- Aging Athletes, Broken Bodies, and Disability in Jack London's Prizefighting Prose
Jack London's name often conjures up images of dogs plowing through Alaska's desolate wilderness, or of robust men journeying into the wild; however, pictures of broken bodies struggling for survival in a boxing ring less readily come to mind. Few think of London as a sports writer, yet his illustrations of prizefighting reveal an author interested not only in ablebodied athletes but in disabled and weakened ones as well. Although he is best known for his Klondike stories, nautical adventures, and socialist sentiments, the author's fascination with fitness shows that sport and the body are just as central to London's evolving aesthetic and ideology.
Even stories taking place beyond the ring exalt able-bodied individuals while remaining sensitive to those who suffer sickness and setbacks. At the beginning of his semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909), for instance, London's eponymous protagonist insists that he "'ain't no invalid'" (43). Eden later emerges, however, as a sympathetic figure plagued by mental illness. Similarly, in his famed The Sea-Wolf (1904), the physically fit Wolf Larson ends up immobilized and paralyzed by the novel's end. Indeed, the author's idealization of selective strength seems at odds with his concern for the injured and the ill.
London wrestled as a writer between expressing eugenic sentiments of Anglo-Saxon superiority and reflecting socialist concerns for underprivileged people; sport became a means through which his stories communicated this struggle. On the one hand, London's naturalist narratives reveal a social Darwinist rhetoric that idealize racial fitness, masculine strength, physical conditioning, and supreme normalcy. On the other hand, his stories about prizefighting and boxing contain a socialist vision that promote radical reforms for marginalized communities. Considering these seemingly [End Page 200] divergent perspectives, what are we to make of the complex ways in which London's writings approach adversity and deal with difference?
We might answer this question by looking not only to race, gender, ethnicity, and class but also to disability and the body. The Game (1905), "A Piece of Steak" (1909), The Valley of the Moon (1913), and The Abysmal Brute (1913) expose through sport the author's conflicted views on whiteness, masculinity, and normalcy. In one respect, London's boxing fiction elevates able-bodied white men while marginalizing frail fighters, female figures, and African American athletes. Indeed, a Progressive Era rhetoric about conditioning and cleanness predominates here. At the same time, these stories give attention to the least physically and racially fit by expressing some sympathy for broken boxers and by empowering minorities who triumph in the ring.
How, then, do readers reconcile a racialized rhetoric with the inclusive concern for social justice that London's literary works promote? Further complicating this question is the author's occasional occupation as a sports journalist, one who reported on the first American black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson; the author's coverage in The San Francisco Call of Johnson's historic fights shows a writer deeply divided about race. Overall, his sports narratives vacillate between glorifying champions of exceptional ability and sympathizing with overworked athletes or burdened boxers. I argue that London's prizefighting prose, in particular, captures a divide in American naturalism between social Darwinian or eugenic ideas about racial fitness and socialist sentiments promoting the progress of those who have been cast aside. Furthermore, the author's writings about boxing and the body reveal a previously unexplored connection in literary naturalism between sport, physical culture, and disability.
Through the critical lens of disability studies, this essay rethinks Jack London's naturalist narratives as American sport stories focused on physicality. In order to clarify London's contributions to disability discourse, readers must first deepen their understanding of social Darwinism and eugenics, two overlapping movements with extensive critical histories. Also, to consider the role of evolutionary rhetoric in London's early essays and letters, an analysis of early twentieth-century masculinity and manhood in relation to race, gender, and sexuality is helpful. This essay concludes that London's prizefighting prose shows a writer in conflict between his own commitment to personal conditioning and a...