You could probably guess that I’m a London fan.
As I said in the last post, I was reading a London short story, Shin-Bones. This is one of the South Seas stories, this about an Oxford-educated, thoroughly modern Hawaiian alii or prince, just returned from the Boer War. He narrates a story to his American or European friend about a thoroughly ancient adventure he had undertaken just years before, involving his ancestors sacred bones.
London’s writings encompass the turn of the last century, the 1890’s to his death in 1916. One of the things that makes London such a unique character in the pantheon of artists is that he did not capture just his moment, nor is his work “purely universal”, lacking time or place. He captured his moment at the edges, at the cutting edge of history.
His adventure stories in the Yukon are not just about the Gold Rush. His South Pacific stories are not just sailing adventures. London sketched, in story after story, the expanding edge of Euro-American civilization, and the soft, often bleeding cultures that civilization was breaking into.
London could be called naive, even racist for his early stories about the American adventurers and the Native people of the North. The Americans, generally, are the smarter, the tougher. They are winning. Their culture is supplanting the other, darker, primitive one, and that is portrayed as a good thing. I excuse London as being young, full of Spencerian and Nietzschean ideas of power. But even in these early stories, the Natives are often portrayed with great sympathy, occasionally showing superior intelligence and character, and that victory of Euro-American civilization is tinged with question marks.
London grew, travelled further, and changed. In his South Seas stories, a different theme emerges: here, the White Euro-American conqueror is a corrupting influence; an amoral destroyer in the name of God and dollars. The heroes, tragic heroes, are generally the island Natives, or Chinese, helpless though strong themselves, not at all pathetic in the face of this unstoppable force. Even in London’s novel The Sea Wolf, that great villain Wolf Larsen (who I would put on a pedestal with Darth Vader among the great bad guys of all time) is a very Nietzschean creature, strong of will, mind and body, superior to all around him. In an earlier story, he might have been the hero. But in The Sea Wolf he is the bad guy, and the weaker artsy-boy is the good guy.
I can only speak from my perspective, as a child of that White European “civilization”, but I see, in the entirety of London’s work, a complex and layered artistic representation of the encroachment of the Twentieth Century on cultures that weren’t ready for that invasion.
So much for that. My question is: Who is the Jack London of today? What would she or he be writing? What is the cutting edge of this moment? Where are movements coming together to change the world? Is it Silicone Valley? Is it in a mosque, in London or in Saudi Arabia, or in the desert domain of Islamic State? Is it in Beijing?