- Reviewed by
Jack London—An American Radical? treats professionally a specific, important topic that is often misrepresented and misunderstood and that has never been fully, tightly, and objectively explored. The book is clearly written; it reads smoothly as a whole. For the most part, it is sharply in focus on its topic, as Professor Johnston explains and defines London's radicalism without attacking or defending his various, often contradictory stances.
If this appraisal carries any reservation, it is because there is a thinness throughout—in the examination of what has been written on London, in the framing of the topic in relation to the total London, in the page-by-page analysis as it unfolds. Frequently, one wishes for greater density. This study defines London's socialism, but it is not exhaustively definitive.
Yet on the whole, there is a certain validity in this approach with the considerable merits of succintness, clarity of line, and consequent readability. A more thorough, analytical consideration of the various stages, turns, contradictions, omissions in this aspect of London's intellectual position would result in a different book in which the merits of this one are no longer so apparent. Moreover, the appeal for the less specialized reader might be lessened. Two recent works on London illustrate the point I am making. Both Joan D. Hedrick's Solitary Comrade—Jack London and His Work (1982) and Charles N. Watson, Jr.'s The Novels of Jack London: A Reappraisal (1983) are significant works, denser than An American Radical in the sense in which I am discussing. Having learned a great deal from both books, I can still find flaws in them that this examination avoids. As Johnston astutely observes, Hedrick is "alternately Freudian, feminist, and Marxist . . . and never sustain[s] a coherent methodology," in addition to the fact that she does not illuminate London's socialism. On the contrary, in my judgment, Johnston never gets muddled or wrongheaded in support of a thesis, and she does illuminate London's socialism.
Watson's book was published in 1983, perhaps too late for Johnston to bring its insights to bear fully on her own thesis. I am not suggesting anything major; but Watson makes very clear, for example, that Billy Robert's remarks about socialism in The Valley of the Moon do not carry London's message. In other words, Watson provides a ready check against over-simplification in matters that are somewhat peripheral to Johnston's main thrust. But even as I admire Watson's book, at times it seems almost too dense, and in his analysis all but the most appreciative reader of London might get bogged down. Johnston gets to and largely stays with her main point. She is at once informative, convincing, and balanced in a way that others who have written on London's radicalism have not been. London scholars and enthusiasts will certainly refer to this book as, I think, will many more general readers as well.
Johnston's convincing answer to the question of her title is that London was not really an American radical in the Marxist sense but an anticapitalist rebel. His particular brand of socialism was markedly his own individual composite of various attitudes, beliefs, and interests often not very clearly thought out. Because his socialism is significant in shaping his work, it must be examined carefully, however, if we are to understand London's work fully. Conversely, [End Page 298] in considering London's work at least partly in this context we gain a better understanding of American socialism and American intellectual history. In focusing on London's radicalism, Johnston thus has made a valuable contribution to our knowledge of London's life, his fiction, and the intellectual currents of his time. It is refreshing to have this addition to the increasing body of London criticism, which evaluates him for what he was rather than dismissing him for what he was not. [End Page 299]