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The Iron Heel at 100: Jack London—The Artist as “Antenna of the Race”

Jonah Raskin teaches First Amendment law and journalism at Sonoma State University in Northern California. He is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism, and Out of the Whale, as well as biographies of Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg. His anthology, The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution, will be published in May 2008 by the University of California Press.

Bad times inhibit good writers, but they also inspire them. Just look at the new and recent arrivals in bookstores and libraries. The double-barreled assault on civil liberties and human rights, by the administration of President George Walker Bush, has, if nothing else, spurred an outpouring of books, both fiction and nonfiction, condemning the erosion of American democracy and the perceived drift toward totalitarianism. Jack London—the best-selling twentieth-century American author, who was born in 1876, the year of the American Centenary, and who died in 1916, the year before the United States entered the First World War—would surely not be surprised. In fact, one might well anoint London the founding father of the contemporary body of literature about political repression, including Henry Giroux’s The Emerging Authoritarianism in the United States, Matthew Rothschild’s You Have No Rights, Chris Hedges’s American Fascists, Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Crimes Against Nature, and Philip Roth’s disquieting 2003 novel The Plot Against America. Of course, there are many others that cover much the same terrain.

Sinclair Lewis, who wrote the electrifying classic It Can’t Happen Here (1935)—about the advent of a Nazi regime in Washington, D.C.—owed much of his inspiration to London’s The Iron Heel, which was first published in 1908, and which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. London’s dystopian novel also inspired George Orwell when he wrote 1984, and it deserves recognition as the first modern American novel to sound the alarm about the dangers of a dictatorship in the United States. The Iron Heel has never achieved the popularity of London’s dog stories—The Call of the Wild and White Fang—but from the moment that Europe began to drift toward fascism in the 1920s, and then throughout the twentieth century, it was widely read in Europe, the Americas, and Asia, and hailed as a great, prophetic work of art by the likes of Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary, and Anatole France, the Nobel Prize-winning French novelist.

One hundred years after its initial publication, London’s political ideas and cultural insights seem remarkably contemporary. Indeed, in The Iron Heel, he describes a sinister conspiracy, by an oligarchy, to quash freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, imprison its outspoken opponents and critics, control news and information, install a professional army of paid mercenaries, create a secret police force, and wage global warfare for economic hegemony. There’s also guerrilla warfare, furious acts of wanton terrorism, and cold-blooded terrorists—a world roiling in violence that might be taken for the world of the twenty-first century. Here’s a book that demonstrates the veracity of Ezra Pound’s remark that “the artist is the antenna of the race.”

Like much overtly political fiction and didactic storytelling, The Iron Heel tends to emphasize ideas and ideological concerns at the expense of character development and plot, but London, the artist, could not help but craft a story with suspense, drama, and bigger-than-life, cinematic scenes that depict bloody warfare and horrific massacre in the streets of the United States. In the handwritten notes for the novel that he originally entitled “Oligarchy,” he scrawled, “What scenes are given let them be striking to make up for absence of regular novel features,” and he made good on that admonition to himself. The change in the title of the novel, from “Oligarchy” to The Iron Heel, shows London moving away from an idea to a compelling and vivid image that enlivens his story.

An early, ardent fan of the movies, and a frequent moviegoer, he cast The Iron Heel as a kind of Cecil B. De Mille epic in which the revolutionary troops engage in battle with the soldiers of the oligarchy, using airships and machine guns. The spectacle in the streets of Chicago, where the novel peaks in an exhilarating chapter entitled “The People of the Abyss,” is written with real panache and gusto. Moreover, it was a stroke of genius, on London’s part, to couch his novel in the form of a memoir that chronicles not only the larger political and cultural conflicts, but also the personal life of the narrator and memoirist herself, a young woman named Avis Everhard who grows up privileged in Berkeley, California, falls in love with Ernest Everhard, the leader of the revolution, and joins the clandestine rebels who use forged documents and change their identities to evade the secret police. (Ernest Everhard is not much of a character; he is too idealized and romanticized and his name—which implies a kind of permanent sexual potency—does not help either.)

The novel itself might be aptly described as a “false document,” to borrow the incisive literary term coined by the novelist and critic E. L. Doctorow—himself an author of false documents—to describe a work of fiction that purports to be factual. London’s brilliant literary conceit, if you will, is that Avis Everhard’s memoir of love and loss, failed revolution, and ascendant tyranny, is discovered hundreds of years after its creation, and published, with footnotes by the editor and with a forword, too, for readers near the end of the twenty-seventh century. “It cannot be said that the Everhard Manuscript is an important historical document,” Anthony Meredith, the editor of the future, explains in London’s tongue-in-cheek foreword. Meredith goes on to say that the Everhard Manuscript is especially valuable “in communicating to us the feel of those terrible times. Nowhere do we find more vividly portrayed the psychology of the person that lived in that turbulent period embraced between the years 1912 and 1932—their mistakes and ignorance, their doubts and fears and misapprehensions, their ethical delusions, their violent passions, their inconceivable sordidness and selfishness.”

The playful, and sometimes trenchant, footnotes to the text were, of course, written by London himself, and enabled him to offer a gloss on the narrative, and provide a running commentary on nineteenth-century history, economics, and philosophy, and its leading political and philosophical thinkers. Thus, he writes that Nietzsche “reasoned himself around the great circle of human thought and off into madness,” and that there was “no more horrible page in history than the treatment of the child and women slaves in the English factories.” On the subject of “politics and the English language,” which would become dear to George Orwell, London noted, “the people of that age were phrase slaves….So befuddled and chaotic were their minds that the utterance of a single word could negate the generalizations of a lifetime of serious research and thought. Such a word was the adjective utopian.”

A writer who was not afraid to join political debate, and to engage in political activities, London knew what he was talking about when he talked about language and politics. A utopian himself, he joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1896, and then the American Socialist Party, after it was founded in 1901, and he continued to be a member until just months before his death. Though he never took part directly in shaping the goals or the platform of the Socialist Party, and though he did not attend party meetings with any regularity, he played a major role as a “propagandist”—a word he used to label himself and that he wore proudly—for socialism. For a brief time, in 1904 and 1905, he espoused violent revolution and even assassination as a tactic, but for the most part he believed in peaceful change and electoral politics.

Twice he ran for mayor of Oakland as a socialist, and almost all his life he wrote personal essays about socialism, including “Revolution” and “How I Became a Socialist,” as well as tales and fables with overtly political messages, like “The Dream of Debs,” and short stories like “The Apostate” that depict the horrors of poverty and the mindlessness of factory toil. As he explained in his writings, and in dozens of speeches that he gave to enthusiastic audiences across the country, socialism meant both political and economic democracy. In his view, it translated into equality of opportunity, the end of child labor, the eight-hour day, decent housing, and beautiful things, in the style of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as material goods that would improve the lives of workers.

London studied Marx’s writings extensively and was profoundly influenced by The Communist Manifesto. Like Marx, he tended to be hopeful about the future for humanity, but he did not allow his hopefulness to cloud his view of the present, or ignore the obstacles in the way of revolutionaries. “I should like to have socialism,” he wrote. “Yet I know that socialism is not the next step; I know that capitalism must have its life first.”

Part of him believed that an ideal version of socialism might be achieved in his own lifetime. But another part of him firmly believed that barbarism and tyranny lay ahead for humanity—that a gigantic “iron heel” would descend on individuals and quash freedom. He first articulated the notion that dictatorship, not democracy, would engulf humankind in an essay entitled “The Question of the Maximum” that he wrote in 1898, that no magazine editor would publish—it seemed too subversive for the cautious-minded—and that London included in his first collection of political essays, War of the Classes (1905). He divagated for years between optimism and pessimism about the future and yet he remained largely ebullient about the prospects for socialism until 1905, the year that a revolution in Russia was crushed by the Czar’s army and by thugs and police, and when the “iron heel” became far more than just a figure of speech. As Leon Trotsky observed in his insightful comments about the novel, “The Iron Heel bears the undoubted imprint of the year 1905.” It also bears the imprint of the year 1906, when an earthquake shook San Francisco and fire destroyed that city. London, as an eyewitness reporter for Collier’s magazine, saw the arrival in California of what looked like the apocalypse.

To write The Iron Heel he drew on his own direct observations of the chaos in San Francisco that followed in the wake of the earthquake and conflagration, and also on the information that he absorbed from far-off Russia from friends and from newspapers about the repression of the 1905 revolution. He drew, too, on his close study of contemporary U.S. society: the spying on, and the intimidation of, labor leaders by the Pinkerton Detective Agency employed by mine owners and governors alike; the arrest and persecution of labor leaders, like William (Big Bill) Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (the radical trade union activists better known as the “Wobblies”) who went on trial in 1906, in what was regarded, at the time, as the pivotal political courtroom battle of the era. Indeed, everything that London assigned to the society of the future, he discerned right before his own eyes, in the society of the present, though he magnified the trends and the patterns for dramatic effect.

London took the measure of global capitalism, and carefully monitored the impact of imperialist penetration on colonial societies. In The Iron Heel he mentions the cruelty of the African slave trade, and the exploitation and decadence of the British Empire in India. “The natives died of starvation by the millions,” he wrote. “While their rulers robbed them of the fruit of their toil and expended it on magnificent pageants and mumbo-jumbo fooleries.”

He called H. G. Wells, whose novels he read and enjoyed—including The War of the Worlds (1898)—a “sociological seer” and to write The Iron Heel he took on that persona himself. But if he was a prophetic writer, and a visionary, he was also a thoroughgoing romantic. His editors in New York often demanded that he write love stories for middle-class women readers, and, in part, he gave them what they wanted. In The Iron Heel, he presented the sentimental love story between Avis and Ernest Everhard against a backdrop of revolution and war, doom and disaster, hoping that the love story might persuade apolitical readers to venture into the labyrinth of his intensely political fiction. In the end, he seems to have satisfied no one; the socialists of his day, certain that socialism would triumph at the next general election, regarded his book as heresy and condemned it, while women readers looking for escape from quotidian life found it too polemical, ideological, and shockingly violent.

Before it was published, London predicted its fate. “It will not make me any friends,” he told Cloudesley Johns, one of his best friends, and a fellow socialist who shared his dreams for the future. It was not until the coming of the First World War that it began to attract readers and to win London admiration for his prescience. Indeed, only when socialists in France went to war against their socialist brothers in Germany, and when the rallying cry of “international solidarity” fell on deaf ears, did The Iron Heel attract an international following. The rise of Hitler and Mussolini solidified London’s reputation as a “sociological seer.” In Trotsky’s eyes he was a genuine “revolutionary artist,” and far more perceptive than either Rosa Luxemburg, the early twentieth-century German revolutionary, or V. I. Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, who admired London and seems to have borrowed the phrase “the aristocracy of labor” from The Iron Heel to describe that sector of the working class that had lost its working-class consciousness and sided with capital.  In the 1960s, The Iron Heel experienced another resurgence; Vietnamese as well as Americans read it as a text on the evils of imperialism. It has never gone out of print, but London scholars often ignore it. The Viking Portable Jack London contains no excerpt from the novel, and that omission distorts the picture of Jack London as a writer.

Now, on its 100th anniversary, it strikes yet another raw nerve—the nerve of terrorism and its foes, along with the rise of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. In the last chapter of the novel, which is entitled “The Terrorists,” London explains that massacres are commonplace, martyrs all-pervasive, and mass executions routine. “The members of the terroristic organizations were careless of their own lives,” he writes. A “religious sect” that calls itself “the Wrath of God” holds sway, while an organization called “the Valkyries” is “guilty of torturing their prisoners to death.” London couldn’t be more contemporary. It is also fitting that the novel ends with an incomplete last sentence that leaves readers in a state of suspense, and that also suggests the unfinished historical process itself. “The magnitude of the task may be understood when it is taken into”—that is Avis Everhard’s last, incomplete thought. She did not even have time for ellipses or a dash. A footnote at the bottom of the printed page explains, “This is the end of the Everhard Manuscript…It is to be regretted that she did not live to complete her narrative.”

London lived another eight years after the publication of The Iron Heel, which was in many ways his swan song to socialism. Even as he wrote it, he began to settle on a large ranch he bought in rural Northern California. Increasingly, he defined himself as a Californian, not as a socialist, and at Beauty Ranch as he called it—the Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman called it “Dreamland”—he tried to build a private, agrarian utopia for himself, his wife Charmian, and a small circle of their closest friends. Like Avis, the heroine of The Iron Heel, London died with unfinished work on his desk, including the novel entitled Cherry, and the intriguing outline for a socialist autobiography in which he promised to explain his own romance and disillusionment with revolution.

Still, he bequeathed a rich, if ambiguous, legacy for American writers to follow, and the dystopian novels of Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth take up where he left off. London wrote no major political novel after The Iron Heel, but he did not cease to serve as the “antenna of the race.” In The Scarlet Plague (1915), one of his last books, he anticipated the arrival of AIDS and HIV, and predicted a pandemic that would sweep across the world and decimate the human race.  Surely a novelist with that much imagination and prescience deserves more attention from literary scholars than he has so far received.

2008, Volume 59, Issue 10 (March)
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