Friday, January 27, 2012
I knew Jack London had written socialist works, but for some reason I never took their existence seriously. That is, I never believed London wrote anything meaningful about socialism. I attributed books like The People of the Abyss, War of the Classes, and Revolution and Other Essays, to the idea that sometimes authors write works "with their left hands." A comment famously made about Tolstoy's religious writings, and refer to a type of by-product of a writer's interests, but don't truly reflect the author's best work on major themes.
As a teenager I found it hard to reconcile the man who had written Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea Wolf ever had an interest in socialism. Laid bare in the pages of his books was the blind struggle for existence in all its Dawrinian and Nietzschean brutality.
But allow me to backtrack a bit my dear and constant reader. And herein you should be forewarned: this is a deeply personal essay and not strictly speaking simply a book review. The best books in our lives do more than excite our interest or motivate us to reflection, they speak deeply for us and through us, articulating our own sometimes unknown and feared thoughts. A book has the power to damage our way of life, change our existence, and divide us from ourselves and our best interests. The same book also can truly validate what we feel and think to be true, despite all the prejudice of the society around us.
Once in a great while a reader with years of experience and thousands of books behind them will say of a particular book "it spoke to me." I mean no cheap sentimentality here, nor anything approaching a religious revelation. Instead I draw on a certain real experience familiar to the tribe of those who read, one that awakens a deep sense of being and connectedness. The awareness that these thoughts we have in our most private selves can be shared and brought to light, regardless of the fear of consequences.
But I understand I digress too much. Let me transport you back in time. To the hey dey of the late eighties, that era of Republicanism and the Communist "menace." The world was more simply divided back then. At least to my pubescent eyes. Russia was bad, America good, and the cold war raged quietly behind the world events. At 12 I was beginning to formulate questions on this state of affairs, but since my questions were in such contradiction to the zeitgiest I kept my thoughts to myself.
When I was 14 I read Jack London's Call of the Wild. I enjoyed the book and found the writing from the perspective of a dog an odd yet compelling way of telling a story. I also recognized, even at that age, that Buck's perspective was meant to challenge the perspective of a children's tale wherin animal protagonists stand for humans trying to find their way in the world.
From there I went to White Fang, which I don’t think I finished. Then I read some short stories, and finally to The Sea Wolf. The Sea Wolf is London's tale of literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden who survives the wreck of a San Francisco ferry only to be taken aboard a seal hunting ship led by the Nietzschean Wolf Larsen. On the ship Van Weydon is introduced to life among the lower classes, the laborers, the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed.
At 15 I saw myself reflected pretty clearly in Van Weydon. An aspiring writer and rabid consumer of novels I was fast developing an aesthetic appreciation for the written word. I was eager to enter the world of books and stay in them.
But there was a bit of a problem with this world view. My hometown. I grew up in a town in the Pennsylvania Coal Region. The mines had long since closed for the most part but their legacy remained: the world was a weekday laborers world and the weekends were beer fests and bar fights. Surrounded though we were by an edenic world of natural beauty.
This story, which showed quite clearly the darwinian struggle for existence in all its brutality, which took the survival of the fittest to be the mantra and religious creed for the world, affected me profoundly. I never really lost the view of the world in those pages. I never really lost the idea that the world around me was going to forever be one in which the strong subjugate the weak, and the weak endure or die off. I never became a follower of this belief. In fact I lived a very long time in denial of it. But of the fact that humans were cruel, vicious, and that it was all somehow sanctified by Nature never sat well with me. Had I been a better reader at that age I might have realized this was the character Wolf Larsen's perception of the world.
Enter the later day me in 2011. Years of experience behind me and many novels I begin to see the claims made by socialism and communism as having some legitimacy. Since the 2008 financial crises and its subsequent fallout the country has remembered just how fragile a thing an economy can be.
In an effort to save money I purchased a Kindle. So many downloadable books for free, prices cut on paperbacks and hardcovers so that I will literally save hundreds, and the portability means no more lugging around cinder block sized 900+ page fantasy epics.
One of the first books I download is London's War of the Classes. Im intrigued and the financial problems of the past few years have made me more aware and curious as to the possibility of alternate economic structures. I'm intrigued at this London, the man who claims to be a socialist but yet wrote such brutal books about the struggle for existence.
Like the constant and thorough reader you are you can probably anticipate the ending here. Not only is the London I find in War of the Classes not a fraud, but probably one of the most compassionate, humane and mature voices I have ever read. Yes the world is a brutal struggle for existence, but this does not justify continued brutality, in the best of humans it evokes a desire to change the world and make it better. It is possible to so organize a society that the people are no poor, that there is no hunger, no want of work; that it is not a crime against god or an obstinate laziness to desire a shorter work day so as to pursue the arts, a higher quality of family life, and a way of existing in the world that is not just a fight and a daily competition but instead a contemplating of the existence we are in. In a moving essay London talks about the people of his era who tell him socialism is a thing for young men and he will grow out of it. The same men, he states, who own everything.
Jack London is no saint. He frequently trades in cultural stereotypes, and sometimes his writer's voice gets carried away by the polemics of a revolution he hopes will come soon. But as near as I can tell nowhere does he argue for a violent overthrow of the existing regime.
What he does argue for, and passionately, is the need for Americans to wake up and recognize that they are in a class struggle. Their lives are one of conflict between the owners and workers. One exploits the other. The London I imagined in the Sea Wolf would have said so it is and will ever be. But I was wrong. That is not the London presented here. This is:
"Why should there be one empty belly in all the world, when the work of ten men can feed a hundred? What if my brother be not so strong as I? He has not sinned. Wherefore should he hunger-he and his sinless little ones? Away with the old law. There is food and shelter for all, therefore let all receive food and shelter."
All written over a hundred years ago. And yet, so very contemporary.