The Nonfiction of Jack London
By Daniel J. Wichlan
My passion for Jack London and his work was born on my tenth birthday when my father presented me with a collection of London's short stories. I vividly remember staying awake all that night reading "To Build a Fire", "A Piece of Steak", "Samuel" and other stories. Since that time, I have read and reread his complete fiction many times. Years later, having exhausted the fiction and having become obsessively curious about Jack London, the man, I began to read everything about him and by him that I had not already read. It became my superordinate goal to read every word that London had written. What I had not already read consisted primarily of his nonfiction. My curiosity was further piqued by the fact that the complete nonfiction had not been previously collected and its extent was the subject of widely varying speculation. Finally, it occurred to me that the collected complete nonfiction would be a surrogate for the autobiography that London had planned to write but never did. (London had intended to call his autobiography "Sailor on Horseback" which Irving Stone later "borrowed" for the title of his London biography.) My passion for London and the challenge of identifying and collecting his complete nonfiction combined to inspire me to spend much of my discretionary time over the last twenty-four years on this mission. I may very well be the only person who has read every word that Jack London wrote for publication.
The scope of my research included thousands of publications and dozens of libraries, archives and private collections. I soon discovered works that did not appear in any of the existing bibliographies. This lead me to research newspaper files in cities across the United States and around the world that London had visited. This research yielded articles that were not otherwise available and some that were not previously documented. This research also raised the question as to when all of the nonfiction has been identified. My claim may sound boastful, but the rigors of my research have yielded nothing new during the past few years, such that I am highly confident that I have identified very nearly all of the nonfiction, if not all of it.
Another of the difficulties in compiling London's complete nonfiction is the curious fact that many of his articles were reprinted under different titles. An extreme case of this is London's essay on surfing in Hawaii which was originally published as "Riding the South Sea Surf" in the October, 1907 edition of Woman's Home Companion and which was subsequently reprinted under six different titles ("Joys of the Surf Rider", "Surfing at Waikiki", 'A Royal Sport", "Psychology of the Surf Board", "Learning to Ride the Surf Board", and "Taming the Monsters"). In fact, there are a total of 230 articles that are reprints of original works under variant titles. Therefore, after collecting works by London, a critical step became cross-referencing the content. Great care was required here, because many of the reprinted works with variant titles are excerpts from the original work and a paragraph by paragraph or even a sentence by sentence comparison was often required to identify duplicate content. Although London was a prolific writer, he was less prolific, with his nonfiction, than he first appears because of this practice of reprinting under different titles.
The nonfiction of Jack London represents a significant, although neglected, segment of his work. "Significant" because it consists of over 500 articles, essays, lectures, public letters and other categorizations that address a variety of important social and political issues of his day and ours -- labor laws, unionism, equal rights for women, divorce, child rearing, prison reform, capital punishment, war, racism, population control, conservation, animal rights, poverty, homelessness, addiction, epidemic disease, political reform, religion, capitalism and socialism. "Neglected" because over half of the articles have not been collected or reprinted.
The significance of London's nonfiction extends to the insight, which it provides into the schema of his fiction. London's nonfiction also demonstrates the breadth and depth of his thinking and his versatility as a writer. His nonfiction allows us to more clearly interpret his ideas as they emerge through his fiction. The nonfiction also provides a historical context for much of the fiction. Not only does the nonfiction portray socialism during its most influential period, but it also delineates the American psyche during one of the most volatile transitions in our history.
In addition to the categories mentioned above, I have identified and collected over 100 newspaper interviews of London that constitute a special segment of his nonfiction — words spoken for publication as opposed to words written for publication. The interviews include: "How to Get Thirty Cents a Word for What You Write"; "Novelist Tells Journal's Readers How to Write Novel"; "American Fiction Lacking in Courage"; and "Jack London's Call of the Wild Draws Him to Poetry and Song". Interviews such as these are very significant in providing insight to London's philosophy of writing.
The first of these interviews, "How to Get Thirty Cents a Word for What You Write", is of interest because it illustrates the dichotomy under which London labored. In the interview, London talks about how to be commercially successful while implying his own dissatisfaction with that success. In "Novelist Tells Journal's Readers How to Write Novel", he sarcastically talks about a formula approach to commercial writing. In "American Fiction Lacking in Courage", London surveys some of his contemporary writers and literary critics and criticizes them for selecting and praising "safe" themes that avoid the difficult social issues of the day. In the last of these listed interviews, "Jack London's Call of the Wild Draws Him to Poetry and Song", he talks about his passion for poetry and song and how his use of language and descriptions in his masterpiece, The Call of the Wild, are influenced by this passion. He goes on to say that he hopes that the success of this book will enable him to devote more time to poetry and song writing. His proclivity for poetry and song is even more evident in his parallel and later written novel, White Fang, in which there is much more lyricism. Individually and collectively, these interviews enhance our understanding of London's philosophy of writing and provide insight to his inner conflict between meaningful writing and "hack" work and his love-hate relationship with the reading public of his day. These interviews and others pieces of the nonfiction provide a philosophical framework for the fiction.
Again, in John Barleycorn, as in the interview mentioned above, London tells us that poetry was his second love, music being the first. (Writing fiction actually ranked fourth after nonfiction philosophic, economic, and political essays.) He early decided that pursuing a career writing poetry and music was not economically feasible. (My research also identified 53 poems and the lyrics to five songs that London had written.) The lack of a commercial motivation is common to much of London's nonfiction writing as well as his poetry. Because the nonfiction and poetry were less influenced by the demands of the marketplace and because they are more closely aligned with London's creative instinct, they reveal more about the man and the writer. Therefore, reading both the fictional and nonfictional segments of his work is essential to fully understanding him intellectually, emotionally and artistically.
Although London's nonfiction does contain its share of commercial writing (e.g. The Cruise of the Snark collection, which was written primarily to finance his world cruise and the Hearst newspaper articles) as a body of work it contains some of his strongest convictions, purest philosophy, and most passionately articulated thoughts. He stated that he put more of himself into The People of the Abyss than any of his other books; many consider this book his best nonfiction work. London frequently wrote his nonfiction without any expectation of financial gain and, sometimes, with the threat of financial loss; consider the Revolution collection which was published over the protest of his publisher who was concerned that its publication would damage London's reputation with his reading public.
Another work, which demonstrates the conviction behind London's nonfiction, is his introduction to Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman. Although London supported in principle the social and political reform that Berkman proposed in his book, he disagreed with some of the anarchist strategies that Berkman proposed. Therefore, when Berkman asked London to write an introduction, London, wanting to be supportive, agreed; but, in his introduction, he made clear his concerns over the means proposed such that Berkman asked him to revise the text. London refused and his introduction was not used. London later wrote a preface to this introduction in which he recorded his disappointment with the reaction of Berkman and other socialist leaders to his comments. This may have been the prelude to his resignation from the Socialist Party.
The nonfiction not only traces the development of London's politics but also some of his basic values and philosophy. London has been often called a racist. His was not an "Immaculate Conception" and, having grown up in the working class of the Oakland waterfront, he reflected many of the prejudices of that society. It is no surprise that he wrote the racially biased "Salt of the Earth" essay in 1901. However, his 1915 article, "Language of the Tribe", is very much in contrast to this early work. In this article, he proposes founding the Pan-Pacific Club in Hawaii where people of all races can come together to exchange ideas, better understand each other and realize a synergy through their diversity. London's thinking regarding race had changed dramatically as he educated himself and as he traveled throughout the world. London's nonfiction tells us exactly where he stood on the issue of race at different periods of his life. One does not have to interpret the dialogue of fictional characters to make this determination.
As noted above, in John Barleycorn London tells us that writing fiction was of less importance to him than writing nonfictional philosophic, economic, and political essays. Therefore, it is no coincidence that London's fiction was often at its best when it had a nonfictional basis — Martin Eden is a prime example of this. Even The Call of the Wild, which many consider to be his masterpiece, draws heavily upon his personal experiences in the Yukon. Contrariwise, his "second-hand" fiction (that based on newspaper accounts or plots which he purchased) tends to be his poorest. The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., which he struggled to finish and finally abandoned, is a good example of his lack of inspiration when his writing was not based on his own personal reality. Given London's preference and passion for fact or experiential based writing, it follows that, not only does the nonfiction provide a broader basis on which to assess him as a writer, but also that the nonfiction provides a different and more personal perspective of him as an individual. Therefore, the reading of this body of work provides both a more rigorous framework for interpreting his art and craft and a basis for understanding his psyche.
The nonfiction can be classified into six broad categories. The first of these is literary works consisting of articles and letters about writers and the art and craft of writing; book reviews; and book introductions. The second category relates to political writings largely, but not exclusively, about socialism. The third category focuses on social reform issues such as divorce, child labor, euthanasia, etc. The fourth category is made up of essays relating personal experiences mostly based on his travels. The fifth category is comprised of London's war correspondence and other war related works. The sixth, and last category, consists of sports reporting and other writing about sports including boxing, hunting, football, horseback riding and surfing. Generally, works in the literary, political, social reform and war correspondence categories are less commercial in their orientation than the travel and sports related works and the conviction and passion with which they were written are more evident.
I have long struggled to find a publisher for the complete nonfiction with little success to date. In part this is due to the large volume of text involved — an estimated nine to ten standard size volumes. In order to make the rarer works available to London scholars and aficionados without further delay, I have decided to publish the previously unpublished works and selected uncollected works on the Jack London website so as to reach the largest portion of the Jack London community in the shortest amount of time.
The nonfiction contains a handful of unpublished works that document the genesis of London's social conscience. Two interesting examples are the essays "Principals of the Republican Party" and "Telic Action and Collective Stupidity" which will now be published here for the first time in the first of a series of articles that will publish and discuss previously unpublished and uncollected works by London.
Copyright © 2005 by Dan Wichlan
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