Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography

Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography

Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography

Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography

Synopsis

Jack London (1876-1916), known for his naturalistic and mythic tales, remains among the most popular and influential American writers in the world. Jack London's Racial Lives offers the first full study of the enormously important issue of race in London's life and diverse works, whether set in the Klondike, Hawaii, or the South Seas or during the Russo-Japanese War, the Jack Johnson world heavyweight bouts, or the Mexican Revolution. Jeanne Campbell Reesman explores his choices of genre by analyzing racial content and purpose and judges his literary artistry against a standard of racial tolerance. Although he promoted white superiority in novels and nonfiction, London sharply satirized racism and meaningfully portrayed racial others--most often as protagonists--in his short fiction.

Why the disparity? For London, racial and class identity were intertwined: his formation as an artist began with the mixed "heritage" of his family. His mother taught him racism, but he learned something different from his African American foster mother, Virginia Prentiss. Childhood poverty, shifting racial allegiances, and a "psychology of want" helped construct the many "houses" of race and identity he imagined. Reesman also examines London's socialism, his study of Darwin and Jung, and the illnesses he suffered in the South Seas.

With new readings of The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, and many other works, such as the explosive Pacific stories, Reesman reveals that London employed many of the same literary tropes of race used by African American writers of his period: the slave narrative, double-consciousness, the tragic mulatto, and ethnic diaspora. Hawaii seemed to inspire his most memorable visions of a common humanity.

Excerpt

Jack London’s works reveal contradictions that characterized his life and art. London (1876–1916), who remains one of the most widely read of American writers, expresses the social, intellectual, and artistic turbulence of the turn of the twentieth century through his competing sympathies with socialism, Darwinism, social Darwinism, and Nietzschean individualism; his startling combinations of urban settings and characters with the pastoral or exotic; and his dual identity as a “literary” writer of the emerging naturalist school and a mass-market phenomenon. Yet none of the author’s “contradictions” is more important to understanding his work than his attitudes about race—and how they contributed to his understanding of himself as an author.

Race is part of nearly everything important in London’s writings and continues to shape, both positively and negatively, his popular and critical reception. It is a constant subject from an early pair of tales set in Japan, “Sakaicho, Hona Asi, and Hakadaki” (1895) and “O Haru” (1897), to his last story, “The Water Baby” (1916), set in Hawai‘i. The Klondike tales are peopled with domineering white men and resistant Indians; the semiautobiographical Martin Eden (1909) addresses class differences in terms of racial passing; The Valley of the Moon (1913) tracks competing racial groups that settle California; newspaper dispatches from Korea during the Russo-Japanese War and coverage of the Jack Johnson world heavyweight prizefights invoke and challenge popular stereotypes; and late South Seas and Hawaiian fictions critique Western colonialism, attempting to reenvision the Pacific for U.S. audiences using Polynesian mythologies instead of colonial myths of Western dominance. London is among the first U.S. Pacific Rim writers, as his vision of race largely takes place on the vast stage of Oceania’s seas, islands, coasts, mountains, gold fields, plantations, farms, and cities, wherever its diverse groups struggled for survival.

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