Jack London (1876-1916)
Contributing Editor: Joan D. Hedrick
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I explore the way in which the class divisions of society, demarcated by "The Slot," create divisions in an individual's consciousness. This will open up a way to discuss "South of the Slot," particularly if students have themselves experienced a self divided between two (or more) cultures. I have found that foreign students and working-class students have very strong, positive responses to London's stories of the hazards of cultural mobility.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The double is a familiar theme in American literature, but London gives it a new twist by exploring it in class as well as psychological terms. London's politics were shaped in the 1890s by the depression, labor disputes, and the Socialist Labor Party. During the same period he also determined that he would become a writer, motivated in part by his fear of slipping into the underclass, which he called "the Social Pit." London struggled to reconcile his radical, working-class identity with that of his middle-class, literary self. His satirical portrait of Freddie Drummond distances him from a self he might have become.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In general, naturalism is the literary movement that provides the best context for Jack London. Naturalism has been understood as a dialectic between free will and determinism (Charles Child Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism, A Divided Stream [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956]), but it is probably most intelligible through social history. The appeal of naturalistic tales is often escape. The urban problems of unemployment, labor wars, and poverty are left behind for a spare scenario in which an individual can be tested. A stock naturalistic device involves taking an "overcivilized" man from the upper classes into a primitive environment where he must live by muscle and wit. Frank Norris uses this device in Moran of the Lady Letty, as does London in The Sea-Wolf. The Call of the Wild also fits this pattern, although here the hero is a dog. Buck, a dog of northern ancestry who has been raised in southern California, is kidnapped and taken to Alaska where he must adapt to snow and the rule of the club.
In another common naturalistic pattern, the hero who stays in the city either becomes an ineffectual dandy or degenerates into a lower-class brute. Frank Norris's Vandover and the Brute, set in San Francisco, traces the downward arc of Vandover's career from a Harvard education through the urban horrors of drink, dissipation, and aimless drifting to his ultimate reward: he literally becomes a primitive brute when he falls victim to lycanthropy and finds himself barking like a wolf. London treats these materials more realistically, yet employs the same pattern whereby the city is associated with degeneration and the open country with rebirth. Both Burning Daylight and The Valley of the Moon contrast the vitality of the heroes in the country to the dissipation and bad luck they encounter in the city. "South of the Slot" departs from this pattern by portraying the city as the setting for a working-class victory.
London's goal was to write radical stories and publish them in mainstream, middle-class journals. "South of the Slot" was published in 1909 in The Saturday Evening Post, George Lorimer's highly successful magazine for upwardly aspiring self-made Americans.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
As a story about a double, "South of the Slot" may be compared to Poe's "William Wilson" or to Hawthorne's stories of allegorically paired characters, such as Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlett Letter. Treated as a story of social types, it may also be compared to Stowe's portraits of class, race, and regional types in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
I begin discussions of London by putting up on the board a paired series of contrasts between working-class and middle-class stereotypes. In "South of the Slot" this contrast is embodied in Big Bill Totts and Freddie Drummond. Then I ask, where do these notions come from? Why is the lower class associated with, for example, muscle and a free expression of sexuality? What are the psychosocial implications of this division of human characteristics along class lines?
The best work on London's stories is in James McClintock's White Logic: Jack London's Short Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wolf House Books, 1975.
For a biographical context for London's writing, see Joan D. Hedrick, Solitary Comrade: Jack London and His Work. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Chapters 1-2, pp. 3-47.