Book Review: ‘Jack London: The Man, the Writer, the Rebel’

A Problematic Friend

‘Jack London: The Man, the Writer, the Rebel’ by Robert Barltrop. Pluto Press, £4.50 hardback (illustrated).

Anyone undertaking a biography of Jack London is assuming a task that appears larger than life. More like a legend than a man and the image of the adventure stories that in part made him famous, London has an appeal that few stories can match.

Inevitably such a man is full of contradictions and to some extent these are left unexplained: London’s desire to be accepted by the society members he despised; his racial hatred of the Japanese yet his ability to call Japanese revolutionaries his “brothers”; his extreme generosity and yet his overwhelming desire for money, and other inconsistencies. But Robert Barltrop does manage a reasonably rounded whole. Dealing with London’s life in chronological order, he starts with a poor and rough beginning, wild adventures, his yearnings to write and his urge to consume literature, his early disappointments, and the almost fairy-tale rise to popular prominence. His political development until this stage is also carefully documented, and we see the conversion of the protester into an allegedly Socialist propagandist.

Alongside this are developed the personal characteristics which were to destroy him: above all the feelings that whatever he did had to be done better than anyone else, including drinking. The success years are catalogued with much sympathetic detail; in particular the visit to London and the writing of The People of the Abyss. This extraordinary description of the people living in slums at the turn of the century (“I am made sick by this human hellhole called the East End”) is described as the only truly sincere book he wrote. His divorce and instant remarriage caused a scandal which affected his book sales as the press turned on him. With a truly remarkable strength of will London battled on, writing, indulging in extravagant schemes, madly building boats and houses and travelling with his second wife. The rather pathetic decline is then explained: the burning down of an engine that had been ready to take on the world, and the ultimate futile death, probably by suicide.

Writing poured out of London as drink poured into him, excessively. A great merit of this book is making the criticism of London’s literary output readable in itself and illustrative of the intellectual progress of the man. Against such a vivid background there is little danger that the more “academic” parts of the book are going to turn boring. The writer gives telling criticisms of London’s writings and politics. He gives a very full analysis of The Iron Heel, London’s most successful (in terms of continuing sales) political story. Rejecting the usual viewpoint—including Trotsky’s—that the book predicts the rise of fascism, he claims that by the time London wrote it he had virtually rejected Socialist ideas. Depressed at finding that the revolution was not coming as quickly as expected, he confirmed his ultimate fallacy, the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race and the crude representation of the theories of Darwin.

Barltrop suggests that London never really got to grips with the essentials of Marxian economics, and describes The Iron Heel as London’s argument why Socialism could not come about in the foreseeable future. Despite his lectures on Socialism, donations for the cause, etc., London was “without understanding of how society works; the virile combative imagery was the guise of smatterings”. The writer concludes that The Iron Heel was not far from being an anti-Socialist work. One might make the same condemnation of London himself.

Despite praise for a most unusual literary figure, London’s lack of understanding condemns him to the category of those who have chased the rainbow of illusion and helped others to indulge in the same fruitless escapade. London was a man with a passion against much of what was (and is) wrong in society. Yet his failures illustrate that it is not sufficient merely to be a very angry young man; knowledge of both cause and solution is required. Despite London’s ability to study nineteen hours a day, he chose easy paths and skimped understanding. He always found studying “easy”, but the techniques he had used for passing exams and beating the bourgeois whom he despised (hasty cramming and superficial answers) are totally inappropriate for comprehension of Capital and its conclusions.

The writer’s summary of London life is: “Its various aspects are of a personality whose strengths and weaknesses alike were invited to over-expression by the hurly-burly of the time. It is possible to regard them all and still feel affection as for a problematic friend.” When the Workers’ Socialist Party (forerunner of our companion party the WSP of America) was formed and wrote to London just before his death with a copy of their manifesto, his reply (according to Barltrop his last political statement) was that he wished them well but could not involve himself. Therein lies the consummating summary of all those who spend their lives in the bitterness of opposition to capitalism but have failed to take the necessary steps to understand the cause of their fury. The political actions of such people, like those of Jack London, are doomed to impotence.

The biography — which makes several mentions of SPGB members — is an excellent illustration of that fundamental lesson. As Marx wrote of Proudhon (in a letter to P. V. Annenkov in 1846): “a man who has not understood the present state of society may be expected to understand still less the movement which is tending to overthrow it, and the literary expression of this revolutionary movement.”

Ronnie Warrington

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