Jack London lived during America’s first Gilded Age from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Readers of his very popular books (he was the first U.S. author to make more than a million dollars) were entertained by stories about dogs and wolves and gold miners and ships and cannibals. At the same time, London was educating the public about serious societal problems that required fundamental reform. He understood that fiction could appeal to the heart as well as the mind and that public empathy was crucial before significant social, economic and political change could take place. As an avowed socialist for many years (he eventually left the party) he was also a prolific producer of nonfiction and joined with others in advocating such reforms as workplace safety and better working conditions for adults and children, changes in the seriously flawed justice system, wealth inequality, sustainable agriculture, conservation and more.
In her enlightening and beautifully written reappraisal of London’s life and work, Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America, Cecelia Tichi, professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt, demonstrates that the author was a great American public intellectual. His deep research on specific problems and his literary skill enabled him to reach a vast and extraordinarily diverse readership at a time when the printed word, through magazines and books, was the popular medium of communication.
London had an impoverished childhood and worked at a series of odd jobs to help his struggling family. He learned first hand or saw many of the concerns he would later address in his writing. His schooling was mostly self-guided and included just one undergraduate semester at the University of California. But he was an omnivorous reader, interested in a wide range of subjects, and significantly helped by two librarians. His mother was not warm and affectionate toward him but, importantly, she encouraged his ambition to become a successful writer. When he began to enjoy financial security, he was keenly aware he was part of the very culture he hoped to reform; his wealth came from an economic system he both needed and loathed.
In a period that was appropriately labeled the era of Big Business, it was not tycoons’ wealth that bothered him but their abysmal failure at managing the social world they created. London said in 1914, “If, just by wishing, I could change America and Americans in one way I would change the economic organization so that true opportunity would obtain; and service, instead of profits, would be the idea, the ideal, and the ambition animating every citizen.”
London’s stint as a war correspondent covering the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and his work reporting on the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 made a lasting impact on him. Although he did not accept another wartime assignment until 1914, when he covered the U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution, he was eager to tell the public, Tichi writes, “directly or subtly, flagrantly or in nuance—that war and its corollary, empire, were inglorious, wasteful, corruptive, and inhumane.”
This book vividly explores London’s life and times, including the development of corporate public relations to oppose causes he advocated. There are expert readings of his works which show how he combined marketable writing with messages for reform. Tichi’s important work offers a new way to see an author we may have thought we knew well.