"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche



9 Jun 2014

A Philosophy of Tramping—Jack London




A re-edited version of the original post is now published in Chapter 10 of
Published by Feral House February 2020






'Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony. In Hobo Land the face of life is proteanan ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road. The hobo never knows what is going to happen the next moment; hence, he lives only in the present moment. He has learned the futility of telic endeavor, and knows the delight of drifting along with the whimsicalities of Chance.'
Jack London (1876-1916)




Preamble

Unlike most of the other tramp writers I discuss on this site, it is not my intention to dwell too much on London's life history. Given that London was an international celebrity, there is no shortage of very detailed accounts of his life already written; including three books by London's second wife Charmain, Jack London: The Log of the Snark (1915), Our Hawaii (1917) and The Book of Jack London (1921), as well as his daughter Joan's biography, Jack London and His Times: An Unconventional Biography (1939). And so I confine these pages to selected episodes of London's time as a hobo and his personal philosophy. Furthermore, because London's tramping adventures, remarkable and entertaining as they are, add little to American hobo facts and parlance already recorded on this site, I will focus on those yarns and wisdoms that give insight into what drew London to vagabondage.

London was also a political animal, active in revolutionary socialist causes and the class struggle; even running (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Oakland in 1901 and 1905, though more as a political statement than serious attempt to enter politics. In any case, such associations should not define the man, as like most with the tramping spirit in their veins, London was first and foremost an individual, with views often at odds with the stock political credos of the time. Indeed, in London's writing, a unique blend of 'individualism' (partly influenced by Nietzsche's notions of übermenschen) and socialist idealismdoctrines normally taken as antitheticalseems to coalesce as a unified philosophy. But, as with Nietzsche also, instead of looking beyond the headlines and acquainting oneself with a deeper understanding of London's philosophy, many have taken London's words literally and made mischief of them. As London's daughter Joan acknowledges in the 'Introduction' of her book, 'On the one hand he was assailed for his socialist beliefs, and on the other, for his racial prejudice and glorification of the Anglo Saxon "blond beast" '. 

Rather than being active in any organisation or 'movement', London's main contribution to political ideology was through his writing. I discuss one of these works, The People of the Abyss, a travelogue come social critique of the poor and dispossessed of London's East End, towards the end of this post. But it is in the chapter titled 'How I Became A Socialist', from another political treatise, War of the Classes (1905), that London reveals his coming to politics:

'It is quite fair to say that I became a Socialist in a fashion somewhat similar to the way in which the Teutonic pagans became Christiansit was hammered into me. Not only was I not looking for Socialism at the time of my conversion, but I was fighting it. I was very young and callow, did not know much of anything, and though I had never even heard of a school called "Individualism," I sang the paean of the strong with all my heart.'

For further information see the following:
  • Joseph Sciambra's essay The Philosophy of Jack London, a comprehensive account (with links to works by London) of London's philosophical and political influences, and also his controversial theories on race, Darwinism, eugenics and atavism (while I disassociate myself from Sciambra's own forthright religious views, this is an excellent overview of London's philosophy nonetheless).
  •  Earl J. Wilcox's essay Jack London's Naturalism: The Example of The Call of the Wild, an analysis of London's celebrated allegory of humans' life-and-death struggle with their hostile environment through the eyes of a dog; providing further insight into London's philosophy of naturalism and atavism.
  • London's own article On the Writer's Philosophy of Life, published in The Editor, October, 1899.
Of London's prolific writings (including 120 short stories, 26 full length prose works, 22 essays, 45 poems, and 6 plays*) only three works are described as autobiographical: The Road, The Cruise of the Snark, and John Barleycorn, although, as I have discussed before in respect of other tramp writers, these categorisations are not always helpful as London's autobiographies contain elements of fiction, and his novels elements of autobiography. Nonetheless, for the purposes of this post I shall focus mainly on The Road and John Barleycorn, a reading of which puts the lie to the popularly held misconception that (as it was with Josiah Flynt also) London was a sociologist first and a tramp second:

'Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a trampwell, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on "The Road" because I couldn't keep away from it; because I hadn't the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn't work all my life on "one same shift"; becausewell, just because it was easier to than not to.'

* Joan London claims that, at the time of publishing her book in 1939, more than forty movies (in different languages) had been spawned worldwide by London's writing; the people of Soviet Union being among London's biggest fans.


Early Life and Alcohol

In order to try and establish a chronology of London's tramping exploits and influences (he was a sailor tramp before he became a road tramp) it is necessary to jump between two of his, quite distinct, autobiographical works, The Road (1907) and John Barleycorn(1913). The latter being London's exposition on his love-hate relationship with alcohol, and possibly the best philosophical treatise on the subject ever written. It is impossible, however, to follow an exact chronology of events from London's own books, so I suggest those who are interested obtain one of the many biographies of London; his daughter Joan's has the advantage of being thoroughly researched as well having known her father intimately. For the purpose of this post I am more concerned with significant vagabonding events as they illuminate London's attitude to life in general, and his wanderlust in particular.

* 1/ The term 'John Barleycorn' is used as a personification of drinks made from barley, especially malt liquor. 2/ London's book John Barleycorn, is the origin of the term seeing 'pink elephants' when describing the hallucinatory effects of extreme drunkenness: '... [one] who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants.'

London first got drunk at the age of five after being asked, one hot summer day, to carry a pail of beer to his father who was ploughing a field half a mile away......


London with second wife Charmain
the year before London's death



























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  1. Just read The Road. Thanks for these reflections and the links to related reading.

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