Cecelia Tichi's JACK LONDON: A WRITER'S FIGHT FOR A BETTER AMERICA is now available. The publication by the University of North Carolina Press is written in a readable style free of academic jargon. Sample the book and order your copy today.
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Jack London (1876-1916) won fame for his wolf-dog tales and sagas of the frozen North, but Cecelia Tichi challenges the longstanding view of London as a mass-market producer of potboilers. In this gripping book, Tichi demonstrates how London leveraged his written words as a force for the future. A onetime child laborer, London led a life of poverty in the Gilded Age before rising to world-wide acclaim for stories, novels, and essays designed to hasten the social, economic, and political advance of America.
Tracing the arc of London’s career through the late 1800s to 1910s, Jack London: A Writer’s Fight For a Better America 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 significance as an artist and political and public figure, Tichi brings him to life as a man who merits recognition as one of America’s foremost public intellectuals.
“A fruitful, well-written blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and biography.”
“Strongly recommended for London devotees and for anyone with an interest in the evolution of social reforms in America.”
“Appropriate for a college classroom, yet the book may appeal to mainstream lovers of celebrity biography.”
“In this persuasive reappraisal of Jack London,… Tichi brings a fresh perspective to an author and thinker frequently dismissed as a mere writer of adventure fiction.”
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The fight for America’s future took 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”….
Jack London laced on his gloves to join the battle against the brutal dark underside of this economic system, and he did so by drawing liberally on the popularity of a blood sport—boxing–that had moved out of saloons and smoky backrooms in the late 1800s…. Standardized rules and professional referees lent new respectability and prestige to prizefighting that was now staged throughout the United States under the artificial suns of blazing electric lights in venues that seated thousands. … 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. Sportswriter Jack London covered such bouts as 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 leadership 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. 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—as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it, “for headship and command”….
The arena that Jack London entered, however, stretched from the Atlantic coast and into the far Pacific…. 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.1
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 Jack London would draw heavily and continuously upon its terms for his writing and speeches, 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.
Could he win? He was an optimist who put himself in the ring against the established heavyweights of his era. Win or lose, the punches, jabs, uppercuts and “short-arm jolts” in every round of his prose were meant to bring the fans, the very public, to his corner. Spectators today, they were tomorrow’s citizen activists. Otherwise, the cause was lost. Would he be battered? Bloodied? Probably. He had to fight. He had no other way. With pen and typewriter, he came out swinging.
Jack London cared profoundly about children’s vulnerability. His files thickened with magazine articles and newspaper clippings on the horrors of child labor…. In soft red covers, he carefully bound a set of 1902-03 magazine pieces: “Children of Labor,” “Child Labor in Factories,” “Child Labor: A Social Waste,” “Child Labor in Shops and Homes.” This handmade book was made up entirely of nonfiction journalism.
Yet a well-crafted story, as London knew, could summon great powers of emotion and resonate in memory long after its pages were closed–and help to promote laws to ban child labor…. When the editor of the Woman’s Home Companion wrote to solicit “a child labor short story,” the famous name of Jack London entered into the literature of child labor. The September 1906 issue featured Jack’s unexpurgated “The Apostate,” with the magazine tagline, “A Child Labor Parable”….
“The Apostate” profitably coined Jack’s memory of a hellish true-life episode, and he tunneled into the dark shaft of his memory to quarry the tale. “The Apostate” put the child labor crisis into the middle-class parlors of those who would never dream of sending their own daughters or sons into the mills. The central character, the wraith-thin teenage Johnny, began work as a bobbin boy at seven years of age. Hired at first to wind “the jute-twine” at a bank of machines, he has become “a work-beast” whose nighttime dreams are infested with “the shrieking, pounding, crashing, roaring of a million looms.”
The new multi-reel motion pictures also joined the campaign against treacherous workplaces in which children labored and sometimes lost their lives. The catastrophic Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 in which 123 women and 23 men died was echoed three years later in the film Children of Eve, featuring teenage girl workers who succumb to a workplace conflagration.
May, 1910 Jack London appealed to his New York editor for a quick cash advance. “Dear Mr. Brett,” he explained, “I am buying seven hundred acres of land…giving me miles of frontage on three big creeks, and some magnificent mountain land, to say nothing of timber.” Reminding his editor that he always “delivered the goods,” Jack worked up to a blazing one-sentence paragraph: “What I need and must have in my hands by June 1, is five thousand ($5,000) Dollars.” Thirteen days later on May 18th, hearing nothing from Gotham, he fired off a telegram: “I SIMPLY MUST HAVE THAT FIVE THOUSAND. PLEASE TELEGRAPH ME.”i
Editor George Brett’s check for the full amount arrived a week later, and by June, Jack London’s commitment to farming on a grander scale was legalized in the new purchase of 700 acres that nearly quintupled the size of his ranch. Surveying its acreage and mindful of his predecessors, Jack asked himself whether he could succeed where others had flatly failed. The question was deadly serious, for heroic measures were required to meet London’s ambitious goal—that his Beauty Ranch become a model of sustainable farming on a sound business basis. If he succeeded, the effort would be recorded in his fiction and educate the U.S. public on the urgent need for reform in America’s farm fields, pastures, and barns. Success, that is, would mean popular new novels to awaken the American public to the present national crisis of agriculture–agriculture that was so ruinous that it threatened the future food supply of the nation. The success of a sustainable Beauty Ranch, at the same time, would show the progressive way forward in explicit detail. London’s challenge became his vow: “By using my head, my judgment, and all the latest knowledge in the matter of farming, I have pledged myself, my manhood, my fortune, my books and all I possess to this undertaking.”