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The Soul of Jack London, Part 2


Johann Heinrich Fuseli, "Thor, in the boat of Hymir, battering the Midgard Serpent," 1790

3,422 words

Part 2 of 4

Race was of utmost importance to London. His unshakable views on the subject were expressed ardently even in some of his works of socialist propaganda. A good sampling of London’s racial perspective at the turn of the century may be found in his letters to Cloudesley Johns. Johns, a young post-office employee from southern California, wrote London a fan letter in 1899, praising one of the latter’s magazine articles. The result was a strong friendship that lasted until London’s death. The correspondence between Johns and London frequently dealt heavily with the subject of race. In one letter to Johns, dated December 12, 1899, London wrote:

The black has stopped, just as the monkey has stopped. Never will even the highest anthropoid apes evolve into man; likewise the Negro into a type of man higher than any existing.

In another letter to Johns, dated July 5, 1899, London addressed the proper role that race should hold in relation to altruism, and he touched on the subject of eugenics.

­Where am I to draw the line [on altruism]? At the White. From the family unit, through the tribal drawing, to the race aggregation, you may trace the rise of altruism, very similar for all its various manifestations. The line stops there. If a man would save an animal from pain, another kind of altruism is brought to bear; the same if he saves a nigger, or a red, a yellow, or a brown. But let Mr. White meet another white hemmed in by dangers from the other colors—these whites will not need to know each other—but they will hear the call of blood and stand back to back. Nor does it matter if one be a genius and the other a poor wretch cursed by congenital defects, an hereditary inefficient—they will none the less hear the call, feel the bond, and answer

. . . . Nursing the inferior whites, segregating the hopelessly vicious and idiotic so that they may not breed, and developing those that are not so, draws its own line. Today the very opposite prevails as regards the lower classes; that is no reason it should always be so . . . . [T]he race with the highest altruism will endure—the highest altruism considered from the standpoint of merciless natural law, which never concedes nor alters.

London’s first novel, A Daughter of the Snows, published in 1902, was a commercial failure. However, the story, set in the Far North, voiced a powerful racial message, vividly expounding London’s own feelings on the subject. In the book he sought to create a woman who would be a worthy mate for his 20th-century man, in the person of Frona Welse, the daughter of a trader in the Yukon. She was intelligent, strong, and courageous, yet beautiful and feminine. She voiced and exemplified London’s own racial beliefs, which would be repeated in later works. In the following passage, Frona prides herself on her Teutonic heritage in a heated discussion with the character Vance Corliss, who does not yet share Frona’s racial convictions, but whom she eventually will select as her mate on the basis of his biological worth:

“And why should I not be proud of my race? . . . We are a race of doers and fighters, of globe-encirclers and zone-conquerors. We toil and struggle, and stand by the toil and struggle no matter how hopeless it may be. While we are persistent and resistant, we are so made that we fit ourselves to the most diverse conditions. Will the Indian, the Negro, or the Mongol ever conquer the Teuton? Surely not! . . . All that the other races are not, the Anglo-Saxon, or Teuton if you please, is. All that the other races have not, the Teuton has. What race is to rise up and overwhelm us?”

In an exceptionally captivating passage, Frona and Corliss come upon a funeral cortege, the coffin pulled by a sled team of wolf-dogs. The dark, Northern setting is the scene of an awakening of Corliss’ dormant racial soul. Responding to Frona’s remark that the dead man had been “a zone-conqueror,” Corliss said: “These battlers of frost and fighters of hunger! I can understand how the dominant races have come down out of the North to empire. Strong to venture, strong to endure, with infinite faith and infinite patience, is it to be wondered at?” And then he began reciting from one of the Viking sagas:

“We smote with our swords. To me it was a joy like having my bright bride by me on the couch. . . I have marched with my bloody sword, and the raven has followed me. Furiously we fought; the fire passed over the dwellings of men; we slept in the blood of those who kept the gates.

When she then asked him whether he really felt what he was saying, or simply was repeating what he had memorized, he answered:

“I begin to feel, I think. The North has taught me, is teaching me. The old things come back with new significance. Yet I do not know. It seems a tremendous egotism, a magnificent dream.”

“But you are not a negro or a Mongol, nor are you descended from the negro or Mongol,” Frona replied. And Corliss came back:

“Yes, I am my father’s son, and the line goes back to the sea-kings who never slept under the smoky rafters of a roof or drained the ale-horn by inhabited hearth. There must be a reason for the dead status of the black, a reason for the Teuton spreading over the earth as no other race has ever spread. There must be something in race heredity, else I would not leap at the summons.”

Frona led him further:

“A great race, Vance. Half of the earth its heritage, and all of the sea! And in threescore generations it has achieved it all think of it! threescore generations!—and today it reaches out wider-armed than ever. The smiter and the destroyer among nations! the builder and the law-giver! Oh, Vance, my love is passionate, but God will forgive, for it is good. A great race, greatly conceived; and if to perish, greatly to perish! Don’t you remember:

“Trembles Yggdrasil’s ash yet standing; groans that ancient tree, and the Jotun Loki is loosed. The shadows groan on the ways of Hel, until the fire of Surt has consumed the tree. Hrym steers from the east, the waters rise, the mundane snake is coiled in jotun-rage. The worm beats the water, and the eagle screams; the pale of beak tears carcasses; the ship Naglfar is loosed. Surt from the south comes with flickering flame; shines from his sword the Val-god’s sun.

“The stony hills are dashed together, the giantesses totter; men tread the path of Hel, and heaven is cloven. The sun darkens, earth in ocean sinks, fall from heaven the bright stars, fire’s breath assails the all-nourishing tree, towering fire plays against heaven itself.”

Outlined against the blazing air, her brows and lashes white with frost, the jewel-dust striking and flashing against hair and face, and the south-sun lighting her with a great redness, the man saw her as the genius of the race. The traditions of the blood laid hold of him, and he felt strangely at one with the white-skinned, yellow-haired giants of the younger world. And as he looked upon her the mighty past rose before him, and the caverns of his being resounded with the shock and tumult of forgotten battles. With bellowing of storm-winds and crash of smoking North Sea waves, he saw the sharpbeaked fighting galleys, and the seaflung Northmen, great-muscled, deepchested, sprung from the elements, men of sword and sweep, marauders and scourgers of the warm Southlands! The din of twenty centuries of battle was roaring in his ear . . .

Some of London’s deepest racial feelings were about Asia and the Orientals. He believed that Asia was a sleeping giant, which upon awakening would threaten the entire world. Current events strengthened his convictions. Japan was the first Oriental nation to modernize, and she already had achieved a swift victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895. Meanwhile, Czarist Russia was pushing in the same direction, making confrontation seem inevitable.

London arrived in Tokyo on January 24, 1904, as a war correspondent employed by Randolph Hearst to cover the anticipated Russo-Japanese War. He was impressed by the ability of the Japanese to utilize Western methods and inventions. However, commenting on the durability of the Japanese infantrymen, he stated: “They may be brave, but so are the South American peccary pigs in their herd charges.”

The outcome of the Russo-Japanese War was a landmark. For the first time in modern history a non-White nation had defeated a White nation at war. This troubled London immensely. In a dispatch from the front line in Manchuria dated May 1, 1904, he wrote of his feelings upon witnessing the aftermath of a Japanese victory on the battlefield:

Into the windows of a large Chinese house I saw many Japanese soldiers curiously peering. Reining up my horse at a window, I, too, curiously peered. And the sight I saw was as a blow in the face to me. On my mind it had all the stunning effect of the sharp impact of a man’s fist. There was a man, a white man, with blue eyes, looking at me. He was dirty and unkempt. He had been through a fierce battle. But his eyes were bluer than mine and his skin was as white.

And there were other white men in there with him—many white men. I caught myself gasping. A choking sensation was in my throat. These men were my kind. I found myself suddenly and sharply aware that I was an alien amongst these brown men who peered through the window with me. And I felt myself strangely at one with those other men behind the window—felt that my place was there inside with them in their captivity, rather than outside in freedom amongst aliens . . . .

In the headquarters at Antung a Japanese in civilian clothes addressed me in English. He did all the talking, and he talked of the victory. He was beaming. Not a hint of the thoughts in my own mind had I breathed to him, and yet he said at parting: “Your people did not think we could beat the white. We have now beaten the white.”

It was shortly after this episode that London wrote his aforementioned article “The Yellow Peril.” He warned in the article that the Chinese, under the management of the Japanese, might bring about the destruction of the Western world. He reflected on the foolishness White men had shown in teaching Western technology to Orientals, but he noted that there were some things the Orientals never would learn from Whites:

Back of our own great race adventure, back of our robberies by sea and land, our lusts and violences, and all the evil things we have done, there is a certain integrity, a sternness of conscience, a melancholy responsibility of life, a sympathy and comradeship and warm human feel, which is ours, indubitably ours, and which we cannot teach to the Oriental as we would teach logarithms or the trajectory of projectiles.

This same theme emerged later, when London delivered a stark prophecy in “The Unparalleled Invasion.” The story, published in the July 1910 issue of McClure’s Magazine, is a futuristic tale set in 1976. He foresaw a militant, armed China looking to the West for room to dump its swollen population. The West’s response was to unleash a rain of pathogenic microbes on China from the air. London’s apocalyptic vision of the final showdown between the East and the West ends with passages strikingly similar to those in The Turner Diaries:

During the summer and fall of 1976 China was an inferno. There was no eluding the microscopic projectiles that sought out the remotest hiding places. The hundreds of millions of dead remained unburied and millions died daily of starvation. Cannibalism, murder, and madness reigned. And so perished China.

When White Einsatzkommando groups moved in a few months later to mop up:

They found China devastated, a howling wilderness through which wandered bands of wild dogs and desperate bandits who had survived. All survivors were put to death wherever found.

Thus, the final solution to the Yellow peril is achieved through the complete extermination of the Yellow man. The story is remarkable, in both in its prediction of the development of biological warfare and in its endorsement of genocide for eugenic purposes.

In conjunction with his racial ideology, London was a firm supporter of eugenics, foreseeing the potential betterment of the race through its practice. He endorsed not only the sterilization of criminals and morons, but the institution of selective breeding for people in general. In a 1913 letter to an editor of a medical review he wrote:

At the present moment I am operating a stock farm. If one of my registered Jersey heifers gets through a hole in the fence to an ornery scrub-grade bull, I am shocked. I know that the result of said breeding will be bad and not good; will be worse rather than better. This stolid, practical-headed judgment of a stock breeder should apply with equal force to the breeding of humans. Humans breed in ways quite similar to those of animals; and if humans misbreed, the results are misbreds.

The idea of heredity and breed is evident in virtually all of London’s literary works. His most popular novel, The Call of the Wild, deals specifically with this subject.

Published in 1903, it became his first best seller and has never been out of print since. The beautiful story of Buck, the modern, domesticated dog discovering the ancient call of the blood of his ancestors, is much more than a simple dog story. It is a strong philosophical statement about the forces and feelings of heredity:

In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and the dark.

On April 23, 1907, Jack and his second wife, Charmian, set sail on the Snark, a sailing yacht that Jack had designed himself. They intended to sail around the world on an estimated seven-year voyage.

On his journey through the South Seas, wherever he could gather a group of White men, he would lecture to them on the Revolution. At the same time he took part in the “blackbirding” expeditions, which shanghaied Black natives as slave laborers for the copra plantations. To the liberals of that day, the White man’s treatment of the Micronesian natives was considered repulsive. London, however, was not moved with concern for non-Whites, and in none of his stories based on the cruise of the Snark was he even slightly apologetic about his “blackbirding” activity.

The Solomon Islands was the last stop on their journey. It was a dangerous area for White men, as the Londons soon learned; headhunting was still prevalent in the region. A native who possessed 15 heads to adorn the walls of his hut was believed to have acquired the strength of 15 men. And the head of a White man was especially coveted.

At Penduffryn, on Guadalcanal, the Londons joined the crew of the Minota on a hunting trip for slave labor for the plantations. The Minota ran aground, and they soon found themselves surrounded by a horde of natives in canoes. The boat’s crew held them at bay with rifles. Meanwhile, hundreds of natives on shore swarmed down from the hills, armed with clubs, spears, bows and arrows, and rifles.

Jack paddled off in a canoe with a message for the captain of the Eugenie, anchored five miles away, but out of sight around a bend in the coastline. A few hours later the captain of the Eugenie sailed up beside the Minota with a fully armed crew. London described it as “the inevitable white man, coming to the white man’s rescue.”

South Sea Tales, published in 1911, is a collection of short stories based on the cruise of the Snark. From one of these stories, entitled “The Inevitable White Man,” is the following description of an attack on a White ship by Blacks, and the defense of the vessel by a marksman named Saxtorph:

“The astounding thing was the rapidity of his fire. Also, he never made a miss. If ever anything was inevitable, that man was. It was the swiftness of it that made the slaughter so appalling. The niggers did not have time to think. When they did manage to think, they went over the side in a rush, capsizing the canoes, of course. Saxtorph never let up. The water was covered with them, and plump, plump, plump, he dropped his bullets into them. Not a single miss, and I could hear distinctly the thud of every bullet as it buried in human flesh . . . .

“The niggers spread out and headed for the shore, swimming. The water was carpeted with bobbing heads, and I stood up, as in a dream, and watched it all—the bobbing heads and the heads that ceased to bob. Some of the long shots were magnificent. Only one man reached the beach, but as he stood up to wade ashore, Saxtorph got him. It was beautiful. And when a couple of niggers ran down to drag him out of the water, Saxtorph got them, too.

“ . . . It reminded me of trapshooting. A black body would pop out of the companion[way], bang, would go Saxtorph’s rifle, and down would go the black body.

“. . . Our decks were a spectacle. Dead and dying niggers were everywhere. . . . I put Saxtorph and his graveyard gang to work heaving them overside, and over they went, the living and the dead. The sharks had fat pickings that day.”

Two dog books based on London’s South Pacific experience would be published posthumously in 1917. Jerry of the Islands and Michael—Brother of Jerry were based on a “nigger-chasing, adorable Irish terrier puppy” that the Londons had encountered aboard the Minota. The stories are written through the eyes of the dogs, Jerry and Michael, just as with Buck in The Call of the Wild. But this time the heroes of the books, Jerry and Michael, are thoroughbreds, unlike the mongrel Buck. The following are excerpts from Jerry of the Islands:

Jerry had been born to hate niggers. His first experiences in the world, as a puling puppy, had taught him that Biddy, his mother, and his father Terrence, hated niggers. A nigger was something to be snarled at. A nigger, unless he were a house-boy, was something to be attacked and bitten and torn if he invaded the compound. Biddy did it. Terrence did it.

It was not that Jerry was unkindly. Like Biddy and Terrence, he was fierce and unafraid; which attributes were wrapped up in his heredity. And, like Biddy and Terrence, he delighted in nigger-chasing. . . . Niggers were niggers, but white men were gods.

London summed up his observations of the area in the following piece from “The Terrible Solomons,” contained in South Sea Tales:

A man needs only to be careful and lucky—to live a long time in the Solomons; but he must also be of the right sort. He must have the hallmark of the inevitable white man stamped upon his soul. He must be inevitable. He must have a certain colossal self-satisfaction, and a racial egotism that convinces him that one white is better than a thousand niggers every day in the week, and that on Sunday he is able to clean out two thousand niggers. For such are the things that have made the white man inevitable.