[(essay date 14) In the following essay, Kehoe examines the treatment of coercive violence in two politically oriented short stories by London.]
Item JL 1354 in the London Archive at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA is designated “Utopia: [note for a novel], written in pencil.” On this piece of paper torn from a notepad, Jack London wrote: “I MUST WRITE A UTOPIA! Young men sailing around the world. Men and women not allowed to ride horses without certificates. Production for service not profit. Get (?), also, some sort of motif—love, or something better” (“Utopia”). Perhaps someday, much like Robert L. Fish who finished the manuscript for The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., some ambitious young author, albeit with a paucity of prefatory material, will finish what London started. In the meantime, however, we are left with several texts that reveal the utopian dimensions, if not occasional limitations, of London’s thought and literary practice.
Rather than speculate as to the outcome of this suggestive outline for a utopia that never was, a more provocative and potentially productive line of inquiry concerns the interrogation of the relationship between London’s portrayal of idealized post-capitalist futures and his ever-evolving beliefs about the efficacy of coercive political violence. Some scholars argue that whereas London started from a position of sympathy for, if not outright advocacy of, the employment of coercive political violence in the pursuit of revolutionary change, by the time he published his later novels and essays he condemns such violence as counter-productive, serving to alienate the masses (Osipova). The following analysis, however, seeks to participate in the further critical reevaluation of Jack London’s SF and political fictions by arguing that London’s attitude toward various forms of coercive political violence in pursuit of the utopian socialist future is much more complex. In two of his lesser known short stories, “Goliah” and “The Dream of Debs”, London forces us to ask sometimes uncomfortable questions regarding not only the relationship between violence1 and social revolution, but also how our collective resistance to actively confronting these questions can lead us down the path to authoritarian, or even totalitarian, futures.
In many ways London’s political fictions can be read as inheritors of a long tradition in American letters. From James Fenimore Cooper’s 1847 novel The Crater, through Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and the utopian novels of the late nineteenth century there has been a longstanding desire among American writers to explore the inherent inequalities and failed promises of our fragile democracy. A fundamental difference, however, is that while for many nineteenth century American writers their utopic vision consisted of a kind of capitalism perfected (Pfaelzer 3-25), for London, the idea that a system predicated on exploitation and oppression could somehow naturally evolve into a humane and equitable social order was a foolish proposition.
London, born on January 12, 1876, in the era Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner referred to as “the Gilded Age,” composed his remarkable works of proto-science fiction...