Glossary of Critical Terms for Interpreting London

By Jennifer Straw and Dr. Clarice Stasz
Sonoma State University

The following terms appear frequently in literary criticism of London's works and and historical analysis of his life:
American Eden
 A major cultural theme in U.S. history, expressing salvation through a return to or recreation of the pure, pastoral Garden of Eden. In London's day, expressed materially through the move from the city to suburbs or farms. See his Burning Daylight for a typical example.
Androgeny
A view of maturity that requires humans to integrate the male (rational, efficient, scientific) and female (affective, compassionate, artistic) elements of their nature in order to achieve balance. Often associated with Carl Jung, the idea is evident in London's writings well before Jung published his theory.
Anticapitalism
against the economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained primarily by private individuals or corporations. See The Iron Heel for a classic example.
Archetypes
from Jungian psychology, symbols and themes of such universality that they seem to be part of human psychic inheritance. These include the Anima, Animus, the Mother, the Trickster, the Old Man and other characters common to fairy tales and myths, as well as such themes as Initiation and Rebirth.
Atavism
the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some distant ancestor that have not been present in intervening generations, such as a hand appearing like a hairy paw.
Collective Unconscious
Usually associated with Carl Jung's theory of personality, it represents psychic material present in the personal unconscious transmitted through heredity. London expressed similar ideas, with the inheritance being tied to a race. See his Before Adam.
Cooperative Commonwealth
A view of society developed by Laurence Gronlund, and expanded by Edward Bellamy in his influential book Looking Backward. The emphasis is upon replacing self-interest with sympathy for others and the good of the State. Each citizen becomes an equal shareholder in society and has an equal income. London often lectured favorably on this topic.
Darwinism
the theory referring to biologist Charles Darwin's beliefs that the origin of species is a result of variation due to a genetic mutation from the parents, such that individuals who are best adapted to survive are chosen through the process of natural selection. "Survival of the Fittest" requires cooperation among a species in order to adapt to changing conditions, which is why socialists of London's day accepted Darwinian science as proof of the correctness of their politics.
Determinism
the principle that all information and events embody natural laws. Human will has little role against the forces of nature and environment. It is a key component of naturalist writing.
Existensialism
the belief that one shapes one's basic nature through the direction of life one chooses to live. Compare this idea with determinism.
Fantasy
writing based upon vivid imagination, illusion, invention, visionary ideas.
Homoeroticism
to be sexually aroused by an individual of the same sex, though not necessarily act upon this feeling. For example, see Humphrey Van Weyden's admiration of Wolf Larsen's physique in The Sea-Wolf.
Imperialism
the policy of imposing the rule or command of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of obtaining and occupying colonies and dependencies. American imperialism came of age during London's lifetime, beginning with Cuba and the Phillipines, and he supported this foreign policy.
Individualism
a social theory that stands for the freedom, rights, or independent action of any human being.
Intertextuality
the multiple ways in which a text is entangled with or contains references to other texts, such as London's references to the Bible, Milton, or Robert Burns, all sources with which his contemporary readers would be familiar.
Irony
words are expressed in a way to convey the opposite meaning; to use incongruity between what a reader might expect and what actually occurs. It is a kind of verbal wink to the reader, and is a favorite technique of humor in London's social commentary.
Monism
the philosophy that there is one causal determinant in history; the idea of a single component as the chief factor in determining individual behavior, societal activity, or organizational relationships. London at one time called himself a "materialist monist," although his beliefs do not reflect that belief in every case.
Materialism
a philosophy that the only reality is the physical universe, so that thought, mind, and will can be explained by physical laws. Idealism is its contrasting belief, that there exist objects beyond what can be seen or measured, such as beauty or the soul.
Naturalism
a style of fiction first prominent in such French writers as Honore Balzac and Emile Zola, whom London read extensively in translation. Posits that an individual lives completely in the order of nature and does not have a spirit nor way of partaking in a spiritual realm outside of the natural world; a human being is just a high-order animal whose identity and manners are entirely predestined by one's surroundings and genetics. Naturalists emphasized rich descriptions of even the basest social life without attaching moral commentary. the use of innovative and unique features in theories, forms, style, themes, and topics; involves an intentional and revolutionary break with conservative recognized styles of literature. London's crisp, short sentences were a break from the "purple prose," overly elaborate, of the Gilded Age, as was his choice of naturalist topics.
Nativism
a belief common in London's day that the "true" Americans were those of earlier Anglo-Saxon descent, that this "race" was under threat from the growing influx of Central European (Catholic and Jewish) and Asian immigrants. This attitude toward immigrants has repeated itself throughout American history. The philosophy of Social Darwinism underlies this belief.
Nietzscheism
adherence to the doctrine of Friedrich Nietzsche which stresses the "will to power"as the primary motivating impetus of society and the individual. Note the character of Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf, who expresses this philosophy.
Pastoralism
the style of creating a nostalgic picture of harmony and innocence; the life of rural people in an perfect natural environment. Exemplified in London's Sonoma ranch stories, such as Burning Daylight or The Valley of the Moon.
Progressivism
A belief system honoring or urging improvement, change, growth, and reform. It was a prominent social movement in London's day, when activists lobbied for slum improvement, public health, women's suffrage, elimination of prostitution, child labor laws, destruction of urban political machines, and so forth. Most socialists, like London, supported Progressive causes but added a class-based analysis to their arguments, one that argued for a change in capitalism.
Racialism
The false science of London's day, Social Darwinism, argued human races possessed distinguishing traits that determined their particular behavior and achivement in society. Racialism was common among Progressives and Socialists of London's era. It is important to distinguish racialism from racism, which adds the additional belief that people of "inferior" races deserve slavery, segregation, unequal treatment, or neglect. Though a confirmed racialist, it is debatable whether London could also be called racist because he wrote against lynching and similar practices.
Realism
a depiction of existence as it appears, without euphemism or evasion; evokes the idea that the things or occurrence that are portrayed may actually exist. It is a key component of naturalist writing. Contrast it with Fantasy.
Romanticism
originally a late 18th century literary movement that emphasized the role of personal or subjective experience and feelings. Sometimes it includes a portrayal of life as the writer wishes it would be, more idealistic.
Sarcasm
mocking disapproval, cutting and biting. It often using irony, the use of comments opposite to what is intended. Another of London's favorite devices for social commentary. (It is also a form of speech students use to put down one another.)
Scientism
the notion that the methods and theories of the physical and biological sciences are just as suitable and vital to the humanities and social sciences; also, holding to the primacy of science over religious, mythical, or spiritual interpretations of life.
Social Darwinism
the application of selected Darwinian ideas to society, including the evolutionary survival of the fittest, usually defined by race, in a world marked by struggle and competition. Promulgated by Herbert Spencer, a best-selling sociologist of the late 19th century. Although much of his Yukon writing emphasizes these themes, London was not a pure social Darwinist.
Socialism
adherence to the theory social organization which believes the proprietorship and the authority of the means of production, capital, land, etc. should belong to the entire community. The Socialist Party in London's day was considered a respectable alternate political party, and socialists were elected to office at all levels of government. London emphasized the improvement of working conditions, the need to redistribute wealth more fairly, and the destruction of the power elite or "iron heel." Socialists also supported Progressive causes, but wanted larger changes in politics and the economy. London was more radical than most socialists in his preference for change by way of a revolution started by the workers, rather than just through election into office.

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Send suggestions, additions, or corrections to: Clarice Stasz. Updated 26 May 2013.