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Jack London's Racial Lives

A Critical Biography

Jeanne Campbell Reesman

Publication Year: 2009

Jack London (1876-1916), known for his naturalistic and mythic tales, remains among the most popular and influential American writers in the world. Jack London's Racial Lives offers the first full study of the enormously important issue of race in London's life and diverse works, whether set in the Klondike, Hawaii, or the South Seas or during the Russo-Japanese War, the Jack Johnson world heavyweight bouts, or the Mexican Revolution. Jeanne Campbell Reesman explores his choices of genre by analyzing racial content and purpose and judges his literary artistry against a standard of racial tolerance. Although he promoted white superiority in novels and nonfiction, London sharply satirized racism and meaningfully portrayed racial others—most often as protagonists—in his short fiction.

Why the disparity? For London, racial and class identity were intertwined: his formation as an artist began with the mixed "heritage" of his family. His mother taught him racism, but he learned something different from his African American foster mother, Virginia Prentiss. Childhood poverty, shifting racial allegiances, and a "psychology of want" helped construct the many "houses" of race and identity he imagined. Reesman also examines London's socialism, his study of Darwin and Jung, and the illnesses he suffered in the South Seas.

With new readings of The Call of the Wild, Martin Eden, and many other works, such as the explosive Pacific stories, Reesman reveals that London employed many of the same literary tropes of race used by African American writers of his period: the slave narrative, double-consciousness, the tragic mulatto, and ethnic diaspora. Hawaii seemed to inspire his most memorable visions of a common humanity.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xiv

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pp. xv-xviii

Research and writing for this book was supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the Fletcher Jones Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Henry E. Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif.), which I gratefully acknowledge ...

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pp. 1-12

Jack London's works reveal contradictions that characterized his life and art. London (1876-1916), who remains one of the most widely read of American writers, expresses the social, intellectual, and artistic turbulence of the turn of the twentieth century through his competing sympathies with socialism, Darwinism, social Darwinism, ...

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Chapter 1. Jack London and Race

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pp. 13-54

It has often been remarked that Jack London was a man who lived different lives as author, adventurer, sailor, sportsman, socialist crusader, rancher, war correspondent, and more. Understanding the role of a feature of his work as significant as his preoccupation with race first requires understanding the multiple ...

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Chapter 2. True North or White Silence? Slave vs. "Zone-Conqueror" in the Klondike

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pp. 55-86

The Klondike was London's first defining frontier of self and vocation. There his Anglo-Saxon identity could be tested in a stark environment in which both "natural" ability and adaptation could play a part. Instead of focusing merely on the theme of survival against the elements, London wrote stories that have much ...

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Chapter 3. Marching with the Censor: Jack London, Author! and the Japanese Army

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pp. 87-106

At the age of twenty-seven, enjoying worldwide fame as author of The Call of the Wild and having finished The Sea-Wolf (1904), leaving his page proofs in the hands of his old friend George Sterling and his new love Charmian Kittredge, London accepted an offer from the Hearst newspaper syndicate to cover ...

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Chapter 4. London and the Postcolonial South Pacific

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pp. 107-176

London and his crew sailed the Londons' ketch, the Snark, across the Pacific in 1907-09, two years of adventure and arguably the two most important years of London's artistic production, especially his portrayals of race. The trip occasioned a dramatic change in his racial thinking, as he learned much more ...

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Chapter 5. Jack London, Jack Johnson, and the "Great White Hope"

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pp. 177-206

The morning of July 4, 1910, dawned upon a divided nation. For months, boxing fans, newspapers, magazines, and even preachers had hyped the world heavyweight title boxing match to be held in Reno, Nevada, between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. This Independence Day match between the most famous ...

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Chapter 6. A ";Good Indian"? Race as Class in Martin Eden

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pp. 207-236

Since its publication a century ago, London's semiautobiographical Martin Eden (1909) has been translated into dozens of languages, has been read by millions, and has inspired countless writers. Yet it is a mixed achievement. From the month of its publication until London died seven years later, he had to defend or explain ...

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Chapter 7. "Make Westing" for the Sonoma Dream

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pp. 237-264

On Christmas Eve 1911, the Londons boarded a Western Pacific train in Oakland for New York City. They arrived January 2, 1912, and London planned meetings with a new publisher, Century. His spat with George Brett at Macmillan, his long-time publisher, would later be resolved, but this sudden change was one warning sign ...

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Chapter 8."Mongrels" to "Young Wise Ones": On the Mexican Revolution and On the Makaloa Mat

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pp. 265-306

The Londons continued their travels after the Dirigo voyage, spending long weeks aboard their new sailboat, the Roamer, on the bays and sloughs of the Sacramento River delta, a home-away-from-home that provided relaxation and healthy exercise. The ranch had its demands, and London was writing steadily on several books ...


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pp. 307-352


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pp. 353-372

Index; Image Plates

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pp. 373-389

E-ISBN-13: 9780820339702
E-ISBN-10: 0820339709
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820327891
Print-ISBN-10: 0820327891

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 58 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 712062157
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Jack London's Racial Lives

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Racism in literature.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
  • Authors, American -- 20th century -- Biography.
  • London, Jack, 1876-1916 -- Political and social views.
  • London, Jack, 1876-1916 -- Knowledge -- Race.
  • London, Jack, -- 1876-1916 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • London, Jack, 1876-1916.
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