Essays of Revolt - Jack London

My company uses an e-HRM system. The system is why my colleagues and I never forget to wish each other on birthdays and anniversaries. Systems like these save us from the embarrassment of appearing indifferent. Other systems like smartphones ensure that the most halfhearted birthday greeting appears sincere and colourful. All you have to do is type “Happy” and the autocomplete does the rest - it composes the shortest message needed to show how much you care. It will even recommend the right emojis - because whole words need too much reading, we can surely be more efficient. We’ve got a “Happy Birthday” greeting down to about three taps on a touchscreen. One system precipitates this behaviour with automated emails, and other systems propagate it. The greatest gift of social media is avoiding social interaction without looking like a misanthrope - it is no wonder that social media has swallowed whole an entire generation. If we’ve built and nurtured systems that make automatons out of humans, and others that reduce social interaction to taps and clicks and swipes, we probably deserve it.

But when such a system sends an automated “Happy Labour Day!” email, complete with animated confetti on your screen, that’s pretty cheeky of it.

Normally I have little patience for socialist writings, but the irony of a computer wishing me “Happy Labour Day” is too great to ignore. That’s when I decided to pick up an old copy of Jack London’s Essays of Revolt.

In January of 2024 I went to see the Elephanta caves with my wife and a friend. This fellow had recently taken a job which was lucrative enough to allow him to move to Mumbai. He was euphoric with the experience of living in the City of Dreams. He couldn’t stop grumbling about how few life experiences he’d had. Now that he could afford it, he wanted to travel more (He did, too. Shortly after our visit to Elephanta, he went on a solo trip across the country). I encouraged him with my own grumbling - I’d barely travelled myself, and if he had the time and the money, he shouldn’t be missing the chance.

We both grumbled - in the nauseatingly typical manner of pointlessly busy people - about how little time we had for travelling and other meaningful stuff. Just as I was muttering something about how we could be doing more in life, I remembered, with a nasty jolt, that Jack London had died at just 40. I’d read that in Leonard Abbott’s foreword to Essays of Revolt. Even if you have no illusions about living a life remotely as exciting and full as London’s, even with your humble acceptance of the inanity of your own life, it’s impossible not to feel that nasty jolt.

This edition of Essays of Revolt was an unlikely find. I found it at the Flora Fountain book market in Mumbai just the day before the Elephanta visit. It is exactly the kind of book that’ll attract a collector. An old hardcover, at least fifty years old, faded pages and a threadbare spine, with a smell to match. The spine doesn’t carry the title or the author’s name. You would have to pick it up to identify it. It bears the stamps of two different libraries - Shri Muljibhai Madhvani Library of Shri Brihad Bharatiya Samaj and the Mahadeo Shastri Congress Library - neither of which can find any mention on the internet. There’s a blank library card inside. No one seems to have borrowed the book while it was at either library. But the book is highlighted with a pencil on almost every page. And it’s highlighted really well. So much so that I wouldn’t bother highlighting it again. Whoever left annotations and underlines knew exactly what they were doing.

When I say it was an unlikely find, I don’t mean only that it was a rare book. For most of my life, I’ve known Jack London as a novelist who wrote about dogs. My father has kept copies of The Call of the Wild and White Fang for as long as I can remember. When I got my own dog, I leapt at those books and everything London wrote about dogs.

But I was shocked to discover that Jack London, famed for his dog novels, was a socialist. For a moment I considered that it might perhaps be a different Jack London. But it is the same person - John Griffith Chaney. That’s what I mean by an unlikely find: writers get typecasted by the ignorance of their readers, and only a stroke of luck can break the cast.

The cast broke some more later that night when I finished reading the foreword. Not only did London have this revolutionary side, but he had practically been through everything that America had to offer in the late 19th century. He’d ‘been there and done that’ - the there being everywhere and the that being everything. He’d been a child labourer, a poacher and a hobo, an intensely studious highschooler but also a college dropout. He had participated in the Klondike Gold Rush, seen critical and commercial success as a writer (which was remarkable for his time - most of his contemporaries were posthumously successful), a war correspondent in Japan and a socialist revolutionary.

He died at 40. You would think that he died ‘tragically young’ - but his body of work reflects the experiences of many full-length lifetimes.

The collection begins with a short story called The Apostate. It is at least a little autobiographical - a story about a teenage boy who’s been working in textile mills since the age of 8, who has slowly watched himself turn into a machine, growing infirm and developing rickets. All this for the bare minimum - just to keep his family fed. He thinks he’s wasting himself away so he can earn a better life. But as time goes by, he sheds illusion after illusion, until he finally understands the futility of his endeavour. The good life will forever be just out of his reach1. London echoes the same sentiment later in another essay, How I Became a Socialist:

All my days I have worked hard with my body, and according to the number of days I have worked, by just that much I am nearer the bottom of the (Social) Pit… I shall do no more hard work, and may God strike me dead if I do another day’s hard work with my body more than I absolutely have to do.

It is strange that I would never be able to appreciate this hundred-year-old thought without 21st century post-pandemic ideas of quiet quitting and burnout. What is profound and relevant today seems to have existed in Socialist literature a century ago. And it’s tragic that it’s still relevant. It would perhaps not be so shocking if it were relevant merely from the perspective of mass-ideology. It’s all the more disturbing, because it is relatable at the deepest level of the individual. It’s disturbing that I, a 21st century white-collar knowledge worker, with all his privilege, can relate to the little boy in The Apostate.

There is a tendency to separate the art from the artists. But in Jack London’s case it is impossible to resolve his contradictions. He was most certainly racist. In his work, Native Americans are often either villains (like the tribe that kills Buck’s master in The Call of the Wild), or subordinate to white men (like the lesser and greater human ‘Gods’ in White Fang). But his portrayal of many Mexican and Asian characters was sympathetic. It is said that Lenin himself had Jack London read to him on his deathbed. Lenin, perhaps, did not know that London resigned from the Socialist party shortly before his death because he felt ambivalent about the cause.

Following his swaying and oscillating writing is like following the arc of a complex life. For instance, Essays of Revolt is very different from the primitive brutality of The Call of the Wild. It is also very different from the Darwinian, competitive individualism of White Fang. London seems to have, like any good artist, been largely unapologetic about his mood swings.

He wrote what he believed. He changed his beliefs. And then he wrote more.

  1. Oliver Burkeman wrote similarly about the finitude of life in 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. The good life is a mirage, growing more hazy and distant as you inch closer to it. The good life is either now, or never. ↩︎

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