Monday, February 25, 2013

Novels and Social Writings by Jack London (Library of America)

The gold standard of London collections
I first came upon this volume 25 years ago. It was my introduction to London, and today it is probably still the most valued book on my shelves. Jack London is one of America’s greatest writers, and this collection from the Library of America proves it. Though now best known for The Call of the Wild and other adventure tales of the Klondike (LOA also has a collection of those), in his day London was also a renowned writer on political, philosophical, and social issues. The five books and four essays collected here represent some of his greatest work.

For most of his life London was a socialist, and his political writings emphasize class struggle, the plight of the working man in capitalist society, and the inevitability of a socialist revolution. The People of the Abyss is London’s journalistic account of the poverty-stricken slums of London’s East End. In The Road, he relates the adventures of his days tramping across North America. The Iron Heel is a masterful science fiction novel about a future civil war between revolutionary socialists and a plutocratic oligarchy. Martin Eden is a semi-autobiographical novel about a working class writer who strives to elevate his social status through self-education and hard work. John Barleycorn is London’s memoir about his life-long relationship with alcohol. Of these five, only The People of the Abyss seems to have lost a bit of its power and relevance over the past century. The remaining four books are five-star works still as vital as the day they were written. (Follow the links in this paragraph to read more detailed reviews of individual books.)

In addition to these book-length works, London wrote dozens of short stories and essays on political and social themes. The selection provided here is satisfactory, but not exceptional. It would have been great if they had included some of his short fiction like “The Apostate” or “Goliah,” but instead they have chosen four essays. “How I Became a Socialist” is an obvious choice, given its title and subject matter, but it’s really too brief to provide a great deal of insight into London’s political thought. “The Scab” is a very good example of London’s political essays detailing the failures of capitalist society. More perplexing is the inclusion of London’s “Introduction to The Jungle”, since it’s mostly just a plot summary of Upton Sinclair’s novel. “Revolution,” on the other hand, is an excellent choice. It’s a state-of-the-union address for socialism in 1905, and a stirring call to arms.

The Library of America produces the best books of classic literature available today, with beautiful typography, high quality paper, and elegant bindings made to last forever. These volumes are not needlessly encumbered with introductions and prefaces, but let the authors’ masterworks speak for themselves. They do include endnotes which clarify historical events and archaic terms, and a detailed chronology of the author’s life. These books are truly a joy to read and to behold. My only complaint about the LOA is why only two volumes on London? He is America’s most widely read author worldwide, and deserves the extensive treatment given to Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Twain.

Books included in this volume

The People of the Abyss 
The Road 
The Iron Heel 
Martin Eden 
John Barleycorn 

Essays included in this volume

How I Became a Socialist 
The Scab 
Introduction to The Jungle 

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