Jack London: a Man of Our Times?

Jack London: A Man of Our Times?

Nearly 100 years ago, Jack London fought for the lower class, bringing attention to the wide disparities between the rich and the poor. Now, nearly 100 years later, much of his cause has gone unresolved. With our markets in bearish trends, and our middle class eroding by the day because of soaring fuel costs, 2010 looks to be a lot like 1910. Jack London would be appalled at out current situation. If we look at his cause, we can see a parallel between then and now. We can really appreciate what he has done to give the poor a voice; and take note of it for modern times.

Jack London was born into lower class backgrounds in San Francisco, CA in 1876. His father was a disabled civil war veteran, and his mother a common house wife. He was primarily raised by an ex-slave, Virginia Prentiss. He attended grade school in Oakland for a brief time. After grade school, he was primarily self-educated. He taught himself to read and write at the public library. It was there that he came across his literary inspiration: Signa. It was about a young peasant child who rose from poverty to become a famous opera composer.

As a teen, he spent much of his time sailing the Pacific to make money. He eventually made enough to attend High School. After graduating, he went to Berkeley, but was forced to drop out due to financial restraints. This forced him to seek work in the gold mines, where he wrote his first stories. Eventually he wrote his first book: Martin Eden.

It was published. He wrote more books after his first success, most notably The Call of the Wild. Eventually, he became wealthy, a staple in the upper echelon of society. Only, he realized that his new life was no more glamorous than his old, and committed suicide at the age of 40.

As a member of the upper class, Jack found a voice in politics and social affairs. As a journalist and novelist he exposed the life of the average poverty stricken American. He also joined the Socialist Working Party in 1896. In his fiction novel The Iron Heel, he showed parallels between the rich of his time and the Oligarchies who stomped out the middle class. Though fictitious, his novel rings true, and not only back then. Much like Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, Jack wrote his own depiction of first hand accounts of poverty. His account based in London, England as opposed to New York was entitled The People of the Abyss.

Aside from writing about the social class problems, he often gave speeches to further his cause. While touring the U.S. as a member of the Socialist party, he published essays about his findings. Two of the most notable were The War of the Classes and Revolution, and Other Essays. A man once from the lower class himself, he took pride in bringing attention to the needs of the poor.

Unfortunately, the Socialist party would never become a staple in our political system, as the Cold war and other problems distorted much of our views concerning socialistic values. Jack London (also a communist sympathizer) gave money to the revolutionaries who killed off the Czar and his family amidst Bloody Sunday. He called those people his “brothers.” These brothers eventually turned Russia into a communist dictatorship. Jack London never saw this happen. The heart of his cause died out with the greed that exists in all human beings, regardless of political beliefs.

With his main ingredient for change an utter failure, why are his achievements in journalism and politics so important to us now? Aside from his political beliefs, Jack London’s problems exist now as well. There is no significant voice for the poor. Sure, many of us pick up the ladles in soup kitchens on Thanksgiving, and when it counts, but how much are you really doing? This is not even about the poor any more. It is our middle class that is slowly eroding into the poor house.

This year is an election year, the economy is a key issue. This issue was essential to Jack London as well. However, with the complete elimination of any socialist party, millions spent on campaigns, and bribes from lobbyists on both sides of the political spectrum, it would not be far off to say Jack London would not vote at all. In fact, he probably would not even stay here in the U.S. I decided to show a few people who Jack London was. I gave Ryan, a student from Albany University a look into his life socially, and politically. “I think he would move to a country like France maybe”, he says. France is a country in which Jack’s socialist views have taken a strong hold in a democratic forum. This seems to be a very accurate guess. However, it is unfortunate our government will never mimick or mock that of western Europe’s social democracies.

So, with the gap between our classes widening, we need to look back at the times before the middle class. We need to look to Jack London, a man who lived the American dream, but was still unhappy because there was so many who could not live his dream. We live in a society built on cheap gas and free markets. There will never be a democracy like France (one that Jack London would find appealing). Yet, we can still see Jack London’s voice as reason to give the underprivileged a chance to speak, and not just in the election years. Regardless of who is elected, there is a good chance that the poor will remain poor, the middle class will remain at the lower or upper ends of the medium, and the rich will remain rich. It is us, fellow Americans who need to create change from the bottom up. So long as Jack London’s cause remains important, his message remains important, more important than any of our own selfish needs.

Mary Kate


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