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Jack London: A Writer's Fight for a Better America Hardcover – September 1, 2015
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London steps from Tichi's pages as a self-educated intellectual absorbed by the plight of the downtrodden and the oppressed.--Foreword Reviews
Tichi paints a portrait of Jack London as a champion of progressive causes.--Chapter 16
[A] persuasive reappraisal of Jack London. . . . Brings a fresh perspective to an author and thinker frequently dismissed as a mere writer of adventure fiction.--Publishers Weekly
A study of the world in a man and how he hoped to change it.--Jay Williams, Studies in American Naturalism
Tichi's reframing of London offers a significant rethinking of early twentieth-century America.--American Historical Review
An illuminating study of a literary figure long receded into stereotype. . . . A fruitful, well-written blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and biography.--Kirkus Reviews
Strongly recommended for London devotees and for anyone with an interest in the evolution of social reforms in America.--Library Journal
Cecelia Tichi reflects Jack London's astounding energy and emphasizes the importance of journalism to the essential drive that defines him. This is a valuable and rewarding work.--Joseph Flora, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
This book is a brilliant integration of the age and its literatures, reaching deeply into London's significance as an artist and political and public figure of his era. Cecelia Tichi has created a stunning contribution to Jack London studies.--Jeanne Reesman, University of Texas at San Antonio
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The above comment is what I find written in the first of some sixteen pages of notes I took while reading Tichi’s “Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America.” It was inked after reading the first two chapters; after finishing the next two, I thought, “Whoa, not so fast.”
Tichi’s book is what we’d call today a “bump” of a thread originating in 1939 by Jack’s daughter, Joan London, in her book “Jack London and His Times.” Joan opens her book with a quote from Jack himself:
“The pity of it is that the writer-folk are writing for bread first and glory after; and that their standard of living goes up as fast as their capacity for winning bread increases, so that they never get around to glory -- the ephemeral flourishes, and the great stories remain unwritten.”
- Jack London
It isn’t difficult to see that she intended to portray her father as an apostate from the socialist cause, a sellout who never wrote a great story and was more concerned with winning bread. She performs a clever character assassination of her father, calling his poems “poor, lifeless things which gave back not the faintest glow of ardor which had gone into their composition.” Elsewhere she states, “Perversely, with a high disregard for tradition, he had chosen as a field in which to make money one which had hitherto been loftily dedicated to the finest expressions of man’s thoughts and aspirations with no though of pecuniary reward.” Later, she claims his socialist writings were “mediocre” and accuses him of turning out mostly “polished trash.”
History has shown Joan London to be seriously in error, and perhaps delusional. Not only has her father proven to be more than a minor literary figure, as she predicted, his stature as an American and world author is now legendary. He is far more translated and read than any other American author worldwide, and his work is experiencing yet another remarkable resurgence, not just because it’s darn good reading, but because of its extraordinary relevance to social, political, and economic conditions both here and around the world.
This is where Cecelia Tichi has once again grasped the torch that burns with Jack London’s passion for humanity and the written word; with her new book she has carried it straight into the public consciousness, to again illuminate our imagination with the thinking and work of Jack London.
That flame was previously carried by two other authors. The most important of these is Philip S. Foner, who wrote “Jack London: American Rebel” (1947). Foner calls his book “a collection of social writings along with an extensive study of the man and his times.” My review of his book states “Foner's book leaves absolutely no doubt that Jack London was the most prominent socialist in all of American history, let alone American literature. London's book “The Iron Heel” also demonstrates this, but the vast bulk of Jack London's powerful, convincing contribution to the advent of socialistic policies -- and important changes in the way we do business in this country -- has been deliberately overlooked, ignored, or suppressed by those who are uncomfortable with it.”
Foner also published excerpts from Jack London’s most important socialist works, along with many short stories and essays which dealt with social, political, and economic issues.
What is significant about Foner’s book is that he wrote it with the cooperation and collaboration of several key people who were still living at the time. He worked directly with Charmian London, Upton Sinclair, and Irving Shepard to create this volume, which provides a distinction of having access to credible and original sources that no one can today claim.
Unfortunately, Foner’s book is not well-known now except by those interested in the deeper aspects of Jack London studies. This is where Cecelia Tichi’s work becomes important, as it reintroduces this extremely important aspect of Jack London’s life’s work -- that is, his activism and advocacy for positive social change -- to a brand new audience.
Initially, Tichi’s book showed a very clear sense of purpose and direction. Her introduction, a dramatization of Jack London’s seismic speech at Yale University on January 26, 1906, is a slam dunk, and lassoes the reader straightaway. By Chapter Two she squares off the young firebrand Jack London with Ivy Ledbetter Lee, one of the first acknowledged public relations professionals, who claimed Standard Oil as one his initial clients.
But as the book progresses, one begins to wonder whether it was really intended as a clear-headed commentary on London’s social writings, or a conventional biography. The style of the book ranges from the clinically academic to that of a biographical novel, with sections that can only be termed dramatizations or speculation. An inordinate amount of time is spent on plainly conventional biographical material that is easily found elsewhere.
Tichi also reveals some surprising gaps in her research. Some are minor, some perhaps a bit more than that. For example, in discussing “Before Adam” (London’s seminal fictional work on pre-Adamic history) she wrongly states that the character “Red Eye” is the “chief of the Fire People.”
Red Eye, far from being the chief of the Fire People, was an outcast in protagonist Big Tooth’s own “Folk” and according to the book’s narrator would have been better off as one of the Tree People, the lowest standard of living in Big Tooth’s world. Red Eye was a violent social pariah who murdered and stole at will, living among the Folk as a feared but uncontested resident. The chief of the Fire People (so-called because they had discovered the use of fire, as well as tools and weapons like the bow and arrow) was a wizened old man, crippled but crafty, who leads his tribe on a rapine conquest of the Folk. This error would suggest Ms. Tichi didn’t actually read ‘“Before Adam” but referred to someone else’s erroneous notes.
Another mistake is her comment that Jack London was irritated when reviewers called his “White Fang” a reversal of “The Call of the Wild”. From the outset, “White Fang” was conceived by London as exactly that. In a December, 1904 letter to publisher George Brett, London writes, “I have an idea for the next book I shall write...not a sequel...but a companion...I’m going to reverse the process. A complete antithesis to ‘The Call of the Wild’.”
This distinction is important with respect to literary criticism and a proper evaluation of “White Fang”. For this to be missed is puzzling.
Another error that raised an eyebrow was her use of an image of Jack London which she characterizes as “sailor and workingman.” The photograph purports to be that of London on his way to the docks or jute mill, clad in the garb of the working class. However, that image is not of Jack London as an exploited worker. It is instead from a series of publicity images taken in the city of London during his stay there in 1902 while working on “The People of the Abyss.” The clothes, according to Jack, were acquired at an “old-clothes shop”. As London relates, “In the end, I selected a pair of...well-worn trousers, a frayed jacket..., a pair of brogans which had plainly seen service where coal was shoveled, a thin leather belt, and a very dirty cloth cap.”
It is apparent when examining the photographs that these are exactly the clothes he is wearing in the image on Page 148 of Tichi’s book. Final proof of the origin of this photo comes from Jeanne Campbell Reesman’s “Jack London, Photographer” which includes additional photos from that series. One image in the above book is captioned “Jack London as an East-ender, England, 1902” and a second is entitled, “Jack London and Bert, a cobbler, London, 1902”.
The problem here is not that the image is particularly disingenuous, or that Jack London was not truly a sailor or workingman; it is that these images are misrepresentations, and their source -- although clearly documented by Ms. Reesman in her book of Jack London’s photographs -- is apparently not known to Tichi. In fact, according to the information in Reesman’s book, Jack London himself took the photographs, which were later returned to him after “The People of the Abyss” was published. Jack London’s stepsister Eliza Shepard made notations under these images as to their origins in a scrapbook she gave to him after his return from England. (One of these images, “Jack London as an East-ender” was also used as the cover photograph for Jay Williams’ “Author Under Sail: The Imagination of Jack London, 1893-1902” and in Joan D. Hedrick’s book, “Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work” wherein Hedrick represents it as an image of “Jack London, member of the working class”. Thus, Tichi was not the first to be unaware of the image’s origins.)
Finally, I must correct Ms. Tichi’s assertion that Jack London was incapable of writing “crime fiction”. She states:
“Producing crime fiction, however, proved nearly impossible for London no matter how hard he tried. Eager to join the ranks of crime fiction writers, London sketched this plot: ‘A woman is held up by desperate young fellow, in her own house -- when police take him away...he turned his head as he went out and called her a name unspeakable and vile.’ London, however, abandoned this story...these notes were dispatched, null and void to London’s files.”
While the term “crime fiction” is rather vague, it would certainly include stories of criminal justice, as well as the investigation and solving of crimes. On both counts, Jack London has delivered convincingly. In fact, the very story Tichi claims Jack London “abandoned” was in fact written and published. It is called “To Kill a Man” and is included in a collection called "The Night-Born", and has been available for many years from various digital sources, including an ebook version. It is not an obscure work; I found an online analysis of the story posted by an English student nearly two years ago. A further, but partial list of Jack London’s excellent “crime fiction” also includes the short stories “The Enemy of All the World”, “The Minions of Midas”, “The Hanging of Cultus George”, “The Passing of Marcus O’Brien”, “Winged Blackmail”, "Just Meat", and “The Chinago”. And let’s not forget London’s “The Assassination Bureau, Ltd.”, a book later made in 1969 into a major motion picture starring Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, and Curt Jurgens. To be fair, this novel was based at least in part on a plot idea London purchased from Sinclair Lewis, but it bears London’s name and the first 20,000 words are his own.
Despite these errors, Cecelia Tichi’s book is a worthy, even essential, addition to any Jack London study library, and is a good, solid read. She underscores London’s contributions to social progress and environmentalism, detailing his astoundingly advanced “Beauty Ranch” for what it was; decades ahead of its time, sustainable, organic, and scientific all at once. She rightly lauds several important novels usually dismissed by critics and biographers, among them “The Little Lady of the Big House” and “Michael, Brother of Jerry” and provides us with a fresh analysis of “The Valley of the Moon”. She also takes on Kevin Starr, and makes a strong case for the sources of Jack London’s depression which several credible authors feel contributed to his early death.
Tichi herself skirts adroitly any comment about the cause of London’s demise, merely stating “Death stalked [and] claimed the forty-year-old Jack London that night, November 22, 1916.”
Death did indeed come to Jack London, but his work lives on, as Tichi has once more shown us.