RUNNING WITH THE WOLVES
JACK LONDON, THE CULT OF MASCULINITY, AND "MIGHT IS RIGHT
(Originally published in Panik, July 1999)
Jack Londonís spirit oozed away from the mass of helpless wreckage that had once been his body on a crisp November evening in 1916, dispatched into the hereafter by an overdose of morphine and an attack of renal colic. He was a prolific penman, a gifted and self-taught writer whose passionate works gave a romantic sheen to the elemental struggle for survival, and his lonely, self-divided existence was governed by the belief that "fear of death makes for life". When London lost his lifelong battle against the Noseless One he was a mere forty years old, but he managed to pack more into that short allotment of time than most men who live to be twice his age.
At the time of his death, Londonís friend George Wharton James wrote in 1917, Jack London "managed to crowd the experiences of a country lad on a farm, a street newsboy, a schoolboy, a member of a street gang, a boy Socialist street orator, a voracious reader of books from the public library, an oyster bed patrolman to catch oyster pirates, a longshoreman, a salmon fisher, able to sail any kind of rude vessel on the none too smooth waters of San Francisco Bay, a sailor before the mast, a seal hunter in the Behring Sea ... A gold-seeker in the Klondike, a driver of wolf dogs over the snows of the frozen North, stricken with scurvy, one of three who embarked in an open boat and rode nineteen-hundred miles in nineteen days down the Yukon to the Behring Sea, an orphan compelled to support his widowed mother and a nephew, a short story writer, a war correspondent, a novelist, an essayist, (and) the owner and worker of a magnificent estate of over a thousand acres."
And he was not Ragnar Redbeard.>I donít know exactly when, but at some point over the last one hundred years a painfully misinformed person concluded that Jack London was Ragnar Redbeard, the pseudonymous author of the radical tract "Might Is Right"; the canard spread with the tenacious fury of an urban myth and it continues to be repeated to this day. As something of a London scholar I can assure you that the notion is as ludicrous as suggesting that the author of "White Fang" was a cross-dressing hermaphrodite who buried his sexual shame in manly exploits.
Published in 1896, "Might Is Right" is a 150-page extended rant on the authorís belief that the world is governed by force, not by religious and political creeds. Redbeard lays out the theme for his jumbled stew of deluded thought in a prefatory note entitled "All Else Is Error":"The natural world is a world of war; the natural man is a warrior; the natural law is tooth and claw."
Okay, Iíll grant you that sounds a little bit like Jack Londonís often-didactic style of scribbling but a full refutation of that will come later.
"Might Is Right" has been called a vitriolic, racist hymn to the doctrine of force, and one of the most incendiary books ever published. The book is popularly favored by anarchists, white supremacists, Stalinists, socialists, Satanists, and high school outcasts toting automatic weapons in their backpacks. In this silly love poem to the idea of social Darwinism, Ragnar Redbeard attacks "the great mass of men who inhabit the world today" for having "no originality or independence of thought." Thatís an alarmingly bold accusation, considering the same can be said for the book.
With "Might Is Right" one-hit-wonder Ragnar Redbeard proves himself to be a literary thief who purloins the work of a whole slew of great authors before him and doesnít even have the simple decency to give them credit. The whole notion that right is found in might, for example, belongs originally to the ancient Greek philosopher Thrasymachus who believed in the doctrine that "justice is in the interest of the stronger party." The theme of biological determinism that runs rampant throughout "Might Is Right" is recycled Herbert Spencer (Jack London did not read Spencer until 1896, incidentally, the same year "Might" was first published). And when Redbeard suggests that man, at his best, is a wild predator, the bombastic writer is simply ripping off Nietzscheís observations and embracing them as his own.
When Radical Ragnar invokes the name of Leo Tolstoy --- one of the few times he dares to suggest that he has read the works of other deep thinkers --- he steps his jack-booted foot in mud. Redbeard accuses Tolstoy of writing "deceitful doctrines". Really? And I suppose this would be the same Tolstoy who observed with amazement that "figures of authority can teach any kind of morality in a society in which it is openly admitted that murder and torture form an indispensable element in the life of all." Sounds a wee bit like the underlying philosophy of "Might Is Right" --- hell, it sounds a LOT like "Might Is Right", doesnít it?
So at this point Ragnar Redbeard defenders are probably throwing this article down and thumbing through their dog-eared editions of "The Turner Diaries". Well, bear with me, folks, because the best is yet to come and we havenít even got to the Jack-London-Was-Not-Ragnar-Redbeard part yet.
Letís have some fun with Redbeardís ideas about male superiority because it is with this subject that Ragnar drops the ball like an outfielder with butter in his glove. He holds that women must be kept in subjection, writing: "Woe unto the Race if ever these loveable creatures should break loose from mastership, and become the rulers or equals of Man." Wouldnít he be surprised by Gloria Steinem. Later on, in a laughable chapter titled "Love, Women, and War" Redbeard opines that women "are incapable of self-mastership ... mere babies in worldly concerns." Fair enough. But why, in the very next paragraph, does Redbeard offer the following gem: "When their passions are stirred women have performed deeds of heroism that even a man with nerves of steel would hesitate at ... They have led armies and been criminals of the darkest dye." Interesting --- a writer capable of establishing a premise and then destroying it all by himself.
Redbeardís failure to acknowledge his peers and predecessors is antithetical to Jack Londonís writing. For the most part Jack London was self-educated (he did complete high school and spent one year, 1896, at the University of California, dropping out the following year because of lack of funds). Like every autodidactic Iíve ever known, London was justifiably proud of himself and flaunted his education whenever possible, his vehicle for impressing us with his knowledge being his novels and essays.
In the opening paragraph of Jack Londonís "The Sea Wolf" (1904) narrator Humphrey Van Weyden tells us that his friend Charley Furseth keeps a summer cottage in Californiaís Mill Valley to loaf through the winter months and "read Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to rest his brain." According to London biographer Andrew Sinclair, at the time of writing "The Sea Wolf" Jack London "had merely heard of Nietzsche from his old Socialist friend Frank Strawn-Hamilton and from stray references in magazines. Only after the book was completed did Jack begin to read the new translations of Nietzsche." This alone offers compelling evidence that Jack London could not be the mastermind behind "Might Is Right", as that manifesto is riddled with Nietzschian thought and Jack hadnít read the German philosopher until 1904.
The heavily autobiographical "Martin Eden" (1909) is overflowing with references to every philosopher one can imagine as London guides us along young Martinís path of self-education. Martin finds, for instance, that "the mediaeval metaphysics of Kant (have) given him the key to nothing" but he discovers that Herbert Spencer is capable of "organizing all knowledge for him, reducing everything to unity, elaborating ultimate realities, and presenting to his startled gaze a universe so concrete of realization that it was like the model of a ship such as sailors make and put into glass bottles .... That, in the fabric of knowledge, there should be any connection whatever between a woman with hysterics and a schooner carrying a weather-helm or heaving to in a gale, would have struck him as ridiculous and impossible. But Herbert Spencer had shown him that not only was it not ridiculous, but that it was impossible for there to be no connection. All things were related to all other things from the farthermost star in the wastes of space to the myriads of atoms in the grain of sand under oneís foot."
London does a remarkable job of distilling Spencerís philosophy in "Martin Eden" but bear in mind that he wrote the tale in 1909 --- he did not begin reading Spencer until 1896, the same year that "Might Is Right" was published, demonstrating once again, and perhaps conclusively, that Jack London lacked the basic philosophic education needed to pen such a book, at least in 1896 when he was a mere twenty-years old and only just beginning to explore Socialism (Jack joined the Oakland branch of the Socialist Labor Party in Oakland in April 1896. Later that year Oakland police arrested him after he challenged a local law against soapbox oratory by talking loudly of Socialism to a small crowd outside a park behind City Hall. Jack was clearly a man who was never ashamed of his political views and would not feel compelled to hide behind a pseudonym like Ragnar Redbeard).
The excerpts cited from "The Sea Wolf" and "Martin Eden", out of dozens upon dozens available in Londonís literature, present to us a writer eager to impress us with his knowledge, chomping at the bit to drop the names of all the great minds he has studied. Ragnar Redbeard, on the other hand, is another kind of egoist entirely, a Fascist, misogynistic, and sacrilegious bore who desires to impress that he Knows All, and anyone daring to disagree with his interpretation of Man is but mere dirt beneath his steel-toed boots.
In a preface to the Michael Hunt Publishing edition of "Might Is Right" Katja Lane takes up the cause that Jack London was Ragnar Redbeard, calling London "a brilliant naturalist, lucid visionary and exceptional philosopher with an incandescent imagination." Well, you get no argument from me there, but she goes on to assert that "on a purely grammatical basis" it is "an airtight conclusion" that London wrote "Might Is Right". London, Lane writes, "had no regard for standard punctuation or sentence structure. His personal writing style was as idiosynchratic as his trademark passion was prounounced. The verbose, adjectival outpourings of abundant vocabulary are unmistakeably London." Yet Jack London had not found his "literary voice" in 1896. As a fledgling fiction writer his role models at this time were Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, a far cry from Marx, Proudhon, and Spencer. In 1896, the year of the publication of "Might Is Right", twenty-year old Jack was feverishly studying magazine fiction for style and he was writing embarrassingly bad triolets, humorous verse, and sonnets that newspapers and magazines were rejecting as fast as he was submitting them.
"Most of what he wrote was unreadable and hardly worth reading," writes Andrew Sinclair in "Jack: A Biography of Jack London", "The erratic capital letters of the typescript made him appear illiterate ... As a poet, Jack was better off as an oyster pirate. He put on the fashionable strait-jacket of the minor decadent poets, imitating their archaic language without achieving their grace. He thought he was sending the magazines what they wanted; but they did not want his unsolicited mimicry and they returned it. In his case, imitation was the sincerest form of beggary."
Furthermore, in 1896, Jack London was studying eighteen hours day for three months in preparation for the university entrance exams in August of that year. Couple all of this with the fact that young Jack London had yet to explore the worlds of Fredric Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer and itís not too difficult to arrive at the irrefutable conclusion that London was not Ragnar Redbeard.
The temptation to label London as the author of "Might Is Right" is easy to understand. No one embodies American literary and popular culture of the 1900's quite like London. His voice as a writer seems unique and uniquely fitted, some argue, to Ragnar Redbeardís verbiage. But as Robert Hass points out in his introduction to the Bantam edition of "Martin Eden", Jack London simply reflects the culture of his time, a culture that was "dominated by imperialism, social Darwinism, and a style of aggressive masculinity. Theodore Roosevelt set the tone. He came to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901. The year before his ascension to the presidency, he had published a book called "The Strenuous Life", and a few years before that, an essay entitled "The Manly Virtues and Practical Politics". One of the windfalls of the cult of the masculine was wilderness preservation. It was argued that a red-blooded civilization would grow effeminate if it did not have wild spaces. Hass cites several samples of the influence of the Cult of the Masculine upon literature of the time, even pulling a quote from Henry Jamesís "The Ambassadors", published like Londonís "The Call of the Wild" in 1903:
"That moment in the garden," Hass writes, "when Lambert Strether is moved to give one of his young countrymen advice: ĎDo what you like so long as you donít make my mistake ... Live! ... It doesnít matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you havenít had that, what have you had?í" Not too far removed from Londonís advice that "the proper function of man is to live, not to exist; I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them; I shall use my time."Even a cursory study of the works of Jack London reveals the authorís morbid belief that death offers no reward but dust, a pessimistic notion that gave birth to the riddle that permeates all of Londonís writing: How do you reconcile the irrelevance of the individual against a personal belief in destiny and the will to survive? Jack London could never answer that question but he was capable of exploring it with more verve, intellectual curiosity, and eloquence than a thousand Ragnar Redbeards.
Consider, from "The White Silence" (1900), the beauty and poignancy in the language when Jack London observes that "to man, among the animals, has been given the awful privelege of reason. Man, with his brain, can penetrate the intoxicating show of things and look upon a universe brazen with indifference toward him and his dreams." In that small passage alone there is a genuine compassion for every manís ultimate fate as a pile of dusty bones that is absent in "Might is Right".
(c) 2004-05, Rodger Jacobs
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Document maintained at: http://london.sonoma.edu/Essays/redbeard.html
by Clarice Stasz, Ph.D.
Last update 17 January 2005.