I am currently reading “Wolf, The Lives of Jack London” by James L. Haley, the latest and likely the best of London’s
biographies. Besides being the story of a famous author it has much to say about the social economics of his time which are remarkably similar to America’s current recession.
London was born poor, father unknown, in the San Francisco of 1876. He could have done worse however in the stepfather he got and whose name he was given. John London was a kind and hardworking man who loved his stepson, but his health was unfortunately fragile (he had lost a lung) and therefore so were his finances.
Jack’s early days were full more of work than school because he had to help support the family. Most of his work paid the going rate of 10 cents an hour. This was the Golden Age of industry and the time of the Robber Barons. There were no safety
rules or child-labor laws, or any other limits to abuse. In his memoirs Jack named his youthful self “The Work Beast”, telling of endless hours of “brutish and dangerous labor to the point of physical collapse”. Steinbeck’s stories of the Great Depression were no more poignant than London’s real life.
Other Jack London biographies have been written, but this account appears to be the most complete. So much happened to him at such a young age. At 16 he had not only been abused by the canning industry but had been an “oyster pirate” and sailed to Asian waters as a seaman, holding his own as a man among men.
When he was 16, desperate to help his family, he hired on to shovel coal for a railway power plant. Having read Horatio Alger stories London believed that he “. . . could by thrift, energy, and sobriety, learn the business and rise”. He received $30 per month, provided that he fulfilled a
minimum amount of coal shoveled. His schedule was 7 days a week, with one day off a month. His first day it took him 13 ½ hours to make his quota. “Eventually one of the plant foremen took pity on the handsome teenager and confessed that in the job he was doing for $30 a month, he was replacing not one but two men who had made $40 a month — each.” Upon hearing this, he quit in disgust. In his efforts he had sprained both wrists and was to wear braces on them for most of the following year.
London’s story strikes a chord in me because my own father’s youth was similar. He was
born in 1905, a child of an oilfield worker in Oklahoma and one of four siblings. It was a rough frontier place and for a time they lived in a tent city. His brother at age 8 was purposely drowned by a group of older boys who tied his hands and threw him into a “swimming hole”. (I can find no evidence of an investigation, much less a court hearing, although if there had been, it is still sealed.) His father (my grandfather) was an an abusive alcoholic whom my grandmother, who ran a boarding house for workers, eventually divorced. She remarried, but my Dad’s stepfather and he did not get along. Perhaps he was rebellious because they sent him to a “military” school. He ran away during his ninth grade, age 15 or so, and made his way in the world alone, much as London had done.
London grew up in the so-called Golden Age. When he was 16 the Golden Age ended with a thud in the Panic of 1893, the worst depression the nation would ever experience until 1929. It was caused by overbuilding and shaky financing of railroads which, in turn, set off a series of bank failures and triggered high unemployment – by one estimate as high as 18%. Eventually 15,000 companies went
bankrupt and 500 banks failed. Many families walked away from mortgages that were suddenly “under water”. The Democrats and President Cleveland were blamed and thrown out of office in the election of 1896 as a result.
This sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? The Panic of 1893 was caused by the failure of railroads, not housing, but otherwise it was remarkably the same.
Cleveland’s successor was McKinley, probably the most inept President we have ever had. So much for voter judgement in blaming the incumbent.
Of course, in 1893 there was no safety net, no unemployment insurance, no UTube. People were on their own. One man, a Jacob S. Coxey, “began publicizing a plan for the federal government to print currency and use it to hire the unemployed on road construction . . . ” This plan failed in the Democratic Congress. “To the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age, the prospect of the federal government undertaking a jobs program for the poor was anathema.”
In frustration, Coxey and a man named Kelly organized marches on Washington to protest. London, now 18, decided to join Kelly and set out East, riding the rails and hitch-hiking his way. Riding the rails, the rods beneath the cars, is dangerous. It is a wonder he survived. He met up with Kelly’s Army in Iowa, but there were further adventures to come.
His luck ran out in Buffalo, NY when he was arrested for vagrancy. The constable, who made a small commission for each
arrest, was on solid ground because Jack was penniless. At his hearing before one Police Justice Charles Piper he attempted to plead not guilty, to which the Judge said, “Shut up”. He served 30 days in wretched conditions, saved only by making friends with a more-muscular inmate. Clearly, the existence of the Bill of Rights was no guarantee of proper enforcement in those times.
There is no question that drastic financial decisions were needed to cope with the current crisis, nor that we as a nation are much better off now than in 1893. No one is wondering whether they will have anything at all to eat tomorrow, and there are now child-labor laws and unemployment pay (extension of which is being opposed by the Republican minority at this time). Everything is relative, but to read of London’s experiences is a reminder of just how bad things can get without some oversight and regulation. Those purists on the political right would do well to read such history and realize that extremism of political views on either end of the spectrum is fraught with serious consequences.
London was lucky in that he was able to complete much of his education, and that he had a talent that made him the most popular writer in the country for a time. My father was not so articulate, and yet he survived his youth and gave us a stable life. We never wanted for the basics. It is notable that because he was always an hourly worker, he never collected a dime in company benefits and it was only because of Social Security that my mother, and my sister who is mentally handicapped, were left with viable means when he died at age 58.
I wish now in the perspective of these many years that I could compare notes with him and ask about the adventures he must have had. He was 24 when the Great Depression hit. My parents said they waited to have me until 1937 out of financial concerns. That’s the kind of people they were.