Friday, November 23, 2012

The Strength of the Strong by Jack London

An OK collection with one pleasant surprise
The Strength of the Strong is a collection of short stories, most of which are good but not great. These were written about the middle of London’s career, after his Klondike period and before his South Pacific period, when there was quite a bit of variety in his work, so these stories take place in diverse settings. Many of them deal with political issues, and display London’s devotion to Socialism. Probably the best-known story and one of the better written in the collection is the piece for which the book is named. It’s an allegorical tale set in caveman times, in which London explains the class struggle from a Socialist perspective, with various characters standing as symbols for government, industry, labor, religion, etc. Three stories, “The Unparalleled Invasion”, “The Enemy of All the World”, and “The Dream of Debs”, are “What if?” histories of political events that take place in the near future (London’s future, our past). For the most part they are imaginative in their speculations, but not particularly engaging in character or plot. “The Dream of Debs” is the best of the three. It’s about a general strike that reeks havoc on San Francisco. “The Unparalleled Invasion” tells the story of China’s rise as a superpower and how the West deals with it. Unfortunately it’s marred by a racist attitude toward the Chinese and a glorification of genocide. “South of the Slot” is an unexceptional tale of class struggle in San Francisco. “The Sea-Farmer” is a sailor’s tale, above average but once again not remarkable.

The real surprise in this collection was the final selection, “Samuel”, which tells the story of Margaret Henan of Island McGill, Ireland, and her four sons named Samuel who died untimely deaths. London shows a surprisingly touching sensitivity to human emotion in this story. It’s also quite suspenseful, not because of any action or adventure in the plot, but rather just the skillful way in which London reveals piece by piece the mystery of this old woman’s past, heightening the reader’s interest until the very last page. In terms of the style and skill of the writing, this story seems years ahead of much of London’s work; it could have been written by William Faulkner. As a whole this collection, though nothing earth-shattering, will prove enjoyable to London fans. Those new or indifferent to London’s charms should just read “Samuel”.

Stories in this collection
The Strength of the Strong 
South of the Slot 
The Unparalleled Invasion 
The Enemy of All the World 
The Dream of Debs 
The Sea-Farmer 

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