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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.

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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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Ernest Everhard, the hero, is invited to a dinner in February 1912 by a Berkeley professor where he  promptly displays his intellectual chops, “flaying” the invited guests for their unsupportable metaphysics and arguing for his own “god of facts.” 

You have nothing in common with the working class. Your hands are soft with the work others have performed for you. Your stomachs are round with the plenitude of eating …  guard, with your preaching, the interests of your employers; but do not come down to the working class and serve as false leaders.

The professor’s young daughter, Avis, is thrilled, and besides the strength of his arguments takes note of other strengths:

… as always, the cloth bulged with his muscles, while the coat between the shoulders, what of the heavy shoulder-development, was a maze of wrinkles. His neck was the neck of a prize-fighter,[6] thick and strong.

As Everhard becomes a regular at their house, and the attraction between them grows, he confronts her with her own participation in the oppression of the working class.  Her father’s wealth comes in part from investments in Sierra Mills where a worker has recently lost his arm on the job. Being thereby useless, he has been fired. Avis, disbelieving at first,  does some investigating of her own.  Her privileged position allows her to confront the foreman at Sierra Mills, the legal counsel who shapes the foreman’s testimony at the trial, a major share holder of Sierra Mills, and newspaper reporters.  She is converted, and over the course of the manuscript becomes a courageous revolutionary in her own right.

A run for congress by Everhard allows socially permissible excoriation of the corporations and trusts.  Even mid-size business men are victims: a quarry operator complains he can make no profit because of railroad price gouging; a failed dairy farmer expounds on the milk trust, run by Standard Oil, and its pricing mechanisms  The truth of such lives is spoiled however by London’s didacticism.  Instead of having those injured by the trusts work their way through to solutions, Everhard dominates everything by his knowledge, delivery and charisma:

…he got the floor again, and in his characteristic way controlled it for the rest of the evening.

In the fall of 1912 he is  elected in a Socialist landslide after a year of great economic turmoil and the looming shadow of war.  The Grangers, a rural party and sometime Socialist ally, also win many local seats. Of course this does not sit well with the oligarchs and so, war — in the interests of the ruling classes of both Germany and the U.S.– is the answer.  Fortunately the workers have an answer of their own.

That night a German fleet made a dash on Honolulu, sinking three American cruisers and a revenue cutter, and bombarding the city. Next day both Germany and the United States declared war, and within an hour the socialists called the general strike in both countries.

Even the common laborers and all unorganized labor ceased work. The strike had tied everything up so that nobody could work. Besides, the women proved to be the strongest promoters of the strike. They set their faces against the war. They did not want their men to go forth to die. Then, also, the idea of the general strike caught the mood of the people. It struck their sense of humor. The idea was infectious. The children struck in all the schools, and such teachers as came, went home again from deserted class rooms. The general strike took the form of a great national picnic. And the idea of the solidarity of labor, so evidenced, appealed to the imagination of all. And, finally, there was no danger to be incurred by the colossal frolic. When everybody was guilty, how was anybody to be punished?

The United States was paralyzed. No one knew what was happening. There were no newspapers, no letters, no despatches. Every community was as completely isolated as though ten thousand miles of primeval wilderness stretched between it and the rest of the world. For that matter, the world had ceased to exist. And for a week this state of affairs was maintained.

It did not take long to come to an understanding. The war was declared off, and the populations of both countries returned to their tasks.

Though the general strike compels an end to the war, there is no time to celebrate.  Revolutions break out all over Europe.

It was a time of confusion and violence. Everywhere institutions and governments were crashing. Everywhere, with the exception of two or three countries, the erstwhile capitalist masters fought bitterly for their possessions. But the governments were taken away from them by the militant proletariat. At last was being realized Karl Marx’s classic: “The knell of private capitalist property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” And as fast as capitalistic governments crashed, cooperative commonwealths arose in their place.

The American oligarchs, however, are too canny.  They know about and exploit the division between the skilled trades unions and the manual workers.  By the end of January 1913 “the favored unions” have been bought off.

Wages are going to be advanced and hours shortened in the railroad unions, the iron and steel workers unions, and the engineer and machinist unions.

Labor violence between these “favored unions” and the others breaks out and grows deadly.   No less a theoretician of revolution than Leon Trotsky, in a letter to London’s daughter, Joan, in 1937, said that no one, not even Lenin or Rosa Luxemburg had “imagined so fully the ominous perspective of the alliance between finance capital and labor aristocracy.”

The Black Hundreds rise. Socialist congressmen are jailed. Religious revival sweeps the land.

It was the last days, they claimed, the beginning of the end of the world. The four winds had been loosed. God had stirred the nations to strife. It was a time of visions and miracles, while seers and prophetesses were legion.

With the failure of traditional politics Everhard organizes the first Chicago Commune.

Chicago became the storm-centre of the premature First Revolt. The trouble was precipitated by the Iron Heel. It was cleverly done.

Troop trains are sent in.  Informers are ferreted out and executed (See The Milkman, Northern Ireland in the 1970s). There are even IEDs, laid by soldiers, not revolutionaries.

A soldier leaped from (the war-automobile), carrying something carefully in his hands. This, with the same care, he deposited in the gutter.

There is time for marriage, the financial breaking of Avis’ father, the institutionalization of a clergyman who succors the poor too avidly, a failed Peasant Revolt, a crushed miners revolt the mutiny of the militia and two failed urban Revolts.  Even for a few poems of London’s own creation make an appearance. An assassination attempt on Everhard while giving a speech in congress in favor of an “unemployed bill,” fails. He is captured and imprisoned on Alcatraz — a military prison in London’s time.  

Avis, too is imprisoned.  When released she gets to California and a hideout on Sonoma mountain – near where London lived later in his life and is now the Jack London State Historic Park.  When Everhard escapes they spend eighteen months together organizing another Chicago Commune in which they both die.  It is her manuscript of their life together that professor Meredith is presenting in 419 BOM, centuries after such terrible times. 

There is always, of course, Hope.

“For this time lost, dear heart,” he said, “but not forever. We have learned. To-morrow the Cause will rise again, strong with wisdom and discipline.”

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Much of the writing is over wrought and so, easy to dismiss –a fever dream of uprising and smashing the capitalists.  Whether coming from the mouths of the Oligarchs or of the Revolutionaries the more vividly imagined, the better.

This, then, is our answer. We have no words to waste on you. When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and purpled ease, we will show you what strength is. In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched. We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces.

Not so much conversation, argument and disagreement between interesting, developing characters, as long excerpts from the speeches London himself had been making since being dubbed “the boy socialist” of Oakland, CA in 1896. It is somewhat puzzling to anyone who has actually organized for social change of any kind, that instead of using his rhetorical skills to motivate those who are meant to follow him, or develop leadership,  Everhard spends most of his time berating his enemies, trying to convince them of the evil of their ways.

It is quite interesting, though, to see how London informs his readers, then and now, of history prior to 1908 –the date of publication of the book– through the “footnotes” supplied by Professor Meredith.

The Charleston Baptist Association issued the following, in an address, in 1835 A.D.: “The right of masters to dispose of the time of their slaves has been distinctly recognized by the Creator of all things, who is surely at liberty to vest the right of property over any object whomsoever He pleases.”

The Western Federation of Miners is mentioned, including a 1903 bombing at Cripple Creek mine in Colorado which killed 13 as well as the murder of “Big Bill” Haywood.  John Stuart MIll, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, the rise of the Rockefeller fortune,  W.J. Ghent, an early American socialist, and P.M. Arthur of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, all appear in footnotes.  Even statistics make a show:

The Socialist Party voting strength in the United States in 1888 was 2068; in 1902, 127,713; in 1904, 435,040; in 1908, 1,108,427; and in 1910, 1,688,211

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The literary failures and histrionic excesses of the writing, as they seem to us today, were likely less marked in 1908 when The Iron Heel was published.  Tension between industrial workers and their employers had erupted in sporadic short, and some long-lived, battles since the end of the Civil War.  The pace of industrial expansion was interrupted time and again by depressions. The “Long Depression, also known as the Great Depression of 1873–1896 was particularly fraught.  Populations from abroad, and from the agricultural sectors of society, caught in wage-squeezes, unfulfilled hopes and broken promises agitated, organized and went on strike.  Employers used strike-breakers (scabs), black-lists, thugs and quasi-official police forces like the Pinkerton Agency (for whom Dashiell Hammett of The Maltese Falcon worked for a while.)  Socialism and Anarchism had adherents in the hundreds of thousands. Citizen posses, as in Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, and the infamous Bisbey 1917 deportation of over one thousand miners to the New Mexican desert were common place.

London’s own early life was lived among these working and underclass men;  strong feelings lay beneath the rhetoric. While still in his mid-teens he worked in a cannery, then as a deckhand on a seal slaughter ship and later in a jute mill.  In 1901, after a winter in the Yukon hardened his anti-capitalist feelings, he ran for Mayor of Oakland on the Socialist Party ticket, garnering only 246 votes against the winner’s 2,548.  In the winter of 1902 he spent several weeks slumming in London City’s Lower East End, from which came his People of the Abyss,(1903) reportage of misery and privation.  In 1904 he was assigned to cover the Russo-Japanese war, where he was thrown in jail three times. Yet, with this immersion in socialist organizing and friendship which brought his ideas to a boil, he perhaps too close to those experiences, forswore literary guidance and control.

It is interesting that despite London’s own harsh laboring youth, his facility with popular Marxist ideas and his idea of himself as a socialist organizer that his alter-ego in The Iron Heel is a more familiar figure to many Americans- the Christian Hero-Christ.  Avis says from time to time that others, brave and smart, helped create the Second Revolution. The novel is not of what they did, nor the organizing and persuading that created it.  It is of one, extraordinary man; a man endowed with prophetic powers.

Ernest rose before me transfigured, the apostle of truth, with shining brows and the fearlessness of one of Gods own angels, battling for the truth and the right, and battling for the succor of the poor and lonely and oppressed. And then there arose before me another figure, the Christ! He, too, had taken the part of the lowly and oppressed, and against all the established power of priest and pharisee. And I remembered his end upon the cross, and my heart contracted with a pang as I thought of Ernest. Was he, too, destined for a cross?—he, with his clarion call and war-noted voice, and all the fine man’s vigor of him!

London was a hard-lived 30 when The Iron Heel was published. Everhard’s goodness, however, seems to come from some boyish belief in transcendent goodness, wisdom, physical strength and beauty. While the man-against-the-wilderness conception worked well in the adventure stories that preceded this, it does not work so well in social circumstances, where the enemy is not the cold or hunger or wild beasts but The Oligarchy, where survival comes not because of the Crusoe-like competence of one man, but because of social and organizational skills of the highest order.

Violence

My particular interest in the Iron Heel, as in most of the novels I have been reading for several years, is how the writer talks about war.  Along a scale from celebration to condemnation how do the characters talk about and relate to war; what, if any, is the subtext of the author’s own views?

As a champion of the oppressed London condemns the violence of the Oligarchs scathingly and often; he cheers the general strike which stops the just-declared German-American war in its first days. For war in American cities the tone and viewpoint is quite different.  In fact, more than once, he takes an almost sensual delight, a caressing feeling, for blood-vengeance and retribution. More than once close readers of London’s work have noticed a proto-fascist thread running through it.

His description of the Chicago Commune going up in flames reads like text for an illustrated comic-book.

Suddenly there was a deafening roar. The [police car], with its human freight, lifted in an upburst of smoke, and sank down a mass of wreckage and death. Hartman was jubilant. “Well done! well done!” he was repeating, over and over, in a whisper. “The proletariat gets its lesson to-day, but it gives one, too.” … no revolutionist hesitates at such things.

Or,

[it was ] a mob, an awful river that filled the street, the people of the abyss, mad with drink and wrong, up at last and roaring for the blood of their masters.

It surged past my vision in concrete waves of wrath, snarling and growling, carnivorous, drunk with whiskey from pillaged warehouses, drunk with hatred, drunk with lust for blood—men, women, and children, in rags and tatters, dim ferocious intelligences with all the godlike blotted from their features and all the fiendlike stamped in, apes and tigers, anaemic consumptives and great hairy beasts of burden, wan faces from which vampire society had sucked the juice of life, bloated forms swollen with physical grossness and corruption, withered hags and death’s-heads bearded like patriarchs, festering youth and festering age, faces of fiends, crooked, twisted, misshapen monsters blasted with the ravages of disease and all the horrors of chronic innutrition—

When Avis recounts being saved

Next he dragged a dying woman over on top of me, and, with much squeezing and shoving, crawled in beside me and partly over me. A mound of dead and dying began to pile up over us, and over this mound, pawing and moaning, crept those that still survived.

it is hard not to recall the necrophiliac slogan, “Long live death” of Spanish and Italian fascists.

Even his earlier writing prefigures a certain tendency burbling beneath his celebration of manliness, as in the Nietzschean superman hero, in  are The Sea-Wolf (1904.)

One contributor to the present-day ultra-right website Storm Front queries whether London ‘can be considered “one of us.”

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Something of his transition from being an anti-war socialist to an admirer of war and its rewards can be traced in his reporting from two assignments to actual, shooting wars.  In 1904, four years before the publication of The Iron Heel he went with other American reporters to cover the Russo-Japanese war, of his own volition, and with high hopes, as he says,

… of all sorts of battles and skirmishes, right in the thick of it, where life was keen and immortal moments were being lived. In brief, I came to war expecting to get thrills.

His actual experience was not so great: irritation and vexation, censorship and bland “honored guests” tours

After his third arrest he was released by the Japanese aand sent back to the U.S.  President Theodore Roosevelt  personally intervened.  The Japanese had reason to respond; Roosevelt had dubbed them “honorary Aryans”  allies against the sub-human Slavic race.

By 1912 London joined another battle, this time with the U.S. forces occupying Vera Cruz Mexico at the behest of “He Kept Us Out of War” President Woodrow Wilson. By now London was much more enamored of American fighting men.

Boys they were, all boys, the flower of the young men of our land, and they marched with the clacking rhythm of “boots, boots” on the pavement along the broad lane formed by the regulars on one side presenting arms and on the other side cheering American civilians. It was a joy to see the faces that tried not to smile with pleasure over the applause for work well done, and to catch the involuntary sideward glances of boyish eyes not yet quite disciplined to the level impassive look of war.

Though he still shows some of the early sorrow at the stupidity and waste of war, and empathy for Mexican peons, he has certainly taken on the views of his country’s leaders

The big brother can police, organize, and manage Mexico. The so-called leaders of Mexico cannot. And the lives and happiness of a few million peons, as well as of many millions yet to be born, are at stake.

The policeman stops a man from beating his wife. The humane officer stops a man from beating his horse. May not a powerful and self-alleged enlightened nation stop a handful of inefficient and incapable rulers from making a shambles and a desert of a fair land wherein are all the natural resources of a high and happy civilization?

By the time The Great War began, London along with almost all his anti-war socialist comrades around the world, found much to be said for nationalism and defending one’s own. Years of condemnation of capitalist wars were forgotten overnight and men swarmed to arms.  Despite failing health, London declared he wanted to go as a correspondent “as soon as reporters were allowed at the front.” 

Like many others of his time, including his sometime hero, Teddy Roosevelt, he had come around to the idea, that war was to be fought not just if necessary, a defense of life and limb, but because it would be a “cleansing event.”

The world war has compelled men to return from the cheap and easy lies of illusion to the brass tack and iron facts of reality. It is not good for man to get too high up in the air above reality. The world war has redeemed [humanity] from the fat and gross materialism of generations of peace, and caught mankind up in a blaze of the spirit. The world war has been a pentecostal cleansing of the spirit of man.”

Just before he dies, possibly by his own hand, on November 22, 1916, he wrote to a friend.

I would rather be a dead man under German supremacy than a live man under German supremacy. If the unthinkable should happen, and England be shoved into the last ditch, I shall, as a matter of course, go into that same last ditch and fight and die with England.

Ω

As somewhat of a side note, it is interesting to know of London’s relation of Theodore Roosevelt.  Both great outdoor men, and epitomizing the manly virtues of the time, there was some public friction.

In 1907 after reading “White Fang” Roosevelt, in his own opinion a world expert in the behavior of wolves, criticized London as being a “nature faker, ” a slur going around at the time for writers who were anthropomorphizing animals to catch the emotions of their readers 

“I am certain he knows nothing about their (wolves)  fighting, or as a realist he would not tell this tale.” 

Even so, in October 1916 London told the New York World that he supported Theodore Roosevelt against Woodrow Wilson,  but that 

“nobody in this fat land will vote (for him) because he exalts honour and manhood over the cowardice and peace-lovingness of the worshipers of fat.”

So, hatred of oligarchs and their sending working men to death in nationalist wars, had given way to the excitement of real guns, real battles and real men.  London, along with Roosevelt, was a strong advocate of intervention in the war in Europe, a war which did not threaten the continental United States, and which many American opposed.

RACE

I cannot finish a look at Jack London without a remark on race.  He did not the socialist idea of The Brotherhood of Man. For him it was the Brotherhood of White Man.

“I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist.”

His New York Herald coverage of the 1908 heavyweight title bout between black challenger Jack Johnson and white boxing champ Tommy Burns was filled with lurid ethnic caricatures and race baiting.

“The history of civilization is a history of wandering—a wandering, sword in hand, of strong breeds, clearing away and hewing down the weak and less fit …

And for those who are not “best fitted to live in this world”? In his 1910 short story “The Unparalleled Invasion,” the United States—with the author’s plain approval—wages biological warfare on China to decimate its population. It then invades and takes over. It is, the story says, “the only possible solution to the Chinese problem.

“The menace to the Western world lies, not in the little brown man, but in the four hundred millions of yellow men should the little brown man undertake their management. The Chinese is not dead to new ideas; he is an efficient worker; makes a good soldier, and is wealthy in the essential materials of a machine age. Under a capable management he will go far. The Japanese is prepared and fit to undertake this management. Not only has he proved himself an apt imitator of Western material progress, a sturdy worker, and a capable organizer, but he is far more fit to manage the Chinese than are we. The baffling enigma of the Chinese character is no baffling enigma to him. He understands as we could never school ourselves nor hope to understand. Their mental processes are largely the same. He thinks with the same thought-symbols as does the Chinese, and he thinks in the same peculiar grooves. He goes on where we are balked by the obstacles of incomprehension. He takes the turning which we cannot perceive, twists around the obstacle, and, presto! is out of sight in the ramifications of the Chinese mind where we cannot follow.” 

As a closing thought, when we think of Jack London as the youthful author of Boys Great Adventures and his long support of those gripped in the yoke of capitalism, remember this too:

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. That we have groped for the way of right conduct and agonized over the soul betokens our spiritual endowment. Though we have strayed often and far from righteousness, the voices of the seers have always been raised, and we have harked back to the bidding of conscience. The colossal fact of our history is that we have made the religion of Jesus Christ our religion. No matter how dark in error and deed, ours has been a history of spiritual struggle and endeavor. We are preeminently a religious race, which is another way of saying that we are a right-seeking race.”