I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.
Commentary by Clarice Stasz
Did Jack London actually write these words? No extant copy is available in his own handwriting or in any of his publications.
The source above comes from a book edited by Irving Shepard, Jack London's Tales of Adventure (New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. vii. Shepard was London's literary executor following Charmian London's death. He had grown up on the ranch, having been the only son of Jack's stepsister, Eliza London Shepard.
A more contemporary source appeared in a news article which may have
been Shepard's source. Journalist Ernest J. Hopkins had visited the
ranch just weeks before London's death, and reported the following in the
San Francisco Bulletin, 2 December 1916:
"'I would rather be ashes than [sic] said Jack London not two months before his death, to a group of friends with whom he was discussing, as he loved to discuss, the eternal problems of life and living.The question London scholars have is whether these words are all London's and as he expressed them. Even moreso than today journalists' quotes were unreliable or even sheer inventions. The full passage has many marks of London's style--its directness, its rhythm, its diction--to persuade that it is authentic.
'I would rather be ashes than dust.' The words, with their strange double significance, are now recalled with emotion by those friends. When he made that striking summary of his personal philosophy, London was marvelously alive. He irradiated vigor. Every breath that he drew was to him a brilliant sensation. Every moment of his time was crammed with events. he was in love with life--an[d] with vitality--ablaze with the joy and the poignancy and the overwhelming interest of "The Game."
Let there be no misunderstanding of his phrase. Jack London did not mean to say that, after death, he would prefer the ashes of cremation to the dust of ordinary burial. Nothing was further from him than the thought that he himself was, as he put it, soon to 'go into the silence.' Of all the ardent group that heard him on that occasion, he was the most alive. Beside him all other men seemed colorless. But he was talking about life, not about death. He was giving his law of conduct, not his preference in funeral customs.
'I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than that it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to LIVE. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.'
'I would rather be ashes than dust.' In those words London perfectly expressed himself. Never content to do his thinking by halves, upon that instinct for supreme activity he constructed a philosophy that was consistent, if unusual. Absorbed in today, he could not envisage a hereafter. Enthusiastic over tangible facts and present sensations, he believed that ease was cowardice; that the stronger must over conquer the weaker; that intellectuality divorced from action was wasted an futile; that man and the animals were of one nature, man having no quality that was not rudimentarily present in horses and dogs; that after death the human being was 'just meat.' Amid these tangible ideas there was room for race-memories, but not for superstitions. There was room for violent work, intense play, fierce fighting, mad adventure, thoughtful planning, but not for pretty dreaming, not for dogma, not for detached theorization. His thought was essentially practical...."
That all was not Hopkins' invention can be found further in one document in London's own handwriting. While visiting Australian suffragette Vida Goldstein in Melbourne, he placed the following in her Autograph Book. (The book is owned by a private collector who provided a photocopy of the page.)
Dear Miss Goldstein:--This is a tantalizing clue that he did compose some statement in the form of the Credo, but it is far from complete. Until new evidence appears, the only words a scrupulous historian would attribute to Jack London with certainty are "I would rather be ashes than dust."
Seven years ago I wrote you that I'd rather be ashes than dust. I still subscribe to that sentiment.
Jan. 13, 1909
Document maintained at: http://london.sonoma.edu/credo.html.
Last update January 19, 1999