- “This Firm of Men-Killers”: Jack London and the Business of Terrorism
“Terrorist Bomb Slays Sergius: Czar’s Uncle Blown to Pieces in Moscow”—New York Times, 18 February 1905
“Ex-Governor Killed by Dynamite Bomb: Frank Steunenberg of Idaho Victim of an Assassin”—New York Times, 31 December 1905
“Kennedy is Killed by Sniper as He Rides in Car in Dallas”—New York Times, 23 November 1963
If we consider terrorism to be public, symbolic, and political violence that is directed against a victim in order to produce fear and [End Page 905] coerce a third party, the chronologically and geographically disparate episodes of twentieth-century violence recorded in these three headlines could be considered terrorist attacks against, respectively, the governments of Russia, Idaho, and the United States. 1 Yet the events behind these headlines also exemplify the fluidity between—and the difficulty of separating—instances of terrorism directed against a state from violence that is specifically authorized by a state or government. For the state’s actions in these episodes also look very much like the acts of terrorists. Idaho’s officials, for instance, responded to the Steunenberg assassination by illegally kidnapping and detaining for more than a year three leaders of the militant Western Federation of Miners (WFM), including the era’s most famous labor radical, William “Big Bill” Haywood. Considered undesirable citizens because of their radical opinions, Haywood and his cohorts were covertly abducted and imprisoned despite being uninvolved with the Steunenberg assassination, suggesting, as had the trial of the Chicago Haymarket anarchists twenty years earlier, that any American citizen caught holding the wrong opinions could be judged responsible for criminal offenses he or she never committed. 2 Moreover, the Russian revolutionaries’ assaults in their abortive 1905 revolution were a response to decades of repression and assassinations by the state. And contemporary conspiracy theories that explain Kennedy’s murder by pointing a finger at agencies such as the shadowy Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) imagine the government itself explicitly as a terrorist organization whose operatives covertly carry out political assassinations.
These examples of political violence concisely evoke a cluster of issues—including the murky relationship between state and anti-state terror and the “inescapable complicity between fact and fiction in terrorism discourse” (Zulaika and Douglass 4)—that will be my central concerns in this essay. Yet more importantly, these events are curiously and intriguingly linked by the figure of Progressive-Era American novelist Jack London. The Russian revolutionaries’ tactics played a decisive role in London’s intellectual and philosophical development, convincing him that terrorism was sometimes a legitimate tactic in the class struggle (Johnston 120). London in 1906 also responded to the kidnapping of Haywood with an outraged article condemning the state’s patently illegal response to an illegal murder. And in 1910, London wrote approximately 120 pages of a novel titled The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., in which [End Page 906] he imagined an elite and clandestine firm of terrorists systematically righting America’s wrongs by killing those “criminals” whom the law protects, such as unscrupulous capitalists, crooked cops, and corrupt judges. London, however, threw his hands up in despair at his inability to imagine a satisfactory ending and left the manuscript languishing among his unpublished papers when he died in 1916. The subsequent publishing history of The Assassination Bureau is one of those historical coincidences that, to the paranoid, can look like conspiratorial truth. The novel was not published until 1963, only a few months before President Kennedy was assassinated. 3 As Donald Pease has argued, the text’s premise of a “shadow government of unelected officials” secretly controlling society “lent a weird aura of credibility to the manifold conspiracy theories that surfaced in the wake of that national tragedy” (viii).
But if Jack London provides an unexpected link between terrorist attacks in 1905 and Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, this is due to more than just the long delay and bizarre timing of The Assassination Bureau’s publication. The key element is London’s sustained interest in terrorists as both a literary and cultural subject throughout his most productive and successful decade, 1900 to 1910. London’s critics, however, have traditionally focused...