Jack London—socialist agitator, rancher, and, oh yes, writer: an illuminating study of a literary figure long receded into stereotype.
Tichi’s (English and American Studies/Vanderbilt Univ.; Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us), 2009, etc.) resurrection of London and her elevation of him from writer of hoary Arctic tales for children to wizened philosopher of the barricades is certainly timely. He lived in the first Gilded Age, a time “undershot with stupendous wealth inequality, cycles of joblessness…and an imperial global presence that brought indigenous populations to heel while exploiting their natural resources.” Though London was a marquee writer whose work elevated him from want to wealth, he remained true to his working-class roots and never surrendered his vision of an America reformed to allow for a greater share for all. He conveyed this vision in sometimes heavy-handed ways, as with his late novel The Iron Heel (1908), but Tichi credits him for displaying “a certain subtlety.” London’s message rings true in such books as White Fang (1906) but never at the expense of a walloping good story. Tichi traces the growth of London’s activism as he moved from place to place, especially when he visited the South Pacific and saw predatory capitalism at work undisguised: “In boyhood he had seen the flags of distant nations flying from the masts along the Oakland waterfront….Many of those flags signified political, corporate, and military power, and the word for that nexus was ‘imperialism.’ ” Tichi also limns a London who was far more evolved than the square-jawed prizefighter and adventurer of legend, a sophisticated political thinker who brought immense learning to bear—not least on his work establishing what today we would call an organic farm not far from San Francisco, building a vast working knowledge of agriculture, construction, irrigation, and other fields.
A fruitful, well-written blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and biography. Now the only question is, where’s the Jack London of today?