark underside of the emerging capitalist order. Beneath the shining surface were unconscionable atrocities: child labor, tenement housing, cycles of joblessness, starvation wages, political corruption. The modern regime had come at a horrendous social cost, and by 1900 reformers were sounding alarms and campaigning for corrective measures. Unlike most reformers, London personally knew the miseries that lurked just beneath the golden façade because he had suffered them for most of his impoverished lifetime. These indelible memories fueled his righteous anger on behalf of all those who lived as he had. No one, he swore, should so suffer in this rich land of plenty.

Jack London laced on his gloves to join the battle against this brutal economic system by drawing liberally on the popularity of a blood sport—boxing—that had moved out of saloons and smoky backrooms in the late 1800s. A boyhood brawler who knew saloons, Jack learned boxing from his friend Jim Whitaker, an athletic British army veteran and socialist who earned his living as a grocery store worker in Oakland. After hours, Jim closed the store blinds and taught Jack to box. No more would he “windmill” his arms and flail at opponents in vacant lots; rather, he would fight “scientifically,” as his friend Cloudesley Johns remarked. His writing displayed a keen understanding of the “new kinetic” style of boxing “in keeping with the up-tempo spirit of the age.” It “rewarded footwork, defensive skills, and counterpunching”—all abilities crucial for this combative writer and public intellectual.[7]

The sport and its terms suited the times. The “manly art” of bare knuckles and glove boxing had surged in popularity by the late nineteenth century, a development the historian Elliott Gorn ascribes to “a burst of upper-and middle-class . . . glorification of male prowess.” Some ten years before Jack London was born, the bare-knuckle era had given way to gloved fights under the 1866–67 rules set down by the eighth Marquess of Queensbury. The new rules “specified the size of a boxing ring, the use of turf, the role of seconds and umpires.” Outlawed were “head butting, kicking, and biting.” By the turn of the new century, the standardized rules and professional referees lent new respectability and prestige to prizefighting as bouts moved indoors. Fights were now staged throughout the United States under the artificial suns of blazing electric lights in venues that seated thousands. “Under the Queensbury rules, there would be a set number of rounds . . . limited to three minutes each, with one minute between rounds. A man who was knocked down was allowed ten seconds to get to his feet or lose the fight by a knockout.” Gloves were compulsory, and the retailer Sears, Roebuck & Co. offered a free instruction book with every pair of the “finest” kid leather boxing gloves in its famous mail-order catalogue.[8]

Artists were tracking all this. Whereas the Currier and Ives lithographic prints had featured the bare-knuckle contests in the open air, as in The Championship Slugger / “Knocking ‘Em Out,” such artists as Philadelphia’s Thomas Eakins and New York’s George Bellows now applied oil to canvas to capture the sheer combative muscularity of the indoor bouts where zealous male fans cheered and jeered at ringside. Jack London witnessed prizefights of the sort that Eakins portrayed in Between Rounds (1898–99), in which a corner man tries to cool the seated, weary fighter who regroups for the next go-round. Jack London was to report, in addition, on the 1910 championship bout that Bellows uncannily anticipated in his racially charged Both Members of This Club (1909), a painting that draws viewers’ eyes to the bloodied lower jaw of the white boxer being overpowered by his black opponent—a reality that London was to concede in his reporting on the 1910 triumph of the black Jack Johnson over the white Jim Jeffries and in his 1901 coverage of the Jeffries–Gus Ruhlen match in a sweltering indoor arena in which each fighter was fanned with towels between heated rounds.

Social status and executive power also played their part in the zest for pugilism, for college men of the Ivy League now learned the basics of proper stance and “scientific” punching. Along with other competitive sports, boxing was thought to be the tonic for the debilitating modern syndrome of “overcivilization” and thus young men’s best preparation for the “strenuous life” of business and battlefield leadership—or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, “for headship and command.”[9]

Its attraction for Jack London, an aspirant front-rank figure on the national scene, included both leadership and, as London’s daughter Joan noted, the opportunity to gain “suppleness and grace.” Books in London’s personal library underscored the exquisite moment “when stoutness of heart and soundness of limb are tested . . . with padded gloves in a padded ring.” The “noble art,” Jack was assured, let a boxer “inflict damage” on opponents without a blemish to his own character. London thrust pugilistic figures everywhere in his writing and kept sets of gloves for sparring on land and on decks while at sea. In 1905, the first of his two novellas about boxing, The Game, was published, just as several years later he was to write another novella about a boxer, The Abysmal Brute (1913), and to feature prizefighters in the short stories “A Piece of Steak” and “The Mexican.”[10]

The arena that Jack London entered, however, stretched from the Atlantic Seaboard and into the far Pacific and overrode partisan sparring between the two major parties, the Republicans and Democrats. Entering the political ring at five foot seven, weighing 165 pounds, the best-selling author cut an appealing manly figure with his whorls of dark curly hair, sparkling gray eyes, ready smile, and the rolling gait of a sailor. A self-identified underdog who grew up “pinched by poverty,” London saw whole populations sacrificed to the depths of the “Social Pit.” In his teens he tramped the country with “sailor-men, soldier-men, labor-men,” whose bodies and minds were now “wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses.” In freezing cold weather, his teeth chattering, London had “bedded in pools of water” and also drew close to “the woman of the streets and the man of the gutter.” Seized with “terror” lest their lives become his own, London swore to climb up the slick and slimy pit walls through sheer strength of brain and mind and will.[11]

In fighting trim and famous, London now prepared for combat against the unbridled capitalism that he saw as the root cause of the pandemic of human misery and degradation that had nearly claimed his own life in knockabout years of tramping, brawling, boozing, and ducking cops’ billy clubs. Given the tremendous popularity of the sport and his own frequent sparring with male friends—and with wife Charmian too—it is understandable that for his writing and speeches Jack London would draw heavily and continuously on its terms, both its figures of speech and its ideology of blows exchanged over many rounds, the winners of the contest standing tall, the defeated visibly flattened on the canvas or collapsed in the arms of allies.


From Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America. Copyright © 2015 Cecelia Tichi.

Cecelia Tichi is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and professor of American studies at Vanderbilt University. Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America is now available. Visit the book website at jacklondonbook.com. Tichi’s other books include Civic Passions, Exposés and Excess, and Embodiment of a Nation.

  1. [1]New York Tribune, January 20, 1906 (“springlike”). Jack London [JL], The Road, 152 (“scorching”). New York Tribune, January 20, 1906 (“red . . . ribbons”). JL, Martin Eden, 40 (“burning eyes”). Charmian Kittredge London [CKL], The Book of Jack London, 2:221 (“all . . . ferocity”).
  2. [2]“They All Wear Red to Hear Jack London,” New York Times, January 20, 1906 (“hard . . . arms”). JL, The Sea-Wolf, 34 (“placid . . . existence”). “They All Wear Red to Hear Jack London” (“genuine . . . occasion”). Johns, “Who the Hell Is Cloudesley Johns?: An Autobiography,” 232–33 (“crisp . . . speech”) (Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California [HL] HM42387).
  3. [3]See Morris, The Tycoons. See also Brands, Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865–1900 (2010). Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 373 (“outlawry,” “barbarian temperament,” “spectacular . . . fraud”), 223 (“pecuniary culture,” “freedom . . . life”). Cloudesley Johns remarks in his unpublished autobiography, “Who the Hell Is Cloudsley Johns?,” that he and London read one another passages from The Theory of the Leisure Class while sailing on London’s boat Spray (294) (HL HM42387).
  4. [4]JL, “Revolution,” in Raskin, The Radical Jack London, 145 (“organized . . . mankind”), 146 (“education . . . uplift”), 145–46 (“wherein . . . eat”).
  5. [5]Ibid., 145 (“deplorably . . . horribly”), 145 (“all . . . miserably,” “the bottom . . . descent,” “The workers . . . revolt”). “They All Wear Red to Hear Jack London,” New York Times, January 20, 1906 (“We . . . from you”).
  6. [6]See Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America.
  7. [7]Gorn, The Manly Art, 224 (“scientifically,” “new kinetic,” “in keeping . . . age”), 222 (“rewarded . . . counterpunching”). For JL’s admiration of boxing, see Labor, Jack London: An American Life, 208–9.
  8. [8]Gorn, The Manly Art, 194 (“a burst . . . prowess”). Boddy, Boxing, 91–92 (“specified . . . umpires,” “head . . . biting”), 92 (“Under . . . knockout”). See reprint of 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 594.
  9. [9]Holmes quoted in Gorn, The Manly Art, 191 (“headship . . . command”). For discussion of social anxieties that fostered enthusiasm for boxing, see ibid., 179–206.
  10. [10]Joan London, Jack London and His Times, 127 (“suppleness . . . grace”). Naughton, Heavy-Weight Champions, preface [n.p.] (“noble art,” “when stoutness . . . ring”). Allanson-Winn, Boxing, 15 (“inflict damage”). JL’s library contained Naughton’s and Allanson-Winn’s books, together with the two-volume Henning, Fights for the Championship: The Men and Their Times (1903).
  11. [11]JL, John Barleycorn, 50 (“pinched . . . poverty”). JL, “How I Became a Socialist,” in Raskin, The Radical Jack London, 126 (“Social Pit,” “sailor-men . . . horses”). JL, The Road, 111 (“bedded . . . water”). JL, “How I Became a Socialist” (“the woman . . . gutter,” “terror”).