Kings of the Road
In 1907, exactly fifty years before Jack Kerouac's On the Road reached the New York Times bestseller list, Jack London--then one of the most popular authors in America--published a memoir titled simply The Road. Its centennial will be greeted with much less fanfare than On the Road's fiftieth anniversary, which will be feted this year all over the world with readings, conferences and a new Viking reissue of the book. The Road reflects its author's highly developed class consciousness and comes from an era when American writers like London, Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair wrote to make their readers aware of injustices and to rouse them to political action. Moreover, London's account of his wild, eye-opening journey across the country by railroad, boat, on foot--and even barefoot, when his shoes fell apart--remains a pivotal work in the cultural history of America's long obsession with road travel, roadside attractions and road books. A literary gem in its own right, it has achieved fame among historians and scholars as the grandfather of all twentieth-century American books that explore life and death on the road, including, most famously, Kerouac's classic. For several generations of rough-and-tumble readers, including the members of the Beat generation, it served as an invitation to see the country firsthand, though not first-class.
Yet while On the Road is Kerouac's signature work and a pivotal text of twentieth-century American literature, London's The Road is a largely forgotten volume among the fifty-odd books he published, never having achieved the popularity of his tales about dogs and wolves, like The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Still, it is among the most compelling of his books--and the closest he came to recounting honestly his life as an outsider, outcast, wanderer and vagabond. London's portraits of American places, including small towns like Underwood, Leola, Menden, Avoca and Marno, are still memorable because he captured their undeniable hospitality and generosity and because they encouraged him, in the spirit of Walt Whitman, to sing his own song of the open road. His self-portrait is equally indelible. By depicting himself as a "stranger in a strange land," and by taking on the larger-than-life persona of "the American hobo," he was able to write insightfully about the underside of American life--the poverty, the violence and the brutality--that was largely ignored by his contemporaries Henry James, Edith Wharton and even William Dean Howells.
At first glance, London and Kerouac seem to have much in common. Both pushed themselves to psychological extremes, both burned themselves up and drank themselves to excess and death--London at 40, Kerouac at 47. Yet they also stand worlds apart from each other. Kerouac could not handle fame, while London basked in it, spending money as fast as he made it on tweed suits, silk shirts, machines, books, houses and land in Oakland and Sonoma County. He raised horses and pigs and marketed grape juice with his own image on the label, though that advertising ploy did not yield financial success. By the time he died, in 1916, he owned more than a thousand acres of prime California real estate. Depression followed him nearly his whole life, along with thoughts of suicide. His easy optimism, like Kerouac's, masked darkness and despair.
In the years between 1907 and 1957 America changed radically--it became a world power and developed a full-blown mass culture--and those social and cultural changes are reflected in these two books. The Road depicts an industrial America in which hobos and tramps are an integral part of the system--"a reserve army of the unemployed," as Marxists have called it--who help keep wages down. On the Road describes a postindustrial America in which cars are everywhere, almost everyone can afford a car, a radio and a television, and the mass media shape the lives of American citizens. For Kerouac the way to break out of American conformity was to drop out, of course, to reject material possessions, embrace spirituality and seek out the "fellaheen," as he called them--the indigenous peoples of the world.
London described his work as nonfiction; Kerouac called his a novel. And though it's impossible to measure precisely, there's as much fictionalizing in The Road as there is actuality in On the Road. Kerouac's fictional characters are based on real people, including Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, while London's real people behave like the characters you'd meet in a novel. London admitted his penchant for borrowing other men's experiences and making them his own--as well as his habit of making himself up from whole cloth--in the first chapter of The Road, which he titled "Confession." There he explains that when he traveled across America in 1894, as an 18-year-old, he told the people he met that he was an orphan and had no family.
Almost all his life, London felt like an orphan: He was born out of wedlock and raised by a mother who rarely if ever expressed love for him and a stepfather who resented his very presence at home. Like many of the hipsters of the 1940s, the Beats of the '50s and the hippies of the '60s, London went on the road as a teenager to escape his strict parents and to join the company of wayward, vagabond boys and men who didn't have families, homes or jobs.
For part of the time, London traveled with an unemployed, rebellious contingent of men known as Kelly's Army, named after the San Francisco printer and union organizer Charles Kelly, who served as their leader and whom they followed to Washington to demand jobs from the federal government. (President Cleveland ordered federal troops to prevent them from entering the city.) That experience on the road made him feel that people can make history and that he might also have a hand in shaping American society rather than simply being shaped by it. Once he learned that lesson, he parted ways with Kelly's Army in Hannibal, Missouri, where Mark Twain had spent his youth. At that moment, vagabonding meant more to him than protesting economic injustices, though soon after, protesting would become a way of life for him. Like Huck Finn, he traveled by raft down the Mississippi River, then headed north to see the remains of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.
His comradeship with the men in Kelly's Army--and with hobos he encountered in boxcars and railway yards in New York and Boston--transformed him, he explained, from a self-proclaimed individualist and a proud self-defined Nietzschean superman into a serious student of Karl Marx and a fiery socialist who felt a sense of kinship with comrades around the world. As soon as he returned to Oakland from his cross-continental odyssey, he joined the Socialist Party and began to write for the San Francisco Examiner--one of William Randolph Hearst's newspapers--about the need for earthshaking economic and political changes in America. Before long, he was the poster boy for the rapidly emerging movement, writing about class warfare and his own conversion to the left for publications like The Comrade and International Socialist Review.