Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Jack London's Influential Role as an Observer of Early Modern Asia

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Jack London's Influential Role as an Observer of Early Modern Asia

Article excerpt

For his novels and short stories, Jack London (1876-1916) is regarded as one of America's most popular writers. Less known today is the fact that he was also an astute observer of East Asian politics, societies, and peoples. Working as a journalist for several newspapers and magazines, he filed numerous articles and essays covering the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and even foresaw the rise of Japan and China as world powers. This article provides an overview of London's journalistic and literary contributions about Asia, his insights into Asian ethnic and political complexities, and his vision for pan-Asian/American cooperation.

London the Journalist, Novelist & Essayist

Nearly a century after his death, Jack London (1876-1916) remains one of the most popular and beloved American writers. He is famous for his adventure stories in the Yukon, Polynesia, and across America; but he was also a renowned socialist and fabled journalist whose brilliant nonfiction work The People of the Abyss (1903) depicted the poverty and squalor of the low end of life in the capital of the British Empire. What is certainly less known about Jack London is that he was also an astute observer of Asia. His journalistic coverage of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and his essays and short stories provide not only excellent coverage of the war but also a detailed view of social and political conditions in East Asia at the turn of the twentieth century. What makes London even more interesting was his ability to discern the potential power of both Japan and China and to predict their respective rises to dominance later in the twentieth century.

London's firsthand essays and photographs on the Russo-Japanese War present a very clear, in-depth picture of the early phase of the conflict. He filed at least twenty-four articles, each several thousand words long, to the Hearst newspapers. In his articles, he not only presented his own views of the development of the war but also analyzed the development of Korea, Japan, and China in their struggles to modernize and thus defend themselves from the onslaught of Western imperialism. London's Russo-Japanese War articles, if ever published as an anthology, might well make the best contemporary work on the subject. His analyses of East Asian development, especially his views on the downtrodden state of China and its potential for greatness, were especially perceptive. London made uncanny predictions of a future Japanese invasion first of Manchuria and later of China, and he predicted China's rise as a world power. Any student of early twentieth-century Asia would do well to read London's insightful analyses that addressed political, economic, social, and cultural themes.

London was a very prolific essayist and fiction writer who prided himself on composing at least a thousand words a day. Many collections of his essays appeared during his lifetime, but, oddly, he never published his Asian essays as a whole. (A small handful appeared more or less randomly in other anthologies.) A much later collection of his journalistic essays (Hendricks and Shepard 1970) includes some of his war correspondence in Asia and Mexico, mixed with his avid sports reporting; but this collection makes no effort to highlight London's Asian pieces. A full, in-depth study of London's Asian writings would be an invaluable contribution to the field of early modern East Asian history.

One must remember, however, that London was much more a journalist, novelist, and essayist than a scholar of Asian affairs. Still, he was certainly not ignorant of the complexities of Asian culture and history. A dedicated reader of scholarly works on Asia, he consumed everything he could find by writers like Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), whose work he lavished with praise in his essays. London very correctly focused on the role that China's conservative governing "learned classes" had on slowing the modernization of the country. …

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