Jack London: Not just the voice of the wild

Jack London revolutionised American fiction but today is best known for a children's book. Johann Hari deplores the emasculation of a formidable figure

The United States has a startling ability to take its most angry, edgy radicals and turn them into cuddly eunuchs.

The process begins the moment they die. Mark Twain is remembered as a quipster forever floating down the Mississippi River at sunset, while his polemics against the violent birth of the American empire lie unread and unremembered. Martin Luther King is remembered for his prose-poetry about children holding hands on a hill in Alabama, but few recall that he said the US government was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today".

But perhaps the greatest act of historical castration is of Jack London. This man was the most-read revolutionary socialist in American history, agitating for violent overthrow of the government and the assassination of political leaders – and he is remembered now for writing a cute story about a dog. It's as if the Black Panthers were remembered, a century from now, for adding a pink tint to their Afros.

If Jack London is chased forever from our historical memory by the dog he invented, then we will lose one of the most intriguing, bizarre figures in American history, at once inspiring and repulsive. In his 40 years of life, he was a "bastard" child of a slum-dwelling suicidal spiritualist, a child labourer, a pirate, a tramp, a revolutionary socialist, a racist pining for genocide, a gold-digger, a war correspondent, a millionaire, a suicidal depressive, and for a time the most popular writer in America. In Wolf: the Lives of Jack London, his latest biographer, James L Haley, calls London "the most misunderstood figure in the American literary canon"– but that might be because he is ultimately impossible to understand.

London nearly died by suicide before he was even born. His mother, Flora Chaney, was a ragged, hateful hysteric who reacted to anyone disagreeing with her by screaming that she was having a heart attack and collapsing to the floor. She had grown up in a 17-bedroom mansion, but she ran away as a teenager and ended up joining a religious cult that believed it could communicate with the dead. She had an affair with its leader, William Henry Chaney, who beat her when she got pregnant and demanded she have an abortion. She took an overdose of laudanum and shot herself in the head with a—fortunately—malfunctioning pistol. When the story was reported in the press, a mob threatened to hang Chaney, and he vanished from California forever.

When Flora delivered Jack in the San Francisco slums in 1876, Flora called him "my Badge of Shame" and wanted nothing to do with him. She handed him over to a black wet nurse (and freed slave) named Virginia Prentiss, who let him spend most of his childhood running in and out of her home. She called him her "white pickaninny" and her "cotton ball", and he called her "Mammy", no matter how many times she told him not to.

"I was down in the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery about which it is neither nice nor proper to speak," he wrote years later. As soon as he left primary school, he was sent to work in a cannery, stuffing pickles into jars all day, every day, for almost nothing. For the rest of his life, he was terrorised by the vision of a fully mechanised world, where human beings served The Machine. The shriek of machinery pierces through his fiction, demanding that human beings serve its whims.

He didn't get a toothbrush until he was 19, by which time his teeth had rotted. London grew up into America's first Great Depression, slumping from one unbearable job to another. He shovelled coal until his whole body seized up with cramps. He tried to kill himself for the first time by drowning, but a fisherman saved him. He began to notice the legions of toothless, homeless men on the streets, broken by brutal work and left to die in their Forties and Fifties. He responded, at first, with a cold Nietzschean individualism, insisting he would escape through his own personal strength and courage.

But in the despond of the depression, new ideas were emerging in America. London said they were "hammered in" to him, against his will: "No lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom."

When the tramps organised a march across America to demand jobs in 1894, London hit the road with them – only to be arrested at Niagara Falls for "vagrancy". When he asked for a lawyer, the police laughed in his face. When he tried to plead not guilty, the judge told him to "shut up". He was shackled and jailed for a month. London had always known the economic system was rigged against him, but now he came to believe even the law was rigged.

When he was released in 1894 at the age of 18, he began to deliver impassioned speeches on street corners, and soon he was on the front page of San Francisco papers as "the Boy Socialist" urging the workers to rise up and take the country from the robber barons.

He was offered a place at a posh prep school, and escape seemed possible for a flickering moment. But he soon dropped out after the parents at the school protested against his supposedly coarsening influence on their little darlings. He enrolled in another academy – only to be thrown out for completing the entire two-year curriculum in four months, embarrassingly outclassing all the rich kids. London felt humiliated and enraged. Soon after, he charged off to the Canadian Arctic, where there were rumours of gold. He watched his team of gold diggers die around him of drowning, cold, and scurvy. A passing doctor inspected him and told him he, too, would die if he didn't get urgent care. He was 22 years old, and he vowed that if he lived, he would become a writer, whatever it took.

His first works—like The Sea-Wolf (1904), a novel about a shipwreck survivor who is rescued by a ship captain only to be enslaved and tortured in increasingly deranged and homoerotic ways by him – injected into American literature a hard, terse vernacular style that seemed to hack Edith Wharton to death with an axe and feed her to the wolves. It was as discordant and brutal as the machines London had operated and as rough as the landscapes he battled through. Readers were startled by the crude, rude energy of the writing. It ripped out manners and replaced them with mania: his characters were violent and thuggish and real.

If you read his work today, you can see literary semen spraying across the American century as he makes possible some of the most important writers in the United States and beyond. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck rushed to his rawness and imitated it. The Beats followed him on to the road and into a jazzy, improvised style. George Orwell followed him to live among tramps and was inspired to write 1984 by London's own dystopia, The Iron Heel. Everyone from Upton Sinclair to Philip Roth claims him as an influence, and he seems to have left an imprint well beyond that. Look at the pictures of his handsome bulk insolently confronting you from a leather jacket, and you see Marlon Brando and James Dean decades before their time.

The richer London became, the more radical his politics were. He was soon praising the assassination of Russia's political leaders and saying socialism would inevitably come to America. Even as he employed small battalions of servants, he insisted he was a Robin Hood figure: they would be made to wait on the tramps and trade unionists he invited to his mansion.

And yet there is an infected scar running across his politics that is hard to ignore. "I am first of all a white man, and only then a socialist," he said, and he meant it. His socialism followed a strict apartheid: it was for his pigmentary group alone. Every other ethnic group, he said, should be subjugated – or exterminated. "The history of civilization is a history of wandering – a wandering, sword in hand, of strong breeds, clearing away and hewing down the weak and less fit," he said coolly. "The dominant races are robbing and slaying in every corner of the globe." This was a good thing, because "they were unable to stand the concentration and sustained effort which pre-eminently mark the races best fitted to live in this world".

And for those who are not "best fitted to live in this world"? In his 1910 short story, "The Unparalleled Invasion", the United States – with the author's plain approval – wages biological warfare on China to decimate its population. It then invades and takes it over. It is, the story says, "the only possible solution to the Chinese problem". Haley, in an otherwise solid and competent biography, is horribly soft on London's racism, saying only that he thought the races should be separate. He didn't: he frequently thought whites should kill the rest.

How did he become like this? His mother was a crazed racist. Panicked by her loss of status, she found living near black people a permanent humiliation. London, too, seems to have felt a strong impulse to identify with people "trapped in the abyss". But he also found it humiliating, and so needed an Untermenschen class below even them. Yet there at his origins was also Virginia Prentiss, who virtually raised him. Didn't he think of her when he compared black people to monkeys? At times, for tantalising moments, the man who could be so eloquent in his compassion for one group of undeserving victims seems to sense that he is saying something vile about another. At one point, London says socialism's strength is that it "transcends race prejudice" – but then that prejudice returns, just as vicious as before. When he visits Hawaii, he is in awe of its native culture, but then demands the United States conquer it just the same.

His near-constant guzzling of whisky made his thoughts even less consistent or coherent. Every day, he was unwittingly finishing off his mother's pre-natal attempt to kill him. He wrote: "So obsessed was I with the desire to die that I feared I might commit the act in my sleep, and I was compelled to give my revolver away to others who were to lose it for me where my subconscious hand might not find it." He staved off this deep, darkening depression with booze, work (he wrote 1,000 words a day, every day), and socialism. It was his transcendent cause. He said he could go to political meetings in despair and be "lifted out of self, and in the end return home happy, satisfied".

He was happy to write entertainments, but he didn't see them as his driving purpose. So London would be surprised to discover he is remembered now, almost entirely, for The Call of the Wild (1903), the novel about a pampered dog who is kidnapped, forced to be a sled dog in Alaska, and eventually flees to live among the wolves. Like almost all London's heroes, he is forced into a harsh, hideous landscape, where he must fight or die. There's a proto-environmentalism to the story, with its message that you can't escape nature; it will reclaim us all, no matter how civilised we seem. But his writing – after an initial efflorescent burst of hard reality – deteriorated as surely as his kidneys. The less he experienced out there in brutal reality, the more his work wilted and became mannered– the very tone he had set out to sucker punch.

Even as The Call of the Wild became one of the best-selling books in American history, newspaper editorials were calling for London to be jailed or deported for his socialist speeches. By the age of 40, he was broken. He was taking morphine to stop the pain from his booze-burned kidneys and liver. As he lay killing himself with whiskey, London grew increasingly despondent that the United States was failing to become the socialist republic he prophesised. "I grow, sometimes, almost to hate the mass, to sneer at dreams of reform," he wrote to a friend. He resigned from the Socialist Party, saying it had become too moderate and reformist and should be pushing for direct action – but he took none himself. Cut off from his great redeeming cause, he was dead within a year. His manservant found his almost-dead body, accompanied by a note calculating how much morphine it would take to kill him. Flora Chaney's bullet had hit, 40 years behind schedule.

Doesn't that tale deserve to be remembered, in the end, as amounting to more than a solitary dog story?

'Wolf: the Lives of Jack London' by James L Haley (Basic, £17.99). Order for £15.99 (free P&P) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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