in: Character, Featured, Manly Lessons

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #5: On the Road

young Jack London sitting credo text ashes dust.

This article is part of a series that studies the life of Jack London, and especially his display of the Ancient Greek concept of thumos.

As Jack London worked more than ten hours a day, seven days a week keeping thread wrapped around bobbins in a jute mill, his deep sea voyage, and with it his life of adventure, began to seem very far away. It was back to being a “Work Beast” with no time for sailing, reading, or anything else but sleep.

When Jack’s mother saw a contest announced in a local newspaper calling for the best descriptive article by a young writer twenty-two and under, she encouraged her son to enter. He frequently reminisced about his experience piloting the Sophie Sutherland through the typhoon anyway, she argued, so why not put the memory down on paper? London was hesitant at first; he hadn’t yet given much thought to writing at this point in his life and working on the article would mean sacrificing precious sleep. Finally he relented and stayed up two nights in a row to pen the piece – he was practically delirious by the time it was finished. When the contest results were announced, Jack, the eighteen-year-old, largely self-educated autodidact, had taken first prize, besting students from Berkeley and Stanford. Along with the honor, he won $25 – an intoxicating amount of money that almost equaled an entire month toiling at the mill.

Encouraged by his success, Jack furiously typed up several more articles and sent them out to magazines and newspapers. But all he received in reply was a spate of rejection notices. Perhaps, Jack thought, the moment of success had just been a fluke.

London decided he needed to pursue a more stable and lucrative professional career. Like many young men his age, he had grown up reading rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger-type success – tales in which a young lad, full of perseverance and pluck, starts at the bottom of a company and tirelessly works his way to the top. Jack figured it was time for him to start his own similarly bootstrapped ascent. Becoming an electrician interested him, so he “bade farewell forever to the adventure-path” and called on the supervisor of an electric railway company. Jack told him of his desire to work his way through the ranks and his willingness to begin on the very lowest rung on the ladder. The supervisor commended Jack for his attitude and promised him that such advancement was certainly possible if he would labor diligently. He put London to work shoveling coal in the powerhouse seven days a week, with one day off per month. He was supposed to receive $30 a month for ten hours a day of labor, but he was paid by the amount of coal shoveled, and they regularly gave him more than twelve hours of coal to work through every day. But just as he had on the Sophie Sutherland, Jack was determined to show he was up to the task and had what it took to get ahead. Hour after hour he shoveled, until his body dripped with sweat, his muscles cramped up, and he was forced to don thick leather splints to brace up his badly aching wrists. When he rode the streetcar home at night, his knees would buckle from sheer exhaustion.

Eventually a fireman at the plant took pity on the bone-wearied young man and told him the truth of the situation. Before the supervisor had hired him, his job has been the work of two grown men, each of whom made $40 a month. “The superintendent, bent on an economical administration, had persuaded me to do the work of both men for thirty dollars a month,” Jack bitterly recalled. “I thought he was making an electrician of me. In truth and fact, he was saving fifty dollars a month operating expenses to the company.” Even worse, one of the men Jack had displaced had committed suicide – despondent he couldn’t find work to support his family. The fireman apologized for not telling Jack sooner, saying the supervisor had warned everyone not to, and that he’d been sure Jack would quit on his own after just a day or two of the crushing toil.

Jack left the job in disgust. He felt exploited and like something of a scab. Thoroughly disillusioned with toiling as a wage slave, he left the working world behind entirely for life on the road. Traveling by foot and rail, he set out to join up with “Kelly’s Army.” The “army” was a contingent of protestors that were headed across the country to meet up with a larger march in Washington D.C. led by Jacob Coxey. Coxey was leading a movement decrying the rampant unemployment caused by the Panic of 1893 and petitioning the government to create public works jobs. London himself set out not so much because of sympathy with the cause, but simply because his wanderlust was calling once more.

There was much to this new life of tramping that appealed to London’s adventurous sensibilities. Seeing parts of the country he had never before beheld inspired his native curiosity and sense of wonder, and he especially enjoyed gaining the prowess required to ride the rails without being killed. It was a daring adult game of hide n’seek, with the hobos trying to stay out of sight and the conductors and brakemen looking to ferret them out and toss them off the train. Jack often traveled undetected by clinging to struts underneath the cars, with only inches between him and the tracks below. “His agility in ducking under rapidly moving cars,” Charmian said, “always remained a matter of pride to him, calling as it did for the smoothest coordination of nerve and muscle.”

Jack equally took pleasure in meeting new people from all walks of life. When the “army” made camp at night in open fields, the men would sit around the fire talking about their lives, complaining about the conditions in their old jobs, and voicing their displeasure with the current economic system. Jack had never thought much about politics before, and this was his first full exposure to the ideas of socialism – an exposure that would grow into a lifelong, thumos-fueled passion. London’s socialism tends to be a fixation for some people, and as it is not possible to understand him, or the arc of his thumos, without understanding his views on the subject, let us pause here and explain more about it.

Jack London: Socialist Superman

Jack London portrait flat cap overcoat.

London believed that one of the master keys to success was finding a “philosophy of life.” As a young man he first developed his own philosophical outlook by reading works by Darwin, Nietzsche, and Spencer. From his studies of these thinkers, London came to view the world in terms of biological evolution, and believed that despite the thin veneer of civilization, people were still driven by the same primal urges that had motivated their ancestors. Modern people, London believed, could still be stirred by the now faint “Call of the Wild.” Just like the dog Buck in that story, a man could sometimes sense the misty shadows of his primitive past reaching out to him, filling “him with a great unrest and strange desires,” causing him to “feel a vague, sweet gladness,” and bringing to him an awareness “of wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what.” And just like in that “other and dimly remembered world,” success was a matter of the survival of the fittest. The strongest and brightest, those with the most courage and fight, could become leaders of the pack – perfected, Nietzschean Supermen. Transforming himself into such a god-like figure would be the guiding aim of London’s life:

 “To be a man was to write man in large capitals on my heart. To adventure like a man, and fight like a man and do a man’s work — these were things that reached right in and gripped hold of me as no other thing could. And I looked ahead into long vistas of a hazy interminable future in which, playing what I conceived to be a man’s game, I should continue to travel with unfailing health, without accidents, and with muscles ever vigorous…This future was interminable. I could only see myself raging through life without end. Lustfully roving and conquering by sheer superiority and strength.”

Forged in his youth, Jack’s primal, survival of the fittest philosophy would remain his core belief throughout his life. It was softened, but not supplanted, by his socialism. Before leaving to tramp across the country, his own grinding work experiences had convinced him the current system was unfair and inhumane. Out on the road, Jack saw men who had once been healthy and strong like he was, but who had been crippled by accident or illness. Unfit for labor, they had been tossed aside by society, and Jack realized that he too could suffer a similar fate – even doing the grueling factory work he despised might become impossible. From the seeds of this sobering observation grew London’s belief that all people deserved a fairer shake in life.

Socialism at the turn of the century did not have the same connotations as it does today, and Jack’s views on the subject were complex. He advocated for things like regulations against child labor (his time as the pickle cannery ever at the back of his mind), more honest and transparent elections, and the municipal ownership of utilities (so that a young lad wouldn’t be stuck, say, shoveling coal for 12 hours a day). He liked to think of himself as a radical, but as a reporter who listened to Jack’s speeches wrote, “Any man, in the opinion of London, is a socialist who strives for a better form of government than the one he is living under.” While stumping for socialism in his later years, he bought a large yacht, a ranch, and kept a manservant to attend to his needs. A couple of quotes from two of his biographers can help sum up the various strains of London’s thinking as succinctly as possible:

“[His] was never the socialism of the slacker. He did not oppose the finer things in life, indeed he wanted them for himself…But everyone, he believed, should have an equal opportunity for the good life, which the current system of labor exploitation rendered manifestly impossible. Fortunes gained by sweat and brilliance were acceptable; fortunes gained by capitalizing on the desperation of others were not.”

“He took a backseat to none in his insistence on equality of opportunity and dignified treatment in the workplace, but to him socialism was not about banning wealth; it was about banning wealth accrued by exploiting others.”

Although London’s competing philosophies may seem contradictory (indeed, even his fellow contemporary socialists criticized his enjoyment of the luxuries his literary wealth made possible) London himself did not see his desire to be a Superman and his passionate socialism as being at odds. He could enjoy the wealth he created for himself with a clear conscience, he said, because he had not earned it on the backs of others. And it also served as a means to an end, as Charmian explained: “He would himself first climb out of the pit, that he might live to reach a hand to the fellow who could not rise by himself.” In other words, London worked hard to gain the good life for himself, not simply because he enjoyed it, but because he believed his success would put him in a better position to help others as well; he thought a man should strive mightily for greatness, but not live solely for himself. He would become a Superman, yes, but a socialist Superman — one who would not let fame and success blind him to a concern for the less fortunate. In short, he took “survival of the fittest” as his private governing philosophy, while advocating for socialism as the governing principle of the public sphere. He was, one friend said, “the most inherently individualistic” and “unsocialistic of all the Socialists I have met.”

Whether one personally agrees with London’s socialism or not is in fact immaterial, at least in the context of the specific subject of this series. Thumos sparks a man’s passionate fight for causes of a social, political, and religious nature, but it may call one man one way, and another man another. It is thumos, too, that provokes man’s desire to argue about who has gotten it right and who has misdirected this force!

Home Again, Home Again

The seeds of Jack’s socialism had been firmly planted, but hungry and disillusioned with the way he felt the leader of Kelly’s Army had been putting on airs, he deserted the march in Missouri, and rode the rails alone to Chicago, and then to New York. After some more adventuresome tramping (and a month-long stay in jail for vagrancy – an experience that outraged Jack when he was denied a trial), London traveled by freight train 3,000 miles through the icy Canadian landscape to Vancouver, and then worked aboard a steamship to earn his passage back to California.

London’s time tramping had been another rite of passage that had heightened his curiosity about the world even further and given him clarity about what to do with his future. The broken lives of his fellow hobos had been a clear warning to Jack, and he saw that a life of physical labor was too precarious. Instead, he would make a living, and rise to greatness, using the power of his mind. To do so, he needed to get that mind in fighting condition. It was time to go back to school.

Read the Entire Jack London Series:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Boyhood
Part 3: Oyster Pirate
Part 4: Pacific Voyage
Part 5: On the Road
Part 6: Back to School
Part 7: Into the Klondike
Part 8: Success at Last
Part 9: The Long Sickness
Part 10: Ashes
Part 11: Conclusion



Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley 

Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw

The Book of Jack London, Volumes 1 & 2 by Charmian London (free in the public domain)

Complete Works of Jack London (all of London’s works are available free in the public domain, or you can download his hundreds of writings all in one place for $3, which is just plain awesome)


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