Friday, April 5, 2013

Jack London

Lots of interesting details in this recent bio: Jack's illegitimate birth and black wetnurse, his infatuation with surfing, his Korean and Japanese valets, his stint as a war correspondent, his bohemian friends with their vials of cyanide, his welcoming of tramps into his home, and his "supposed anti-American sympathies" that caused the FBI to open a file on him after his death.

On the literary side it was interesting to learn that there were scenes in Sea Wolf that "shocked and terrified readers;" that he purchased story ideas from Sinclair Lewis, was praised by Conrad and Kipling, and became the highest paid writer in America.

However, when the "Dickensian gloom" of a cannery was mentioned, I began to see shadowy similarities with another great writer.

London and Dickens

Both were literary dynamos. London published at least one book a year beginning in 1900, but more usually it was two or three and sometimes four. Several came out posthumously, making a total of 49 books between 1900 and 1920.

Commitment to social reform began with their experiences as child labourers, Dickens famously in a blacking factory at age 12, London in a pickle factory at age 14. Dickens's ordeal was short, lasting something like six months, but London did not escape so easily. He put in ten-hour days at a jute mill for ten cents an hour, and shovelled coal at a power plant for $30 and a single day off per month.

Before London was out of his teens his Oliver-Twist-like existence included oyster pirating, brawls with waterfront bullies, a half-year voyage on a sealing ship, riding the rails across America to join an army of the unemployed marching on Washington, and a 30-day jail term for vagrancy.

Dickens, though reform-minded, was never a revolutionary and regarded trade unions with suspicion. London on the other hand became a socialist, preaching it on street corners, writing about it in essays, and making fans of Emma Goldman and Leon Trotski. In the final year of his life he quit from the Socialist party due to its lack of "fire and fight," signing his resignation letter, "Yours for the Revolution."

Family Resemblances

Both writers were born to neglectful mothers, Dickens never forgiving his for suggesting he remain in the blacking factory when it was no longer absolutely necessary. London's mother was unstable and manipulative, "barren of maternal instinct."

John Dickens, the father of Charles, was a naval pay clerk who was unable to live within his means, and continued to embarrass his adult son by demands for money. The case was different with London, who never knew his biological father. After he was born his mother married a Civil War veteran named John London. "The best man I ever knew," Jack said of him later, but even he on occasion was embarrassed by requests for money. The difference between John Dickens and John London was that the latter was conscientious and hard-working.

An important figure in the life of Dickens was his beloved sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. With London, it was his devoted step-sister, Eliza Shepard, daughter of John London from his first marriage. In later years she helped run Jack's ranch and manage his literary affairs during his absences.

London and Dickens married in the same year their first books were published, but the matches were unsuitable. Dickens was domineering, striving to create the sort of family life he'd missed out on, with himself at the centre; as though, writes one of his biographers, Fred Kaplan, he needed "to become father to himself." London's failure as a husband was due, at least in part, to his never having had a childhood. The marriage breakups were widely publicized and neither man proved to be a particularly able parent.

London on London

After reading the bio I was keen to dig into something by London himself, and hauled out this excellent compendium from the Library of America and which had been languishing on a bookshelf for far too long.

People of the Abyss is what I read, an expose of life in the London slums written in 1902. To my surprise and delight, the prose remains fresh and vital.

London passes himself off as a stranded American sailor in order to report on living conditions in the East End. The scenes he describes are "straight out of darkest Dickens," with people ground down by "a gross and stupid materialism" until they become stunted physically and mentally. The "gutter folk" he meets are worse off than beasts, living in "dens and lairs" and eating "pavement offal." Children take turns at night "sitting up to drive rats away from the sleepers."

Bathtubs are a thing totally unknown, as mythical as the ambrosia of the gods. The people themselves are dirty, while any attempt at cleanliness becomes a howling farce, when it is not pitiful and tragic. Strange, vagrant odors come drifting along the greasy wind, and the rain, when it falls, is more like grease than water from heaven.

(London's findings were corroborated by a government report after the second Boer War, which concluded in 1902. It found that 40-60% of the volunteers failed to pass the physical exam, a direct result of the "illness, malnutrition, and relentless hard work" experienced by the urban poor.)

People of the Abyss was a success in America but not in England, where reception was hostile -- much as Martin Chuzzlewit's had been in the U.S. for its unflattering portrait of Americans.

Thirty years later George Orwell trod similar ground in Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. Like London, he was a socialist.