Monday, May 21, 2012

The Iron Heel by Jack London

The Great (Red) American Novel
Though best known for his excellent novel The Call of the Wild, Jack London’s greatest work is The Iron Heel. A dystopian vision of the future, it tells the story of the events leading up to a world war fought between socialists and a plutocratic oligarchy of wealthy capitalists. The narrator of the novel is Avis Everhard, the upper-middle-class daughter of a university professor in San Francisco. Avis’s husband Ernest Everhard, a working-class laborer and scholar, is one of the leaders of the socialists and the revolution. First published in 1907, the events of the novel take place from 1912 to 1932. The book is edited by Anthony Meredith, a historian living 700 years in the future, in the age of the Brotherhood of Man, when the world has for centuries been ruled by socialism, and class struggle, violence, and war are only distant memories. Meredith provides an introduction to the newly discovered Everhard manuscript, as well as extensive footnotes detailing an assortment of actual historical events that took place in the history of labor and fictional events that take place at various points in the imagined future.

Jack London was such a prolific writer that often his works feel like they were dashed off in one fell swoop, with little self-editing. Not so this work, which was obviously a labor of love. Every sentence is perfectly crafted and vital to the intricately constructed plot. The book begins with Ernest Everhard lecturing various class groups on socialist politics. (Ernest is basically a socialist superman, always the smartest and toughest guy in the room, and never wrong about anything.) Then, as the socialists gain strength, the oligarchs fight back. The beauty of the plot is the way in which London gradually escalates the conflict between the two, creating a snowball effect, so that by the end of the novel extraordinary events seem completely credible.

The Iron Heel succeeds on many levels. As a political primer, the discourse of Ernest Everhard presents a simplified version of Marxist theory that, while probably not 100% accurate, serves as a good introduction to the philosophy behind socialism. As a piece of propaganda, this book is to socialism what Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is to capitalism—unabashedly one-sided but admirably audacious. As a historic document, like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it provides an important snapshot of the state of the socialist movement in America in the early 20th century. As a science fiction novel, it is as imaginative as 1984, Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451, and more prescient in its depictions of the future. (While the socialists haven’t lived up to London’s vision, corporate America certainly has.) As an adventure novel, it’s a gripping and suspenseful epic. No matter what side of the political fence you’re on, anyone can enjoy a good freedom fighter story. Lastly, as a work of literature, The Iron Heel is an inspiration because it calls to mind a time when writers felt the purpose of a book was to change the world. Unfortunately, as the novels of today continually attest, that conviction is largely a thing of the past.

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