"No Ties except Those of Blood": Class, Race, and Jack London's American Plague

Article excerpt

Upton Sinclair in The Jungle (1906), a book littered with references to disease--tuberculosis, cholera, spoiled meat and (Sinclair's larger point) the "monstrous disease" of industrial capitalism--permits himself the phrase "the germ of hope" in referring to the prospects of his browbeaten meatpackers (332, 86). It is the lone instance, though, of any word related to growth and carrying a positive connotation. By the turn of the century, the word "germ" was fast losing its ancient agricultural sense and becoming solely a descriptor for dangerous microbes. In 1850, the pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ could still take advantage of the older meaning, as indicated by the discarded name suggestions The Acorn and The Seed. (Its unreproachable subtitle was "Thought Towards Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art.") Fifty years later no arts journal would have considered such a name (Hosmon 9-23). Melville, similarly, could write in the same year that Hawthorne's tales "dropped germinous seeds into my soul" without worrying that his remark could be taken as anything but a compliment (Busch 84). Germ theory--the phrase is first attested in 1871--changed this for good, rendering the word almost exclusively insidious along with its penumbra of metaphors, so that today the cliched "catchy tune" or "contagious laugh" mark rare exceptions. Shakespeare puns on both disease and a beautiful song in Twelfth Night's "contagious breath," but three centuries later, when this had come to be understood as literally true, the subsequent line "very sweet and contagious, i' faith" (2.3.54-55) would seem strange indeed.

Strangeness in many forms marked the early 1900s, as the inexorable demographic and technological changes of the late nineteenth century refashioned the American world. The flood of recent immigrants provided, for many, a human incarnation of this unsettling sense of dislocation, of an America losing its familiar outlines. Questions of American identity began virtually with first contact, but it is especially after 1850, as David Bennett argues, that resident aliens were cast as the "vermin in the garden" of Edenic America, the reason for every falling away from a presumed golden past. "Their very coming and mingling with us," claimed one nativist writer in that year, "diminishes the purity and intelligence and piety we had before. Our moral power is weakened." A House committee opted for less abstraction in 1856, reviling "vicious foreigners ... paupers and criminals ... the dregs and off-scourings of alien peoples" (81-82). Scapegoating by stereotype is a markedly flexible enterprise. Foreigners were widely considered too ignorant to vote but were regularly charged with influencing elections; assumed to be barely capable of manual labor, they were nonetheless suspected of sophisticated schemes to siphon off gold and silver reserves to foreign lands.

Indeed, behind much of this rhetoric was the long-standing American ambivalence over money and class--the latter a concept that our public discourse explicitly rejects, infringing as it does on the part of our national mythos that requires us to ignore boundaries. At the turn of the twentieth century, though, class division, with all its attendant stereotypes and assumptions, was an ongoing project however disguised: the gulf between Gilded Age industrial barons and sweatshop laborers dwarfed today's economic stratification. And in an era of identity crisis, the newly popularized germ theory offered a kind of legitimacy to this classification. It also offered a way to talk about race, another abiding concern of the age, in pseudoscientific terms. Neither class nor race anxieties were new in 1900, but they were acutely felt, and literature and popular culture reflect this. Just as The Jungle gave literary form to the early-twentieth-century discussion of immigration and national identity, so does Jack London's The Scarlet Plague (1915) frame that period's debate over the complicated issues of class- and race-mixing. …


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