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

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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