In the West Coast’s leading literary journal, Threepenny Review, Howard Tharsing explores the forgotten radicalism of Jack London. Like Tharsing, London knew the relentless humiliation of poverty all too personally and all too well.
Having myself been homeless for most of 2012, I was struck by the recognition that life for the poorest among us, the unhoused, is today very much what it was a hundred years ago when Jack London wrote about his own experience of poverty. Like me, London knew the general torpor into which poverty drives you because, having no money, you can find simply nothing to do; the hostility which the comfortable direct at you, and the ease with which they pass judgment; and the small humiliations, such as the exhausting hours spent waiting in line for a bed in a shelter only to be turned away when you finally reach the front of the line because the place is suddenly full.
London’s youth sounds almost movie worthy:
In 1896, when Jack London was twenty, the San Francisco Chronicle had referred to him as “the boy socialist of Oakland.” His fame grew out of his power as a public speaker. Week after week he stood on a soap box in the little park in front of City Hall arguing that the unbridled capitalism of his day condemned a great many of his fellow citizens to lives of degradation and misery while enriching a small number outrageously. Dozens of speakers held forth in the park every week, but Jack London always drew the biggest crowds and held their attention better than any other speaker. And in 1897, when Oakland passed a law forbidding public meetings on public streets, London challenged the law by getting himself arrested for climbing on that soap box and speaking. Oakland authorities were surprised that instead of paying the fine or consenting to spend a few days in jail, London demanded a jury trial. Acting as his own lawyer, London argued that the law violated the constitution’s guarantees of the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and he won.
As anyone who has ever read London’s great The Road will recall, he was fearless and relentlessly active — recently his photographs from London, focusing in part on the poor he wrote about in “The People of the Abyss,” were exhibited.
Below is a photo he took in 1902, of Spitalfields Garden in London, of homeless women sleeping.