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The Paradox of Jack London

We look at a new biography of “The Call of the Wild” author, Jack London.

Jack London, 1916.  From the Bancroft Library Portrait Collection.

Jack London, 1916. From the Bancroft Library Portrait Collection.

A century of Americans and more have grown up now with the gripping adventure stories of Jack London.

“The Call of the Wild.” “White Fang.” “The Sea-Wolf.” Fierce stories of men and dogs and blood and survival. Of fire and ice.

Fewer know Jack London’s fierce politics. His fiery socialism born of brute childhood poverty in the Gilded Age, back-breaking work for pennies, and the fierce conviction that America should do better by its working class.

A new biography retells the Jack London story. It’s gripping in its own right. We talk all about London’s life and writing.

-Tom Ashbrook


James Haley is author of the award-winning biography “Sam Houston.” His new book is “Wolf: The Lives of Jack London.”  Read an excerpt.

Web extra: Read Jack London’s books, essays, and war writing at “The Jack London Online Collection.”

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  • Joshua Hendrickson

    Jack London is not one of my favorite writers but I do admire him. I loved THE CALL OF THE WILD as a boy, and I recall TO BUILD A FIRE as a powerful story, and my first encounter, I think, with a short story about nature and death that wasn’t supernatural like the stories of Poe. I also give kudos to London for being a socialist; although socialists weren’t nearly as scarce in his day, it was perhaps riskier to a person’s wellbeing than it is today.

  • Gerald Fnord

    Was he racialist? If so, where would he stand in comparison to (to name a famous, racialist, socialist) H.G. Wells…we shouldn’t completely judge a man by modern standards (though he would have insisted that he were a modern man), but it is eminently fair to compare him to people alive at the time.

  • Yar

    I think both hours of today’s show has a common theme.
    Look at the story portrayed in the Book Into the Wild written by Jon Krakauer. Christopher McCandless trying to find himself went off into Alaska wilderness.
    As I said in comments for last hours show the CCC could give a new generation experience to grow up and still be part of our society.
    Our future are in our youth.

  • Katherine jackson

    I don’t get this whole Socialist theme in the speaker’s presentation. Is he being ironic when he speaks of “people sitting on their backside while others work for them?” Is he mocking what he takes to be today’s view of Socialism or subscribing to it? As he point out, Socialism has been a very respectable economic philosophy in this country, especially at times of huge economic disparity. Can’t he be clearer about his view of this, so that this very toxic view of a legitimate approach to economic injustice is not perpetuated?

  • Yar

    No, He is describing the current robber barons on Wall Street who took the labor a generation put into their 401K’s and turned it into 1000 dollar bottles of wine swilled in the restaurants of Manhattan.

    When a gap between the rich and poor become too great the lighting bolt of anarchy strikes everyone.
    We have always had a hybrid economy, part capitalistic part socialistic.
    As the capitalists rob us they claim it is time to end socialism.
    It is time to re-regulate.
    It is time to hold the crooks accountable.

  • Richard Bond

    I thought the book did a nice job describing my own family who were friends of Jack London and inspired his novel “The Call of the Wild”. My greatgrandfather Hiram Bond a judge and his farm in Santa Clara, California are described under the name Judge Miller at the very beginning of the novel. The main character Buck is based on a dog belonging to my grandfather Marshall Latham Bond and his brother Louis Whitford Bond. This photo shows my grandfather holding the dog

    I did not read Haleys book throroughly enough and the other Jack London scholars have pointed out glaring errors that caused them to question the quality of the scholarship.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    This was a fantastic show, great guest. I was in the car and couldn’t get out to shop until you guys stopped. You really did a great job of describing the ups and downs of London’s life.

  • http://onpointradio.org Eric

    I just re-read London’s short story “Lost Face” after 35 years and it blew me away again.

  • http://google R. Nickerson

    A true democracy and a true socialism are both great governments but neither system has ever worked. The United states woould be closer identified as a republic

  • Kathy Schultenover

    I have taught Call of the Wild and J.L. short stories several times. Most students like them. However, what a shame that London is consigned just to the middle school level in the curriculum. He needs to be “discovered” bt the adult reader! Reading this material as an adult, one sees so much more than just wonderful adventure. Here’s to a revision in the American canon about Jack London!

  • Joshua Hendrickson

    R. Nickerson writes:

    “A true democracy and a true socialism are both great governments but neither system has ever worked.”

    This is true enough as far as it goes, but isn’t really fair. Democracy doesn’t work because it is applied to a larger nation than can really support it, and because the level of ignorance in a given society really sabotages the voice of the people by leading them to vote both against their interests and in favor of repellent majority prejudices. Socialism would also be most favored by a small nation (Marx predicted that communism would fail if tried in Russia), and in truth hasn’t been given a good try, although the socialized states in Europe have been pretty successful. Socialism will succeed once it finds a way to placate the worst elements of human nature. Capitalism, of course, not only placates the worst elements of human nature, it encourages them.

  • pw

    Well said, Joshua. Really well said.

    Just want to add that we’re now the most heavily propagandized countries I’ve ever lived in. (Four others, all in Europe.)

  • Isaac K.

    There are a number of problems with this interview. The writer claims that Jack London’s socialism meant

    1.”just giving worker’s a fair shake” on London’s views on the economy I can only supply this quote from revolution:

    “They intend nothing less than to destroy existing capitalist society and to take possession of the whole world…Let me make it concrete. I am a revolutionist.”

    Socialism for Jack London meant complete state control over all private property and the re-direction of all processes towards the meeting of human needs or what he termed the “rational organization of the economy”.

    2a.The Iron Heel does not take place in 1984, that was pure hogwash, it specifically mentions 1910 (2 years after its publication) as a year the characters live through, it is a near future novel (that looks back from a far future socialist society several hundred years hence).

    2b. The Iron Heel isn’t about ‘machines taking over’ whatever that means. It is about the American capitalist class (interchangeably termed ‘oligarchy’ in the book by London) deciding to do away with representative democracy in favor of dictatorship.

    3. The author further says that London wasn’t opposed to capitalism, only unrestrained capitalism, because, after all London thought that capitalism was progressive, and he only sought regulation or some such thing. This does London’s nuanced thought a disservice for the end of sanitizing London to an American audience more hysterical about socialism, it would seem,, than European citizens who lived through communist dictatorships. London’s view on capitalism was essentially Marxist (London repeatedly references Marx in his books), as was common among socialist intellectuals of his time. Namely he believed that capitalism, through the efforts of wage laborers, had allowed the amassing of unequaled amounts wealth, technology, and knowledge–and that the potential of this was completely squandered as it was used to serve private interests.

    Hence, he would recite to audiences statistics on current available housing, food production, and average hours worked and ask why anyone should be going hungry, homeless or unemployed? The obvious answer, to London, being that these items under capitalism have to turn a profit for their owners. Capitalism didn’t need to be restrained, according to London, it needed to be surpassed.

    The author seems well acquainted with the works these come from namely: The Iron Heel, Revolution: and Other Essays, as well as The Human Drift, all of which are available online in their entirety. Without accusing him of being disingenuous, I don’t see how he couldn’t have seen these texts so differently.

  • Expanded Consciousness

    Tom – You really need to tell your guests to stop interrupting you. This program was practically un-listenable.

  • http://www.jameslhaley.com James L. Haley

    In response to recent comments:

    1. I regret talking over the host. Before we went on the air, the technician in Boston complained of feedback and had me turn down my earphones. Tom was all but inaudible to me during the interview, plus he is rather Charlie Rose-ish in asking very extended questions, which left me wondering when he was finished and waiting on me to respond. Oops.

    2. In The Iron Heel, Asgard was completed in 1984. See Chapter XXI. You are very demanding to expect such precise expression in the setting of fast-moving live radio.

    3. As to the “glaring errors,” I was warned when writing the book that there would be those who would have an interest in criticizing it harshly, whatever it said. As I discovered over writing a dozen or so books, “glaring error” often means “I see this differently and I have my own goal to tend.” I console myself with a letter from multiple-Jack London author Dale Walker that the book is, in the main, just fine.

    The Author

  • Expanded Consciousness

    Ha! Charlie Rose-ish. Well, Tom was well-prepared for the interview. Very cool of you to respond. Thanks for coming on the show and for writing the book. Keep literature alive.

  • Roy Merritt

    Capitalism as is now practiced in the United States is a rigged game for the rich and the parasitic corporations that control it and all aspects of American life. One can no longer hold a public office of any consequence unless a wealthy person and the shill of the corporations. War is waged on behalf of the Military Industrial Complex to generate more wealth for these interests while the average citizen is the one who does the fighting and subsequently pays the price for these adventures. The constitution guarantees our rights, but in the long run the only right most Americans have in these wretched times is the right to complain. Socialism at least as it is practiced in some European countries has far more consideration for its citizens than this nation does. They are not obsessed with promoting themselves to the nth degree always declaring how wonderful and great they are and trying to dominate everyone with military power. If you don’t believe me just check out which nations are considered the best place to live. I love America, am a veteran and a civil servant, but the only American exceptionalism I can think of is that we are exceptionally full of ourselves, a nation of braggarts who spout off about freedom while allowing the wealthy to demean our country and destroy the ideals of our founders.

    Roy Merritt
    Wilmington, NC

  • Tom

    I think the thing that most jarred me in this interview was the author describing the moment London was finally pushed over the edge into a strident forthright socialism. When London found out he and his $30 a month pay had been hired to replace two men, each earning $40 a month.

    120 years after that 1890′s Gilded Age depression, and we are right back to that vile age. The people who actually create wealth are getting even less as they work harder to enrich parasites like Paris Hilton.

  • Susan Stuber

    I loved this interview and all the comments, too. Can’t wait to read all the Jack London pieces that were mentioned, plus the biography by Haley. Really liked it that Haley came on to respond to the comment that he interrupted. I actually had to smile during the interview because it is rare that Tom allows a guest to get out of control so to speak. But Haley is obviously just so much in love with his subject that he can hardly contain himself, and his enthusiasm is definitely infectious!
    About socialism vs capitalism: I live in a socialist country, Switzerland, and a phenomenon that I have not seen since I moved here with my Swiss husband in 1971 is that more and more Americans here are applying for Swiss citizenship and never planning to move back to the States–even those who profess to be staunch Republicans! Guess that says it all. I think the main problem for Europe now is NOT to continue copying the USA, to go its own way, just as South America is trying to do now. The problem in the USA now, as one person here noted, is the general level of education and the misinformation put out by the mainstream media–a large section of the population simply has no idea what it is talking about.

  • RichardBond

    I am neutral and grateful for the coverage Haley gives to my family.

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