- Jack London's Racial Lives: A Critical Biography
Jack London's racial philosophy, like the man himself, was mercurial. A nuanced writer of the Pacific Rim, his South Seas and Hawaiian fiction and reportage critically investigate the disastrous effects of Western imperialism on the lives of the inhabitants of the islands. Simultaneously, he was writing racist, hateful texts advocating for Anglo-Saxon he-men to rule the globe. These various racial "lives," as Jeanne Campbell Reesman's critical biography notes, are (to put it mildly) "complicated." Her rereading of many of London's works, from his most popular Call of the Wild [End Page 148] and Martin Eden to his forgotten Daughter of the Snows and Adventureland, from his reportage of the Jack Johnson heavyweight fights to the American invasion of Vera Cruz, and from his early letters about anti-imperialism to his later abusive letters to his daughter Joan, is intent to flesh out his seemingly inconsistent racial politics. Dr. Reesman's work hacks a roadmap for the reader that navigates around the two main camps of London scholars—those who avoid discussing London's racist diatribes that run throughout his oeuvre and those who discount his work entirely because of them—and instead offers us Jack London, a writer who "furnished us with a more complex set of responses to race than any writer of his day" (205).
To get at the "why" of these complications, Reesman contextualizes the racialist authors who London reads and who clearly influenced him and counterbalances these ideas with the lived reality of his childhood where his wet nurse and maternal connection was Virginia Prentis, a former African American slave. Reesman expertly weaves together his closeness to Prentiss with his voracious readings of scientific racialism; it becomes clear that London was both an insatiable and arrogant autodidact who struggled to make sense of his conflicted worldview throughout his life. This is most apparent in the chapter of his reportage of the Jack Johnson heavyweight fight where London, positioned as the race man by the Hearst Syndicate, changed his view and sided with the vilified African American boxer. By examining London's conflicting "lives" as he wrote articles about Johnson, while contextualizing the "lives" of the nation, Reesman offers wonderful insight into racial (mis)understandings at the beginning of the 20th century. It is surprising, therefore, that there is not much contextualization of London's racism as it relates to the Socialist Party's racial practices at the turn of the century. Although prominent leaders like Eugene Debs insisted on anti-racist policies, many pro-union workers and party leaders were often antagonistic to non-white workers. Teasing out these racial inconsistencies in the political socialist movement(s) might have shed light on the disconnections in London's personal thoughts.
Jack London's Racial Lives reveals the ambiguity of London's temperamental views of race while making a case that he was progressive and radical in his racial views in some of his work. Was Jack London a racist? Yes, the answer seems to be, but it's complicated.