The United States has a startling ability to take its most angry, edgy radicals and turn them into cuddly eunuchs. The process begins the moment they die. Mark Twain is remembered as a quipster forever floating down the Mississippi River at sunset, while his polemics against the violent birth of the American empire lie unread and unremembered. Martin Luther King is remembered for his prose-poetry about children holding hands on a hill in Alabama, but few recall that he said the U.S. government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."
But perhaps the greatest act of historical castration is of Jack London. This man was the most-read revolutionary Socialist in American history, agitating for violent overthrow of the government and the assassination of political leaders—and he is remembered now for writing a cute story about a dog. It's as if the Black Panthers were remembered, a century from now, for adding a pink tint to their afros.
If Jack London is chased forever from our historical memory by the dog he invented, then we will lose one of the most intriguing, bizarre figures in American history, at once inspiring and repulsive. In his 40 years of life, he was a "bastard" child of a slum-dwelling suicidal spiritualist, a child laborer, a pirate, a tramp, a revolutionary Socialist, a racist pining for genocide, a gold-digger, a war correspondent, a millionaire, a suicidal depressive, and for a time the most popular writer in America. In Wolf: The Lives of Jack London, his latest biographer, James L. Haley, calls London "the most misunderstood figure in the American literary canon"—but that might be because he is ultimately impossible to understand.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
The forgotten London
Johann Hari in Slate
Posted by Hume's Ghost at 8/21/2010