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  • Time for the Self and Other in Jack London's The Road
  • Nanette Rasband Hilton (bio)

Social politics were at the forefront of Jack London's rhetoric. From his days on the soapbox as the "boy socialist" to his Alaskan canine novels wherein the survival of the fittest ideology seemed to flourish, London marshalled facts to persuade his audience. London developed a reporter's acumen on the war front writing for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner about the Russo-Japanese War.1 As Cecelia Tichi observes, like "[p]rogressive era contemporaries" such as "antilynching reformer Ida B. Wells … London believed that the country's social, political, and economic advancement depended, first and foremost, upon the public's grasp of the hard facts of the contemporary moment" ("The Facts" 27–28). London's skill at weaving fact with storytelling elements like vernacular dialogue, elaborate imagery, sensory perception, and character development transformed his factual accounts into high-adventure reading. London had first-hand experience with life on the road, whether as a war correspondent enroute to the battle front or tramping across America—experiences he mined, turning them into gold as a writer. He wrote about his hobo identity as early as 1895 in his "'Frisco Kid's Story." London went on to publish more hobocentric works including his poem, "The Worker and the Tramp" (1898) and his novel The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902). At the height of his writing career, having already published The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), and White Fang (1906), London turned to writing about his life on the road by composing a travel memoir exposing his account of American injustice: The Road (1907). The Road is a mandate for reform—but reform of what or whom?

The Road is a work difficult to bring into focus for either London or his reader. An examination of The Road's compositional history shows it to be London's somewhat desperate attempt to reconcile his fiscal distress and [End Page 56] duplicitous selfhood. The Road is replete with jargon specific to the people he meets and holds at an emotional distance as objects of his anthropological study yet, at the same time, a group of which he claims to be part. At the heart of The Road is London's gripping ordeal with Othering in practice as he struggles to survive "The Pen," his 30-day incarceration in the Erie County Penitentiary. London's authorial wrestling to resolve his conflicts of character can be better understood with the help of theorist Walter Benjamin, whose theories about the effect of time can help explain London's psyche. London's Othering experience in "The Pen" suspends time in The Road, expanding and displacing his incarceration beyond its linear temporality due to its formative and haunting nature. Unlike his month in the penitentiary wherein time is suspended, the train moves through time. In examining London's actual transaction with broken time, we can take a rhetorical jump through time aboard the vanguard vehicle of London's era—the steam locomotive. As a trope and catalyst for Othering, the train becomes the stage from which London enacts revolutionary performance of class struggle in sharp contrast with reformers Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, whose works reflect actual class struggle.

Motivation for Writing The Road

Having exhausted his resources and overspent, in December 1906 London struck a fortuitous deal with Cosmopolitan magazine. He promised a "series of tramp reminiscences" to cover an advance Cosmopolitan gave him for seemingly exclusive publishing rights on his pending Snark ocean expedition stories, which had been delayed due to the 18 April 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Rallying to comply with his agreement, within two weeks London delivered to Cosmopolitan the first two chapters of The Road in serialized form. These chapters featured himself as a hobo victimized by America's capitalistic economy and class social hierarchy. The remaining seven chapters comprising The Road were published over the next two months (DePastino xl–xli). Financial concerns certainly drove London to consciously draft his hobo memoir; however, London's primary motivation for writing The Road was a more subconscious need to confront his duplicitous character...


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pp. 56-75
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