- Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America, by Cecelia Tichi
There are many reasons to admire Cecelia Tichi’s latest work, Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America. To begin with, she distills her arduous archival work into well-crafted observations, characterizations, and the construction of a new systemic understanding of London’s career: “Jack London has long been hailed as a prolific producer of best-selling fiction; a flamboyant adventurer; a daring sailor; a resourceful war correspondent on the front lines; a travel writer, sports reporter, playwright, socialist essayist, and lecturer. One identity that is fundamental to an understanding of his work and its significance to America’s historical development, however, has been lost in successive decades: that is, Jack London, the great American public intellectual” (3–4). Her narrative begins in media res with London taking the stage at Yale University to deliver his speech “Revolution” in early 1906. It’s a great moment in his life and a perfect illustration of London as public intellectual. But, to get to that thesis, Tichi first re-creates the figure of Jack London as many of his friends knew him: he was, as Anna Strunsky called him, “the Napoleon of the pen.” Tichi’s biographical narrative is constructed to show us how a man becomes an oversized personality, a requirement for the position of public intellectual. We get basic biographical information presented in a clear straightforward narrative that builds the case that London grew into that role, that it sat with him easily, though it required an immense amount of hard work overcoming poverty, the alienation that westerners felt from the East, and the loneliness of a long-distance writer. Then we get the categorization of his public message, divided by chapters: war and empire; care of the soil and best farming practices; industrial and economic reform; and the prison system. These are the major issues that London pinned his hopes on to change America for the better. [End Page 84]
Tichi’s thesis can be categorized as one of those “why didn’t I think of that?” theses. Of course Jack London was a public intellectual! The label works because it encompasses the entirety of his life and because it links what otherwise would be an anachronistic label (public intellectuals weren’t known as such until 1967, according to the oed) to London’s still current concerns about class warfare in America. If public intellectuals today are known for their pronouncements on public policy, then surely London was a public intellectual, and one of the best known in his time. In fact, thanks to Tichi, we can now stop speaking of London as an autodidact, a label that took away from London’s authority, and now call him what he rightfully was: “an impassioned nonexpert” (6). Neither specialist nor dilettante, London is interesting not because of how he gained his education but how he applied it. And the way he applied it was to define in clear workmanlike fashion the ills and dangers of his democratic society. Thus, by emphasizing London’s messages, and not his life, Tichi shows how we learn as much about the world London lived in as we do about the life of the man himself. We speak often in literary studies about placing particular figures in their sociocultural context, but Tichi’s book reverses the process. Focusing on London’s social, political, and cultural critiques brings his world into the foreground. The bigger accomplishment of Jack London is that by foregrounding his world we recognize our own instead of merely seeing ourselves in him. Her account, though one of the best narratives of his life, is not a traditional biographic study. It is a study of the world in a man and how he hoped to change it.
She calls London’s era the first Gilded Age, and right from the start we feel we are reading a history of our own time. It was a time...