Photograph of Jack London by Andrew J. Hill, San Jose
After reading the article about Jack London in The Nation, I’ve been on a binge. London is amazingly candid about both his strengths and failings in the works I’ve read so far— Martin Eden, The People of the Abyss, and The Road. In sharp contrast to the piety of say, James Agee, London is blunt and forthright about his own appetites and laziness (at least when it comes to working for a living). What I find even more interesting is his candor regarding the aims and ends of realism.
Rarely have I read such a clear rendering of what Richard Lanham called the “CBS” style—clarity, brevity, sincerity— with its core dictum (be sincere whether you mean it or not) compared to the truest art: the art of the beggar.
For know that upon his ability to tell a good story depends the success of the beggar. First of all, the and on the instant, the beggar must “size up” his victim. After that, he must tell a story that will appeal to the peculiar personality and temperament of that particular victim. And right here arises the great difficulty: in the instant that he is sizing up the victim he must begin his story. Not a minute is allowed for preparation. As in a lightning flash he must divine the nature of the victim and conceive a tale that will hit home. The successful hobo must be an artist. He must create spontaneously and instantaneously—and not upon a theme selected from the plenitude of his own imagination, but upon the theme he reads in the face of the person who opens the door, be it man, woman, or child, sweet or crabbed, generous or miserly, Jew or Gentile, black or white, race-prejudiced or brotherly, provincial or universal, or whatever else it may be. I have often thought that this training of my tramp days is due much of my success as a story-writer. In order to get the food whereby I lived, I was compelled to tell tales that rang true. At the back door, out of inexorable necessity, is developed the conviction and sincerity laid down by all authorities on the art of the short-story. Also, I quite believe it was my tramp apprenticeship that made a realist out of me. Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub. (193-194 The Road, Library of America Edition)
The Road was published with staged illustrations (featuring London) with some bite. I’m really amazed at the fact that I’ve missed his image-texts until now. Many are available on Jack London sites, but it almost makes me want to head to California to do some research. I think these books are an important bridge between Jacob Riis and the photo-documentary texts of the 1930s. I feel like I’ve found a sort of missing link here. But not exactly; there are several other precedents available in illustrated magazines. What I enjoy most is London’s candor regarding the tools of his trade—representation and storytelling. Most writers of the period are, in my estimation, a lot more pompous. Although London certainly was a dandy, he was quite a self-conscious one.
It seems like Neil Young must have been familiar with his credo: “I’d rather be ashes than dust” London was obviously no stranger to the memorable catchphrase.
“Realism constitutes the only goods one can exchange at the kitchen door for grub.” is a sentence that won’t leave my head anytime soon.