15-44 Segment 2: Jack London: Adventure author and social activist

Synopsis: Author Jack London is known for his stories of adventure in the Klondike, the Yukon and other far-away places. Our guest, however, says these stories also reflect his desire to bring the plight of poor and exploited workers to the public’s attention. We’ll hear how London’s hardscrabble youth and physically demanding jobs informed his writing, and find out how the author used sustainable farming methods long before they became fashionable.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University, author of the book, Jack London: A writer’s fight for a better America.

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The Real Jack London

Marty Peterson: Who doesn’t love a rip-roaring adventure story, set in a wild part of the world with compelling characters and a plot that never drags? American author Jack London wrote a bundle of them that took readers to exotic lands and made their hearts pound with excitement. London was the premiere writer of adventure fiction at the turn of the 20th century, but he was much more than that, according to Cecelia Tichi. Tichi is the William R. Kenan, Jr., professor of English, and professor of American Studies at Vanderbilt University. She’s also the author of the book Jack London: A writer’s fight for a better America. She says that in addition to being a successful writer, London was also a social activist…

Cecelia Tichi: We are in a second Gilded Age and Jack London lived through the first Gilded Age and I have always thought fiction has an important role that’s not always acknowledged in helping to shape public opinion. And I always have suspected that there’s more to Jack London than just adventure and entertainment. So I went back to very carefully read those 50 books, hundreds of short stories and what I found is a kind of covert undercover reformer and I think he speaks to our own 21st century because we have again got ourselves into a Gilded Age in which underneath all the good, shiny things, there’s some trouble.

Peterson: Tichi says that London was a fighter for the little guy, the exploited worker and the women and children living in poverty throughout our country. But to understand why the author took up their cause, Tichi says you have to go back and look at London’s own childhood…

Tichi: He worked in a jute mill for ten cents an hour at ungodly shifts 12, 16 hours at a time. He also worked in a cannery when the fresh fruit of California was being canned and shipped. Again, minimal wages and dangerous working conditions. He saw his co-workers’ fingers just sliced in this lethal machinery. And then, also, he worked shoveling coal for an electric company, into the fiery furnace. He later learned that he was being paid less than two men who had previously shoveled that coal. His wrists swelled and throbbed, he strapped leather around, and if he hadn’t quit, I think he would have been permanently disabled.

Peterson: London was also a sailor who journeyed to the north Pacific up to the frigid Bering Sea. Tichi says that what saved him from a life of grueling manual labor was his mother’s encouragement …

Tichi: She saw to it that Jack was reading at age four, and he loved reading, and every writer is a reader. So he had the help of librarians at the Oakland Public Library — the family lived in Oakland kind of ricocheting around from one cheap place to live to the next – but the librarians saw this scruffy kid come in with bright eyes and they really helped him.

Peterson: London started a self-education program in his mother’s attic in the boarding house she ran in Oakland, California. He wrote ten to 16 hours a day and sent his manuscripts out to various publications across the country….

Tichi: They came boomeranging right back, but he stayed at it and then he had his breakthrough: he had two stories accepted just about the turn of the 20th century. And one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast very well known publications, The Atlantic Monthly, the Outlook. This was, of course, a time of great apogee of magazines. They were the social media of their time. And then came 1903, The Call of the Wild, which was his breakthrough book, it made him famous.

Peterson: That novel, The Call of the Wild, is taught as an adventure story and about American individualism and freedom. Tichi says it was one where London used an animal allegory to get his point across about the plight of manual laborers and migrant workers at the hands of turn-of-the-century robber barons…

Tichi: Rereading it, one might notice, I noticed, lots of that story is taken up with the era of Buck, the hero, harnessed with other sled dogs. He’s been kidnapped from southern California, actually Palo Alto, he’s crated and he’s shipped up because the Gold Rushers need sled dogs. So he’s dognapped. Then we see him in the harness with the other dogs. They are lashed mercilessly by various mushers, they are under fed and, therefore, malnourished. They are worked until they are exhausted and when a dog’s muscles are depleted completely, it cannot recover, it is, and the quote is “got rid of.” It’s cut loose to die in the snow and ice.

Peterson: Tichi says that, in her opinion, these passages in the novel hearken back to the days when London was a manual laborer, suffering the physical and emotional pain that his hero dog, Buck, and his cohorts endured in the Klondike…

Tichi: I think that that long section of the novel is really about the condition of industrial workers in that first Gilded Age. Jack London’s own, sort of entrapment in the jute mill, in the cannery unable to leave, badly paid, dangerous. And if his muscles, if he’d been injured badly he would have been also “got rid of.” So I think we’re looking at an animal allegory there. Would all readers get it? No, of course not. But some would. And London said his goal was to get into his reader’s mind and change that reader’s thoughts.

Peterson: Another book titled Martin Eden was autobiographical, according to London’s wife. It tells the story of a poor, uneducated sailor who wants to better himself and become a successful writer so he can marry a young, middle-class woman named Rose. He begins an aggressive course of self-education and writing but still has to work to support himself…

Tichi: It’s summertime at a mountain resort. On the cool terrace the guests, in their summer linens and their starched laces, are sipping cool iced drinks and fanning themselves. Meanwhile, in the resort’s laundry, young Martin who’s broke that summer has taken a job as a launderer. He’s working with his boss buddy, Joe. The temperature is over a hundred degrees. They are laundering, starching, ironing, pressing the very clothes that the guests of the resort are wearing up on the terrace. Young Martin has planned on his off hours to read books. He’s brought a lot of books. But the arduousness of the work, toil really, goes on and on and on and all he can do when he’s off is just sort of collapse.

Peterson: The laundry scene is memorable even to those who read the book long ago. Tichi says the contrast between the social set sipping cool drinks on the terrace in their starched linen clothes and Martin and his fellow workers toiling in the hot, steamy laundry was London’s way of making the reader decide which side they were on…

Tichi: Do you really feel comfortable enough in your laundered clothes on your cool terrace enjoying your leisure when those who make it possible for you to have that leisure are virtually enslaved? And, in fact, London did work at steam laundry and one of his friends stopped by to see him and was aghast and said, “Jack, they’ve turned you into a robot. They’ve made you a slave.”

Peterson: Some of London’s contemporaries such as Upton Sinclair in his novel The Jungle and Ida Tarbell in her History of the Standard Oil Company were straightforward in their criticism of the wealthy captains of industry. Tichi says that London decided, instead, to follow the advice of fellow author Stephen Crane…

Tichi: Who said that preaching is fatal to art in literature. Upton Sinclair has that one, classic novel The Jungle. But London needed a steady income stream and he always had his readers in his mind. He had to entertain. Nobody would buy his books, or buy the magazines with his stories unless they had an expectation of amusement, entertainment, something to do in their leisure off hours. His royalties, his income depended upon entertainment. So he knew that only if he touched down, intermittently, spaced out his lessons, could he succeed as a popular author.

Peterson: London’s writing did make him a wealthy man who was wined and dined by the very magnates and society toffs he criticized in his books. Tichi said it didn’t seem to matter much to them, since London was an extremely attractive and charming man that they loved to have at parties. With his money, London bought a ranch in California where he used sustainable farming techniques to raise prize-winning cattle, and planted crops without the use of chemical fertilizers. He was a man ahead of his time, and Tichi says she hopes her book will encourage people to read — or reread — his major novels and rethink their ideas about them and the man who wrote them…

Tichi: I would like us to think that a writer of very popular fiction, who became a kind of celebrity in his time, also was a man of serious purpose reaching a wide audience and advocating reform that, in fact, did come about as the Gilded Age evolved into the Progressive Era and to some of the most progressive legislation of the New Deal. It didn’t happen instantly, but London on the side of fiction was able to stir hearts and minds in a way that a dry report full of statistics couldn’t necessarily do.

Peterson: You can read the story of Jack London and his social activism in Cecelia Tichi’s book, Jack London: A writer’s fight for a better America, in stores and online. She invites listeners to visit her website JackLondonBook.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

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