Jack London's many sides emerge in James L. Haley's Wolf.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 15 2010 6:59 AM

Jack London's Dark Side

A new biography confronts the good, bad, and repellent.

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He was offered a place at a posh prep school, and escape seemed possible for a flickering moment. But he soon dropped out after the parents at the school protested against his supposedly coarsening influence on their little darlings. He enrolled in another academy—only to be thrown out for completing the entire two-year curriculum in four months, embarrassingly outclassing all the rich kids. London felt humiliated and enraged. Soon after, he charged off to the Canadian Arctic, where there were rumors of gold. He watched his team of gold diggers die around him of drowning, cold, and scurvy. A passing doctor inspected him and told him he, too, would die if he didn't get urgent care. He was 22 years old, and he vowed that if he lived, he would become a writer, whatever it took.

His first works—like The Sea-Wolf(1904), a novel about a shipwreck survivor who is rescued by a ship captain only to be enslaved and tortured in increasingly deranged and homoerotic ways by him—injected into American literature a hard, terse vernacular style that seemed to hack Edith Wharton to death with an axe and feed her to the wolves. It was as discordant and brutal as the machines London had operated and as rough as the landscapes he battled through. Readers were startled by the crude, rude energy of the writing. It ripped out manners and replaced them with mania: His characters were violent and thuggish and real.

If you read his work today, you can see literary semen spraying across the American century as he makes possible some of the most important writers in the United States and beyond. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck rushed to his rawness and imitated it. The Beats followed him onto the road and into a jazzy, improvised style. George Orwell followed him to live among tramps and was inspired to write 1984 by London's own dystopia, The Iron Heel. Everyone from Upton Sinclair to Philip Roth claims him as an influence, and he seems to have left an imprint well beyond that. Look at the pictures of his handsome bulk insolently confronting you from a leather jacket, and you see Marlon Brando and James Dean decades before their time.

The richer London became, the more radical his politics were. He was soon praising the assassination of Russia's political leaders and saying socialism would inevitably come to America. Even as he employed small battalions of servants, he insisted he was a Robin Hood figure: They would be made to wait on the tramps and trade unionists he invited to his mansion.

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And yet there is an infected scar running across his politics that is hard to ignore. "I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist," he said, and he meant it. His socialism followed a strict apartheid: It was for his pigmentary group alone. Every other ethnic group, he said, should be subjugated—or exterminated. "The history of civilization is a history of wandering—a wandering, sword in hand, of strong breeds, clearing away and hewing down the weak and less fit," he said coolly. "The dominant races are robbing and slaying in every corner of the globe." This was a good thing, because "they were unable to stand the concentration and sustained effort which pre-eminently mark the races best fitted to live in this world."

And for those who are not "best fitted to live in this world"? In his 1910 short story "The Unparalleled Invasion," the United States—with the author's plain approval—wages biological warfare on China to decimate its population. It then invades and takes it over. It is, the story says, "the only possible solution to the Chinese problem." Haley, in an otherwise solid and competent biography, is horribly soft on London's racism, saying only that he thought the races should be separate. He didn't: He frequently thought whites should kill the rest.

How did he become like this? His mother was a crazed racist. Panicked by her loss of status, she found living near black people a permanent humiliation. London, too, seems to have felt a strong impulse to identify with people "trapped in the abyss." But he also found it humiliating, and so needed an Untermenschen class below even them. Yet there at his origins was also Virginia Prentiss, who virtually raised him. Didn't he think of her when he compared black people to monkeys? At times, for tantalizing moments, the man who could be so eloquent in his compassion for one group of undeserving victims seems to sense that he is saying something vile about another. At one point, London says socialism's strength is that it "transcends race prejudice"—but then that prejudice returns, just as vicious as before. When he visits Hawaii, he is in awe of its native culture, but then demands the United States conquer it just the same.

His near-constant guzzling of whisky made his thoughts even less consistent or coherent. Every day, he was unwittingly finishing off his mother's pre-natal attempt to kill him. He wrote: "So obsessed was I with the desire to die that I feared I might commit the act in my sleep, and I was compelled to give my revolver away to others who were to lose it for me where my subconscious hand might not find it." He staved off this deep, darkening depression with booze, work (he wrote 1,000 words a day, every day), and socialism. It was his transcendent cause. He said he could go to political meetings in despair and be "lifted out of self, and in the end return home happy, satisfied."

He was happy to write entertainments, but he didn't see them as his driving purpose. So London would be surprised to discover he is remembered now, almost entirely, for The Call of the Wild(1903), the novel about a pampered dog who is kidnapped, forced to be a sled dog in Alaska, and eventually flees to live among the wolves. Like almost all London's heroes, he is forced into a harsh, hideous landscape, where he must fight or die. There's a proto-environmentalism to the story, with its message that you can't escape nature; it will reclaim us all, no matter how civilized we seem. But his writing—after an initial efflorescent burst of hard reality—deteriorated as surely as his kidneys. The less he experienced out there in brutal reality, the more his work wilted and became mannered—the very tone he had set out to sucker punch.

Even as The Call of the Wild became one of the best-selling books in American history, newspaper editorials were calling for London to be jailed or deported for his Socialist speeches. By the age of 40, he was broken. He was taking morphine to stop the pain from his booze-burned kidneys and liver. As he lay killing himself with whiskey, London grew increasingly despondent that the United States was failing to become the Socialist republic he prophesized. "I grow, sometimes, almost to hate the mass, to sneer at dreams of reform," he wrote to a friend. He resigned from the Socialist Party, saying it had become too moderate and reformist and should be pushing for direct action—but he took none himself. Cut off from his great redeeming cause, he was dead within a year. His manservant found his almost-dead body, accompanied by a note calculating how much morphine it would take to kill him. Flora Chaney's bullet had hit, 40 years behind schedule.

Doesn't that tale deserve to be remembered, in the end, as amounting to more than a solitary dog story?

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Johann Hari is a Slate contributing writer and a columnist for the Independent in London. He was recently named newspaper journalist of the year by Amnesty International. You can e-mail Johann at j.hari@independent.co.uk or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101.