First Published: The Masses, July 1917.
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan for marxists.org in 2001.
"Take me this way: a stray guest, a bird of passage, splashing with salt-rimed wings through a brief moment of your life--a rude and blundering bird, used to large airs and great spaces, unaccustomed to the amenities of confined existence."
So he wrote in a letter to me dated Oakland, December 21, 1899, in the twenty-fourth year of his life. A bird of passage, splashing with salt-rimed wings not only through my life but through life itself, and not for a brief moment but for eternity. For who shall say when that of wonder and beauty which was Jack London will pass from the earth? Who that ever knew him can forget him, and how will life ever forget one who was so indissolubly a part of her? He was youth, adventure, romance. He was a poet and a social revolutionist. He had a genius for friendship. He loved greatly and was greatly beloved. But how fix in words that quality of personality that made him different from everyone else in the world? How convey an idea of his magnetism and of the poetic quality of his nature? He is the outgrowth of the struggle and the suffering of the Old Order, and he is the strength and the virtue of all its terrible and criminal vices. He came out of the Abyss in which millions of his generation and the generation preceding him throughout time have been hopelessly lost. He rose out of the Abyss, and he escaped from the Abyss to become as large as the race and to be identified with the forces that shape the future of mankind.
His standard of life was high. He for one would have the happiness of power, of genius, of love, and the vast comforts and ease of wealth. Napoleon and Nietzsche had a part in him, but his Nietszchean philosophy became transmuted into Socialism--the movement of his time--and it was by the force of his Napoleonic temperament that he conceived the idea of an incredible success, and had the will to achieve it. Sensitive and emotional as his nature was, he forbade himself any deviation from the course that would lead him to his goal. He systematized his life. Such colossal energy, and yet he could not trust himself! He lived by rule. Law, Order and Restraint was the creed of this vital, passionate youth. His stint was a thousand words a day revised and typed. He allowed himself only four and one-half hours of sleep and began his work regularly at dawn for years. The nights were devoted to extensive reading of science, history and sociology. He called it getting his scientific basis. One day a week he devoted to the work of a struggling friend. For recreation he boxed and fenced and swam--he was a great swimmer--and he sailed--he was a sailor before the mast--and he spent much time flying kites, of which he had a large collection. Like Zola's, his first efforts were in poetry. This no doubt was the secret of the Miltonic simplicity of his prose which has made him the accepted model for pure English and for style in the universities of this country and at the Sorbonne. He had always wanted to write poetry, but poets proverbially starved--unless they or theirs had independent incomes--so poetry was postponed until that time when his fame and fortune were to have been made. Fame and fortune were made and enjoyed for over a decade, but yet the writing of poetry was postponed, and death came before he had remembered his promise to himself. Death came before he had remembered many other things. He was so hard at work--so pitifully, tragically hard at work, and it was a fixed habit by now. He forgot what he wrote in a letter to me when we were little more than boy and girl:
January 18, 1892.
"As for my not having read Stevenson's letters--my dear child! When the day comes that I have achieved a fairly fit scientific foundation and a bank account of a thousand dollars, then come to be with me when I lie on my back all day long and read, and read, and read, and read.
"The temptation of the books--if you could know! And I hammer away at Spencer and Haeckel and try to forget the joys of the things unread."
The time came when he had that bank account of $1,000 and an assured income of over $60,000 a year in addition, but he did not return to the simple and beautiful existence of the poet and the student of which he had dreamt. He paid the ultimate price for what he received. His success was the tragedy of his life. He mortgaged his brain in order to meet the market demands, and fatigue and over-stimulation led him to John Barleycorn and to the consequent torture of what he called the White Logic. He had written forty-four books. Sometimes a vertigo seized him. What had a strong, normal man to do with labor that involved so puny a tool as the pen? He longed for a man's work. He conceived the idea of cultivating his Valley of the Moon. He would put the money he earned by his pen into a vast agricultural experiment; he would make arid land fertile. He would grow eucalyptus trees and raise horses. That was creative work in a sense that the stories he was writing so prolifically (four books a year) were not creative; he had not time to remember that the same pen that wrote these pot-boilers had written short stories of immortal beauty like "The Odyssey of the North" and "The White Silence," and books of such greatness as "Martin Eden" and "The Call of the Wild," and essays of unparalleled brilliance like those in "The Kempton-Wace Letters," the book we wrote together.
His was not a vulgar quest for riches. In his book "The Game" he explains the psychology of the prize fighter to whom the ring is symbolic of the play and the purpose of life itself. To become inordinately rich through the efforts of his pen was his way of "playing the game." It appealed to his sense of humor and his sense of the dramatic to house members of the I. W. W., Comrades of the Road, or Mexican Revolutionists in a palace. The best was none too good for them or for any man. Not only had the Abyss not been able to swallow him up; the Abyss had risen with him.
Here is a letter written from Oakland, Cal., January 21, 1900:
Do you know, I have the fatal faculty of making friends, and lack the blessed trait of being able to quarrel with them. And they are constantly turning up. My home is the Mecca of every returned Klondiker, sailor or soldier of fortune I ever met. Some day I shall build an establishment, invite them all, and turn them loose upon each other. Such a mingling of castes and creeds and characters could not be duplicated. The destruction would be great.
"However, I am so overjoyed at being free that I cannot be anything but foolish. I shall, with pitfall and with gin, beset the road my visitors do wander in; and among other things, erect a maxim rapid-fire gun just within my front door. The sanctity of my fireside shall be inviolate. Or, should my heart fail me, I'll run away to the other side of the world."
This is exactly what he did in Glen Ellen, in beautiful Sonoma Valley, California. He built a mansion, surrounded by fifteen hundred acres, where he kept open house, and when his heart failed him he did run away to the other side of the world. He went to the South Sea Islands and to Hawaii. He made the memorable and extraordinary cruise of the Snark, purporting to be away from the world for seven years.
Only a youth as intense as his could feel as deeply as he did the flight of time, and so eagerly hoard the hours. Life was very short. One should have no time to dally. It was his working creed. It had been given to him to see so much of life. Child of the people that he was, he had never had a childhood. He had early seen struggle and been forced to struggle. He thought himself "harsh, stern, uncompromising." Of course he was not. It is only that he had few illusions, and that the sensitive nature of childhood and youth had suffered at what he had beheld in the Abyss and beyond. This suffering and this reaction against what is called organized society, but is in reality a chaotic jungle, became the basis of his world philosophy.
The following is from a letter written December 21, 1899:
"Life is very short. The melancholy of materialism can never be better expressed than by Fitzgerald's 'O Make Haste!' One should have no time to daily. And further, should you know me, understand this: I, too, was a dreamer, on a farm, nay, a California ranch. But early, at only nine, the hard hand of the world was laid upon me. It has never relaxed. It has left me sentiment, but destroyed sentimentalism. It has made me practical, so that I am known as harsh, stern, uncompromising. It has taught me that reason is mightier than imagination; that the scientific man is superior to the emotional man. It has also given me a truer and a deeper romance of things, an idealism which is an inner sanctuary and which must be resolutely throttled in dealings with my kind, but which yet remains within the holy of holies, like an oracle, to be cherished always but to be made manifest or to be consulted not on every occasion I go to market. To do this latter would bring upon me the ridicule of my fellows and make me a failure. To sum up, simply the eternal fitness of things."
Sincerity was the greatest trait of his character. He never made pretensions and he built neither his work nor his life on sophisms and evasions. If literature is marketable and had a price and he put the products of his brain for sale, then he could not stoop to pretend that he was following art for art's sake and was not writing for money. But it would not be seemly and according to "the eternal fitness of things" to offer wares for which society would not pay him lavishly. If you make yourself marketable at all, you must also be indispensable. With the cold-bloodedness of the "economic man" which he claimed to be, he set to work to achieve this. In those days Marie Corelli was perhaps the most financially successful novelist. He threatened to study her art in order to discover just those qualities which made her success inevitable and to make them a part of himself. In all this he was frank, and by his avowal of his program and his object he invited from his friends haranguing and attack. Many set themselves up to be better than he, who were in reality only envious of his strength of purpose.
The following letter bears this out:
962 East 16th St.,
February 3, 1900.
"Saturday night, and I feel good. Saturday night, and a good week's work done--hack work, of course. Why shouldn't I? Like any other honest artisan by the sweat of my brow. I have a friend who scorns such work. He writes for posterity, for a small circle of admirers, oblivious to the world's oblivion, doesn't want money, scoffs at the idea of it, calls it filthy, damns all who write for it, etc., etc.,--that is, he does all this, if one were to take his words for criteria. But I received a letter from him recently. Munsey's had offered to buy a certain story of him, if he would change the ending. He had built the tale carefully, every thought tending toward the final consummation, notably, the death by violence of the chief character. And they asked him to keep the tale and to permit that character, logically dead, to live. He scorns money. Yes; and he permitted that character to live. 'I fell,' is the only explanation he has vouchsafed for his conduct."
From overwork and from turning art into a toilsome trade, the natural reaction set in, and he, the most generous of natures, was often obsessed by a kind of cynicism. His soul was sick with all the adulation which his success brought him. Why had these people, now eager to flatter him, not seen what was in him before he was "discovered"? A story for which he had received five dollars from the Overland Monthly and which had not brought him a word of praise from anybody, suddenly became great when it was found between the stiff covers of a book. So he held lightly the praise and the kindness of people, and he suffered from a melancholy which made him question not only the worth of the world but of life itself. He had achieved so much, only to find it was not worth having. There was no intrinsic value in anything. He suffered from melancholia. He was obsessed by suicidal ideas. As with Tolstoy, there was a time when he kept a loaded revolver in his desk ready to use it against himself at any time.
January 5, 1902.
"I look back and remember, at one in the morning, the faces I saw go wan and wistful--do you remember? Or did you notice?--and I wonder what all the ferment is about.
"I dined yesterday on canvasback and terrapin, with champagne sparkling and all manner of wonderful drinks I had never before tasted warming my heart and brain, and I remembered the sordid orgies and carouses of my youth. We were ill-clad, ill-mannered beasts, and the drink was cheap and poor and nauseating. And then I dreamed dreams, and pulled myself up out of the slime to canvasback and terrapin and champagne, and learned that it was solely a difference of degree which art introduced into the fermenting."
It was in his twenty-sixth year that he began to sign all his letters "Yours for the Revolution" and thousands in this country and in the countries across the sea took up the phrase. He had served the revolutionary cause from his earliest youth. He had talked Socialism on street corners and had addressed the regular Sunday night meetings at the "Locals." He had let his name stand on the Socialist political ticket for school director and for mayor, and when he became famous he came East and lectured, choosing Socialist subjects. In a letter dated February 12, 1908, he says: "Back again after four months of lecturing. I rattled the dry bones some. Spoke at Yale, Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago, and a lot of speeches for the Socialist Party." He was a Revolutionist. "The imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delight for me. It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars to work, we'll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead, its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then we'll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind, in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean, noble and alive."
They have toppled it over in Russia, and how sad it is that Jack London should have passed into the silence, out of the sight of the red banners waving over a free people and out of the reach of the voices of millions singing the International!
He wrote "The People of the Abyss," a story of the London slums. It was on the occasion of his first visit to Europe. He did not even go to see his publishers. He dropped out of sight and lost himself in the abyss of human misery, and the result was the strongest indictment against modern society written in our time, a "Les Miserables" in sociological form. To do this he compelled himself to live as a slum dweller. He cut himself off from his money and walked the streets seeking employment, starving and homeless.
London, August 25, 1902.
"Saturday night I was out all night with the homeless ones, walking the streets in the bitter rain, and, drenched to the skin, wondering when dawn would come. Sunday I spent with the homeless ones, in the fierce struggle for something to eat. I returned to my rooms Sunday evening, after thirty-six hours continuous work and short one night's sleep. To-day I have composed, typed and revised 4,000 words and over. I have just finished. It is one in the morning. I am worn out and exhausted and my nerves are blunted with what I have seen and the suffering it has cost me."
And again: "I am made sick by this human hellhole called London Town."
He had social wisdom. He understood the class struggle and he believed in the international organization of the people. He understood that international humanity in our present evolution had only one enemy, which was international capitalism, and that economic and social forces in society were clarifying the minds of the people and strengthening their hearts and investing them with weapons with which to give successful combat to their enemy. Society was a battlefield upon which were ranged in conflict the forces of the people against the oppressors and exploiters of the people. His place was in the ranks of the people. His success and his genius did not exempt him from bearing revolutionary arms. They were only proof of the basic truth of social democracy, of the force of environment, of the fiction of blood and aristocracy. He had faith and vision and the courage not to be overawed by the mighty of this world.
R. M. S. "Majestic,"
July 31 '02.
"I sailed yesterday from New York at noon. A week from to-day I shall be in London. I shall then have two days in which to make my arrangements and sink down out of sight in order to view the Coronation from the standpoint of the London beasts. That's all they are--beasts--if they are anything like the slum people of New York--beasts, shot through with stray flashes of divinity.
"I meet the men of the world in Pullman coaches, New York clubs, and Atlantic liner smoking rooms, and, truth to say, I am made more hopeful for the Cause by their total ignorance and non-understanding of the forces at work. They are blissfully ignorant of the coming upheaval, while they have grown bitterer and bitterer towards the workers. You see, the growing power of the workers is hurting them and making them bitter while it does not open their eyes."
He wrote an essay called "What Life Means to Me" which takes its place with Kropotkin's "Appeal to the Young" and Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," and its closing sentence rings with his faith in the rise of the common man. "The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending."
I am attempting a difficult and marvelous thing when I attempt to write of the youth of one so young as Jack London! One has to speak of him in terms of feeling rather than thought and no one understands better than he how difficult that is. I quote from a letter dated--
962 East 10th St.,
December 27, 1899.
"Thinkers do not suffer from lack of expression; their thought is their expression. Feelers do. It is the hardest thing in the world to put feeling, and deep feeling, into words. From the standpoint of expression, it is easier to write a 'Das Capital' in four volumes than a simple lyric of as many stanzas."
He flaunted his physical bases. He was an idealist without any illusions. He was avid for truth, for justice, and he found little of it at hand. He was an individualist who was consecrated to the cause of mankind. As long as he lived he would strip the veils from truth and be a living protest against all the evils and injustices of society.
967 East 16th St.,
January 11, 1900.
"The highest and the best had been stamped out of me. You know my life, typified mayhap by the hastily drawn picture of the forcastle. I was troubled. Groping after shadows, mocking, disbelieving, giving my own heart the lie oftentimes, doubting that which every doubt made me believe. And for all, I was a-thirst. Stiff-necked, I flaunted my physical basis, hoping that the clear water might gush forth. But not then, for there I played the barbarian."
What was this "physical basis" which he flaunted in those days? He justified war. He said that as long as we accepted the aid of a policeman and the light of a street lamp from a society that legalized capital punishment, we had no right to attack capital punishment. He believed in the inferiority of certain races and talked of the Anglo-Saxon people as the salt of the earth. He inclined to believe in the biological inferiority of woman to man, for had he not watched women and men at the Piedmont Baths and had the women not shivered on the brink of the swimming pool, "not standing up straight under God!" He believed that right made might. He fled from civilization and systematically avoided it. He bad a barbarian's attitude toward death, holding himself ready to go at any time, with total indifference to his fate. He held that love is only a trap set by nature for the individual. One must not marry for love but for certain qualities discerned by the mind. This he argued in "The Kempton-Wace Letters" brilliantly and passionately; so passionately as to again make one suspect that he was not as certain of his position as he claimed to be. Later, Jack became the most mellow of thinkers, as passionately promulgating his new ideas as he had then assailed them. He now believed in romantic love, he had helped in the agitation for woman suffrage and was jubilant over its success in California. He was now an absolute internationalist and anti-militarist. He now laughed at himself when he recalled how in the Russian-Japanese War he had been on the Russian side although all Socialists wanted Russia beaten for the sake of the revolutionary movement. The Russians were white men and the Japanese were not. He had looked on a wounded Russian foot and had felt the thrill of "consciousness of kind." It was a white foot, a foot like his own. He made his loathing of capital punishment the theme of his most ambitious book, "The Star Rover." And his former belief in sensation for the sake of sensation, leading him to experiment with drugs and drink, he repudiated in his classic, "John Barleycorn." He had come far --he had come out on the other side of everything he had before adhered to, as all who knew him were convinced that he would.
I see him in pictures, steering his bicycle with one hand and with the other clasping a great bunch of yellow roses which he had just gathered out of his own garden, a cap moved back on his thick brown hair, the large blue eyes with their long lashes looking out star-like upon the world--an indescribably virile and beautiful boy, the kindness and wisdom of his expression somehow belying his youth.
I see him lying face down among the poppies and following with his eyes his kites soaring against the high blue of the California skies, past the tops of the giant sequoias and eucalyptus which he so dearly loved.
I see him becalmed, on "The Spray," the moon rising behind us, and hear him rehearse his generalizations made from his studies in the watches of the night before of Spencer and Darwin. His personality invested his every movement and every detail of his life with an alluring charm. One took his genius for granted, even in those early years when he was struggling with all his unequalled energies to impress himself upon the world.
I see him seated at his work when the night is hardly over, and it seems to me that the dawn greets and embraces him, and that he is part of the elements as other less generic natures are not. [ see him on a May morning leaning from the balustrade of a veranda sweet with honeysuckle, to watch two humming birds circling around each other in their love ecstasy. He was a captive of beauty--the beauty of bird and Bower, of sea and sky and the icy vastness of the Arctic world. No one could echo more truthfully the "Behold, I have lived" of Richard Hovey, with which he closed the essay which sums up his world philosophy, "Human Drift."
"Behold, I have lived!"
He lived not only in the wide spaces of the earth, under her tropic suns and in her white frozen silences, with her children of happiness and with her miserable ones, but he lived in the thought always of life and death, and in the timeless and boundaryless struggle of international socialism.