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  • Introduction
  • Jeanne Campbell Reesman (bio)

Jack London's The Road (1907), a forerunner of all American road stories afterwards, is a fascinating opening into London's own conflicting dreams and fears about what "the Road" meant in his own life and writing, reflecting reality and metaphor and revealing what his freedoms and limitations might be. The Road is about pursuing an uncertain dream, as later writers would also pursue on the railroads and highways of a twentieth-century America. Setting out with some "Road Kids" in 1892 and crossing the Sierra Nevada hiding in and under and on top of trains, London was also to hit the road when he joined California's Kelly's Army and hoboed his way East to meet up with Coxey's Army in 1894, a nationally organized march by out-of-work men marching to Washington, DC, to protest the government's labor and economic policies. Though he deserted Coxey's Army at Hannibal, Missouri, when the Army ran out of food, and continued to New York City, hoboing on his own before riding the US and Canadian rails home to California, his Tramp Diary, his essays and stories on hoboing, and, most famously, his book The Road, draw a portrait of many people on the Road and mostly, of course, of the author himself, not unlike London's later semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden (1909) and alcoholic memoirs, John Barleycorn (1913). In hoboing he was escaping poor economic and especially job conditions, crime, and family strife, but if he were romantic about the Road after his first foray, that naivete disappeared fast, though of course he survived the Road and flourished afterwards. His lowest point in The Road is his month in Erie County Penitentiary in Buffalo, New York, after his arrest for vagrancy, where he witnesses terrifying atrocities. Yet this is the place in which he discovered socialism as a remedy for the broken American (and world-wide) working class. A brainy boy who loved the library, London's [End Page vii] imagination was still never very far from his feet, and throughout his life, when he heard the call of adventure he heeded it, even attempting to sail around the world for seven years in a 55-foot sailboat with an amateur crew. But his commitment to social justice can also been seen everywhere in his writings. As he became one of the most successful and well-paid of American writers of his day, when he decided to compile the book The Road, his editor at Macmillan tried to dissuade him, fearing that publication might damage his reputation.

Publication apparently didn't do much harm at all, and that is because it is such an unusual narrative that can be read in challenging ways, and definitely misread, today and when it appeared. And yet who were the "accepted" authors writing about direct experiences of homelessness and class discrimination? Stephen Crane, yes, and some others in related fields, such as Jane Addams and Jacob Riis. But despite the popularity of hobo memoirs put out by cheap presses, no writer of the period is as personally revealing of his own experience on the Road as London was, mostly by his contradictory purposes for his hobo material and his internal struggles with its veracity. As the essays of this special issue of Studies in American Naturalism reveal, The Road is a very complex and contradictory text that can be approached from many sides, and it is also one that, despite its flaws, continues to be a significant text for understanding London's life and art as well as American social conditions of the time. The Road has often puzzled London experts along with more general readers; unlike The People of the Abyss (1903), with its searing illustrations made by London himself and its ideas about how to repair the situation of the poor of London, and also unlike his other illustrated book, The Cruise of the Snark (1911), again with his own cameras, The Road contains illustrations that are not at all realistic or naturalistic, a hodgepodge of drawings from the serial version, stock photos from Macmillan, plus some posed shots of someone who...


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pp. vii-xiii
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