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The name Jack London will ring up associations in most American readers from “To Build a Fire,” his enduringly read first short story to  The Call of the Wild (1902,) The Sea-Wolf (1904,) and White Fang (1906.)  Seldom will The Iron Heel (1908) ring such a bell. 

It is not regularly taught in high schools, perhaps with good reason. Though it follows his three popular adventure stories, the story-telling verve seems to have deserted him.  Revolution and general strikes, men and women in the “wilderness” of capitalism might have provided him a similar opportunity, but unhappily, not. The story does identify and locate fears, suffering and resistance under the oligarchic social power of the early 1900s. It is eerily prescient about the future, including a military attack on Honolulu, the rise of Japan in Asia, the retreat to religious revivalism, and the replacement of milk and cheese with laboratory production, but it is not very good writing as we are accustomed to recognize it.

Nevertheless, as a forerunner, by twenty-five years, of novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, (1932) and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935,) as authoritarian rule was threatening everywhere, The Iron Heel is worth knowing about.   Said by some to be the first modern dystopian novel, a debt is owed to it by Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Animal Farm, according to Orwell himself, as does We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921/1924 in English).  Margaret Atwood’s now famous The Handmaid’s Tale, (1985/TV series 2017) whether or not influenced by The Iron Heel, follows a similar thought process — “If you were going to take over the United States, how would you do it?”  Atwood focuses on theocracy, London on capitalism.  Both frame their stories as being manuscripts retrieved in the distant future.


The Iron Heel is presented as a manuscript from seven hundred years earlier discovered by historian Andrew Meredith living in 419 B.O.M (Brotherhood of Man.) He offers it as a valuable record, written by the devoted wife of one of the first important revolutionaries of the years 1912-1932. London, writing in 1908, thus projects his imagined future as the past, giving it more apparent solidity than if framed as a time yet to come.  And a dire one it is.  The two major characters,  Ernest Everhard and his wife-diarist Avis, die during the second, failed, revolution in 1932.  Meredith situates the provenance of the text in a preface and adds historical notes for the years which London, himself, had experienced.

This enables London to do several things: use his own, then fervent, socialist analysis and calls to action in a form more permanent than the regular stump speeches he had been giving; layer in a good deal of actual labor/social history; tell a story with hooks for readers of blood and violence, heroism and martyrdom; praise and support resistance to the oppressors of his day, while being honest about his view of the likely end of armed conflict between under-dogs and upper.  Underdogs lose.

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