Jack London: The Darwinian Socialist


Today is the birthday of the great American writer Jack London (1876-1916). I really love early 20th century fiction with its exhilarating mix of then-new social and philosophical ideas, the kaleidoscopic clashes of notions drawn from thinkers like Marx, Darwin, Spencer and Neitzsche. History has put paid to many of the ideas then in circulation, but I can’t help but be envious of the writers living in those optimistic times, when a “better world” seemed possible. London was pretty much a racist and a sexist, which makes him a problematic progressive role model, but I confess to having a working class weakness for writers with his amount of machismo and real life street cred. London had worked in a cannery, on sailing vessels, and in the Klondike as a prospector. And, yes, as a kickass journalist and novelist. And in the positive column, he was also an animal rights activist.

I read Martin Eden, London’s 1909 capitalist kunstlerroman with my gentlemen’s book club a few years back,and it was easily my favorite of the dozens of the books we read. It takes the familiar themes of his tooth-and-nail dog books White Fang and The Call of the Wild read by every school child and gives the struggle more nuance, making his hero (like himself) a sailor obsessed with achieving success as a writer. Unlike London (a socialist) however, Eden wants a fortune in addition to his fame, so that he can win the hand of a wealthy young woman. The melodramatic suicide of its hero seems a symbolic purge of an impulse within himself, almost an exorcism of sorts. Seven years later London himself would be dead at age 40, permanently enshrined in literary history as a “young writer”, a kind of ideal himself. Here, read it! It don’t cost nothin’! Download it here.

Michael O’Shea played London in the eponymous bio-pic in 1943.

In 2016 I had the good fortune to be in Edward Einhorn’s adaptation of London’s dystopian socialist novel The Iron Heel, which sent me down even more of a Londonian rabbit hole. More about the production is here, and if you’re interested in Einhorn’s adaptation, buy it here. I’m in the book!

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