Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Way Our People Came": Citizenship, Capitalism and Racial Difference in 'The Valley of the Moon.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"The Way Our People Came": Citizenship, Capitalism and Racial Difference in 'The Valley of the Moon.'

Article excerpt

The conclusion of Jack London's novel, Burning Daylight (1910), manifests a generic shift from naturalism to Howellsian Realism that results in the establishment of the family as a unit occupying a privileged space beyond the reach of the capitalist marketplace. By moving to a near self-sufficient, Jeffersonian rural idyll, the protagonists, Elam and Dede Harnish gain a degree of moral agency impossible in the determined worlds of the city--where much of the novel is set--and of naturalist fiction. This transformation is problematic for various reasons, the most important of which are: first, that the Harnishes' escape from the market requires money accrued in that market and salvaged from Elam's self-generated financial ruin by the legal transferance of the smallholding to Dede's name. Second, the move depends upon a retreat into history, and into the economic structure of the nation at least fifty years previous to the novel's setting. Thus, the concluding chapters to Burning Daylight display a tension between descriptions of the Harnishes' moral agency and financial independence, and of the lives of the rural poor, determined by factors such as war and the extortionate freight rates levied by the railroad.

In The Valley of the Moon (1913)[1], which in many ways retraces the themes of Burning Daylight, the shift from urban to rural is rewritten in a manner that tackles both these problems. Unlike Elam and Dede, the working class protagonists, Saxon and Billy Roberts have no assets in the city, and leave Oakland on foot, with their few possessions strapped to their backs. Therefore, their success in establishing a new life in the same countryside outside Glen Ellen as that represented in Burning Daylight, depends on their ability to survive in the competitive world, without the head start of an unmortgaged property. In addition, the couple's picaresque journey through multi-racial California recognizes and describes the economic transformations that revolutionized farming after the Civil War. During their travels, Saxon and Billy learn that there is no more viable government land available to settlers and become experts in the literature of the "new" farming. Despite the affinity they feel for their pioneering ancestors, they are forced to acknowledge the differences in their own situation, as they symbolically retrace the steps both of their parents and of their Anglo-Saxon progenitors. The novel thus contains an anxiety about race "purity" and the decline of the "original" settlers in California, that the discovery of the Valley of the Moon--ironically, but importantly, the name given to the land by the displaced Native Americans, the true original settlers--seeks to alleviate. In The Valley of the Moon, then, the journey undertaken by the two protagonists can be viewed as a way of coming to terms with a history largely in the conclusion to Burning Daylight.

In this essay, I wish to pursue three related strands arising from this introduction. I will commence by offering a brief explanation for London's repeated use f the motif of urban to rural movement, in order to investigate the degree to which his new solutions in The Valley of the Moon answer the problematic relationship of genre and history. At this point, I will adopt and challenge Walter Benn Michaels' essay "Race into Culture: A Critical Genealogy of Cultural Identity" (1992), to fuel my own investigation into London's treatment of race anxiety in the face of the Progressive "Meeting Pot." My account will revolve around the tensions between two kinds of storytelling, in this case the conflicting generic structures of naturalism and sentimental fiction. To develop this approach, I will adapt Winfried Fluck's recent reappraisal of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which he analyzes the cultural functions of the sentimental narrative, in order to question how anxieties about the distance between social and moral reference points--in particular, in The Valley of the Moon, the challenge to the protagonists' faith in Anglo-Saxon supremacy--are fictionally resolved. …

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