Tag Archives: Jack London

Songsters, Writers, Rovers

In California last week a friend taught me a hobo song. The tune flew back to Pittsburgh with me and followed me to work at the library. I still wake in the night with the melody teasing my sleepy brain. “Hobo’s Lullaby” is a beautiful song.

“Hobo’s Lullaby” was written by Goebel Reeves (born 1899). Teen-aged Reeves adored vaudeville and hobos. He traded a middle-class life for the adventure of roaming the U.S., singing, yodeling, and recording under pseudonyms, including “The Texas Drifter.” He wrote and performed autobiographical songs, and limited his chances for a lucrative career by refusing to settle in one place for more than a few months—a dedicated hobo.

Other musicians who hoboed are Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Utah Philips. Writers who hoboed include James Michener, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac (fictionalized in The Dharma Bums), and Jack London.

Hotel de Gink (hobo hotel) — preparing Muligan stew, photo Library of Congress, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915

In its depression-era heyday, hobodom implied an itinerant lifestyle, usually lived by riding the rails (no ticket required).

Hobo, tramp, and drifter, often used interchangeably, are slang terms, lacking definitive etymologies. However, hobos defined themselves like this—hobos worked, tramps worked only when made to, bums did not work at all.

Jack London wrote in The Road (1907) of his adventures riding the rails.

It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor for my
food. The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the hungry tramp.
The very poor can always be depended upon. They never turn away the
hungry. Time and again, all over the United States, have I been refused
food by the big house on the hill; and always have I received food from
the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with its broken windows
stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken with labor. Oh, you
charity-mongers! Go to the poor and learn, for the poor alone are the
charitable. They neither give nor withhold from their excess. They have no
excess. They give, and they withhold never, from what they need for
themselves, and very often from what they cruelly need for themselves. A
bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog
when you are just as hungry as the dog.

Also last week in California, I listened to “West London,” a song by Charles Ives, that musically illustrates and elevates a poem by Matthew Arnold.

Crouched on the pavement close by Belgrave Square,
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.

Some laboring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Passed opposite; she touched her girl, who hied
Across, and begged, and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.

Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.

She turns from that cold succor which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.



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10 More Top 10 Time Travel Books

from the MGM Motion Picture "The Time Machine"

Recently, I posted a positive review of the new novel by Charles Yu, entitled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. So I was delighted to come across an article by Yu written for The Guardian of Great Britain in which he names his top ten time travel books.

In case you’re interested, here’s the list of what he recommended:

  1. Slaughter-House Five, or the Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut
  2. Garden of Forking Paths”  (short story) by Jorge Luis Borges
  3. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
  4. The Fermata by Nicolson Baker
  5. The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch
  6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madelaine L’Engle
  7. All You Zombies” (short story) by Robert Heinlein
  8. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by Umberto Eco
  9. An example of a new type of cosmological solution of Einstein’s field equations of gravitation” by Kurt Gödel (Rev. Mod. Phys. 21: 447–450.)
  10. Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

As you can see, Mr. Yu has played it a little loose with his list, which he readily admits. Besides fiction, there is non-fiction, including an article on time travel by Kurt Godel, of Gödel, Escher, Bach fame. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I do take issue with calling the list ten time travel books, when two are short stories in larger collections (not devoted to time travel stories) and one is a journal article. Still, it is a pleasure to see what he likes and, since they are his rules, he’s allowed to break them.

Here’s an additional list of ten more time travel books, all novels this time, to supplement the list above. A couple of my favorite time travel books did not make Yu’s list, though his own book certainly makes mine. I am going to carry over one; though not on my list, Slaughter-House Five, which is one of my favorite books, period, it certainly deserves to be.

  1. Time and Again by Jack Finney
  2. Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
  3. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
  4. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
  5. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  6. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  7. Kindred by Octavia Butler
  8. The Female Man by Joanna Russ
  9. Martin Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
  10. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

And two Bonus novels:

These 12 additional time travel novels hardly address how many are missing from the original list; in fact, this list is lopsided in its own way: a bit too literary from some folks, I’m thinking.

So, what do you think? Anything missing?

– Don

PS  The only edition of Behold the Man any of the libraries has is the original abbreviated novella, which Michael Moorcock expanded into a full novel — we intend to correct that situation by ordering a copy ASAP.


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Literary Autodidacts and Public Libraries

You may have recently come across a New York Times article about Ray Bradbury, his love of libraries, and his fight to keep California’s public libraries open. There’s a great quote from Bradbury in that article that I’ve read over and over again:

“Libraries raised me,” Mr. Bradbury said. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

Mr. Bradbury’s experience as a public library autodidact got me thinking about other self-educated literary individuals and the role of public libraries in their lives. Here are a few that come to mind:

Isaac Asimov — One of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Asimov created amazing visions of the future, especially those in his famous Foundation series. Asimov’s autobiography I, Asimov contains a full chapter on the role of the public library in his life, about which he says the following:

I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library.  For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.

Junot Diaz — Diaz recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and his earliest literary influences were discovered at, you guessed it, a public library. As Wikipedia explains, Diaz grew up poor in New Jersey, but “was a voracious reader, often walking four miles in order to borrow books from his public library.”

Jack London — London was self-educated at the Oakland Library in Oakland, California. As the story goes, London was befriended and mentored by librarian and poet Ina Coolbrith, and an assistant in the reference room, Fred Jacobs. The library remained a constant source of inspiration and renewal for London after his many adventures, and also plays a big part in his semi-autobiographical novel, Martin Eden.

August Wilson — The famous playwright August Wilson is one of Pittsburgh’s own! Born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Wilson knew at a young age that he wanted to be a writer, but often found his dreams stymied by poverty, discrimination, and a failed education system. Fortunately, he had another road to education: the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. As he explains in an interview in Conversations with August Wilson, the library was his salvation:

My mother taught me to read when I was four years old, and in the library for the first time in my life I felt free. I could read whole books on subjects that interested me. I’d read about the Civil War or theology. By the time I left the library, I thought ‘Okay, I’m ready. I know a lot of stuff.’ It always amazed me that libraries were free.


While public libraries remain wonderfully free to use, there are a lot of costs involved in making them that way. As we’ve pointed out here recently, and as Ray Bradbury laments, unfortunately, it’s getting harder to meet those costs.

Take a moment to consider the fact that without public libraries the above literary autodidacts might never have had the opportunity to learn and become writers. A world without Jack London’s stories?  No thanks! But the simple fact is that while reduced funding could mean reduced materials, library hours, and librarians, it definitely means reduced access and opportunity, a veritable reduction in the freedom August Wilson so appreciated.

Who knows how many future Pulitzer Prize winning authors are taking advantage of their public libraries as you read this?  Let’s do what we can to make sure we can keep opportunity open to them.



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A Lesser-Known American Classic: Jack London’s Martin Eden

martineden1Very recently, I was excited to learn that my First Floor: New and Featured Department colleague and fellow blogger Julie is, like me, a big fan of Jack London’s novel Martin Eden.  Why the excitement?  Well, I first read the novel about four years ago, and it instantly found a spot amongst my top five favorite books of all time.  Since then I’ve searched far and wide for others who share my enthusiasm about this somewhat obscure classic, and Julie is the first person I’ve discovered to have also read and enjoyed it.  Hence, I have decided to use a precious blog post dedicated to this momentous occasion.

Jack London’s name is indelibly synonymous with his most famous novel, The Call of the Wild.   While Call is a great piece of literatucallre deserving of its fame, and quite more philosophically complex than one might at first assume, I’ve often felt that London is short-changed for being known only as “that guy who writes about dogs,” or, sometimes, “that guy who wrote about building a fire.”  Maybe our middle school reading curriculum is to blame for this.  Whatever the cause, London’s true depth is often overlooked.

For awhile I was guilty of short-changing London too, imagining him only as the “dog guy.”  When I eventually decided to read beyond Call of the Wild, it was because of some Jack London references in Edward Abbey’sseawolf The Fool’s Progress.  Given my affinity for Abbey at the time, I thought it might be useful to see why London inspired him.  So, I began my London education by reading another of his most famous novels, The Sea Wolf, and I was pleased to discover that London not only wrote an amazing story of high seas adventure and survival, but also interspersed the action with philosophical discussions of the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution, one of my big interests.


Indeed, London certainly wrote about a lot more than dogs.  After this realization I was a convert to London’s writing, and sometime shortly thereafter I stumbled across the ultimate subject of this post, Martin EdenMartin Eden is about a young, working class guy named (surprise) Martin Eden who by chance stumbles upon the world of the bourgeoisie.  He is instantly impressed, falls in love with a young bourgeois girl named Ruth, and decides to better himself to earn her love.  Through a devoted process of self-education, Eden’s self-improvement is a great success, and he soon rises above his station amongst the working class, begins mingling with the bourgeoisie, and earns the love of Ruth.  Eden then decides to become a writer, and he fiercely dedicates himself to the craft.  In the process Eden loses Ruth, becomes an intense individualist, and eventually far surpasses the bourgeoisie that he once admired.  Through his hard work Eden eventually succeeds mightily as a writer, but by that time a strong sense of disillusionment has pervaded Eden’s psyche, and he decides to end his life.

Martin Eden is generally considered semiautobiographical, since London also rose from the  working class to become a famous writer, though many attest that Eden’s suicide is probably not a hint at London’s own young, debatably suicidal death.  London’s politics also shine through in Martin Eden, since London himself once explained that the novel was an attack on Eden’s extreme individualism.  Indeed, throughout the book Eden describes himself as a kind of Nietzschean individualist, and decries the “slave mind” of socialism.  London, however, was a pretty serious socialist, and so the tragic ending of Eden was ultimately intended as a statement about taking individualism too far.

When I read Martin Eden I had a slightly different take on the meaning of the story.  Indeed, I considered it to be the story of the fate of a guy stuck in social class limbo.  I’m not making up this term — Alfred limboLubrano describes and discusses it well in his interesting book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams.  Class limbo is felt when one leaves behind one’s original socioeconomic roots, usually the working class, and rises into a new class, generally the middle class.   In London’s day, it may have taken a lot of self-education to rise through the ranks, much as Eden and London did.   In today’s world it’s a bit more common, and it usually happens when a working class kid goes to college and suddenly finds him/herself “educated” and working in a job with a shiny new white collar.

But class is more than just the job one works or the money one makes, it’s also about social customs.  Entrance into the middle and upper classes requires assimilation into their culture.   Once a working class individual fully assimilates into a new class culture, there’s no going back.  They’ve suddenly gone beyond their working class customs, and they no longer relate to their friends or family, and vice versa.  On the flipside of things, they never seem to fully fit in with their new class culture’s friends and coworkers who have lived admidst the culture their entire lives.  Hence they’re stuck somewhere in the middle, straddling two social classes but never fully belonging to either one — class limbo.

This is Martin Eden’s experience.  The story begins with Eden as a big, rough-and-tumble working class guy with bad habits and worse grammar.  As he self-educates himself and becomes a writer, he loses his strength and physical presence while modifying his less-civilized behavior, thereby fitting in better with the bourgeoisie.  But just as he becomes acceptable to the bourgeoisie, he realizes the shallowness of their culture and sees that his work and dreams have been for naught.  By that time it’s too late for him to return to the working class, as he can no longer identify with working class people, nor they with him.  Thus does he begin his downward spiral to self-destruction.

In an introduction to the 2002 Modern Library Paperback edition ofwhitefang Martin Eden, Paul Berman describes how Eden “begins to feel that he has become two men instead of one,” one who is “civilized and clean” and one who is a “fistfighting barbarian.”  Interestingly, he claims this sense of division to be the “deepest note” in all of London’s writing.  This is true.  Consider, for instance, the division between nature and civilization in The Call valleyof the Wild and White Fang; the division between mighty gold prospecter and obese, alcoholic businessman in Burning Daylight; and the division between brutal working class city life and refreshing agricultural rural life in The Valley of the Moon.  Truly the theme of division was London’s big one, and usually the division is between one’s “roots” and some kind of artificial experience.

I believe Jack London’s own class limbo inspired this theme.   Indeed, there are several anecdotes about London and his obvious class confusion.  One story goes that London would wear a flannel shirt to parties held by his wealthy literary peers to show off his working class roots, but that it was ultimately seen as a sham.  After all, he was quite wealthy because of his writing by that time, and could not fairly say that he was working class.  Another observation comes from his friend and literary successor Upton Sinclair, who said that London did not know if he wanted to be a revolutionary or an aristocrat.

jacklondon1In the end, London proved much too big to fit into any simple human category.  By not knowing quite where he fit into the human world, he grew into something much larger.  His doing so is what inspires me, a fellow traveller through class limbo, to look beyond the superficial divisions of social life and keep my eye on the much bigger picture.

Today is Jack London’s 133rd birthday.  Happy birthday, Jack.



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