Kings of the Road

Kings of the Road

Two big literary anniversaries: Jack London’s forgotten gem The Road turns 100, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hits 50.


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.

The pivotal experience of his radicalization did not take place in the freedom of the open road itself but in the confinement of the Erie County Penitentiary, in New York, which he describes graphically in The Road. In 1894, after traveling under the radar for two months, he was arrested on charges of vagrancy and sentenced by a judge, without trial, to thirty days in prison. Behind bars he saw the nightmare beneath the American dream, and he later claimed to have witnessed horrors he could not write about. For the rest of his life he remained a foe of prisons, solitary confinement and the death penalty. He befriended ex-convicts from San Quentin and found them work, and in one of his last books, The Star Rover, he imagined himself as a prisoner in a straitjacket who masters astral projection and travels to other countries and historical eras. The Road includes a chapter titled “The Pen,” which contains some of the best writing in all of London’s work; not surprisingly it helped ignite the body of prison literature in this country that flourished in the 1960s and ’70s, with books like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Tommy Trantino’s Lock the Lock. Unsentimental and unromantic, it describes the grim realities of prison life and recounts the loss of freedom in a country founded on the bedrock idea of freedom. “Life was not monotonous in the Pen,” London wrote. “Every day something was happening: men were having fits, going crazy, fighting.” He added that the prison population was a “very nightmare of humanity.”

Kerouac didn’t borrow London’s explicitly political perspective and socialist vocabulary, but in many ways On the Road picks up where his predecessor left off. Like London, Kerouac identified with the down-and-out–with outlaws and outcasts. (For a brief time in the 1940s, he attended meetings of the American Communist Party; his first wife, Edie Kerouac-Parker, describes his left-wing sympathies in her memoir to be published in September by City Lights.) Although he detested almost all -isms, from capitalism to socialism, he felt passionate, like London, about freedom and indignant about servitude of any kind. He continually discussed politics with Ginsberg and Burroughs, and his books offer both overt and covert political messages. In Louisiana, when Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s narrator and protagonist, wants to see the Mississippi River, he finds that he has to peer through a fence, and after a while the whole country seems fenced in–a land of the unfree. On the day of Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949, the narrator notices “great displays of war might” and “all kinds of war material that looked murderous in the snowy grass.” He wants to flee as far from the military-industrial complex as possible, so he travels to Mexico, where he feels at one with peasants, workers and Mexican hipsters.

Throughout On the Road, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty–based on Kerouac and Neal Cassady, respectively–are stopped by the police and locked in jail for much the same reasons that Jack London was arrested in 1894 in Erie County: They have no money and look like the usual suspects. So it’s not surprising that London is the only author Kerouac mentions by name in the novel; nor is it surprising that he credited The Road with inspiring him to become a writer. The Road is a Beat memoir before the advent of the Beats, and an existentialist narrative before the arrival of existentialism. In photos London even looks like a Beatnik–especially when he’s wearing his black leather jacket and denim. Going down into the abyss of society, he felt beaten down like the Beats, but he also felt, like them, a sense of beatitude. In the endless flux of life on the road, he found himself at peace in the present moment. For London, as for Kerouac, Buddhism provided a solution of sorts to the frenetic, obsessive quality of American life.

Like Kerouac, London took to the road with the explicit purpose of writing about it. He took a notebook with him, recorded his observations and wrote down ideas for characters and stories. Though he didn’t take drugs, have sex, listen to jazz or drive fast cars–as Kerouac did–he managed to live an adventurous life and to be very cool and very hip, though those phrases were not a part of his vocabulary. “Perhaps the greatest charm of tramp-life is the absence of monotony,” London wrote. “In Hobo Land the face of life is protean–an ever changing phantasmagoria, where the impossible happens and the unexpected jumps out of the bushes at every turn of the road.”

Kerouac wrote On the Road on and off in the 1940s and ’50s–not in one brief, furious sitting, as he would claim–when he was largely unknown and largely unpublished. London wrote The Road in a sudden burst of creativity that Kerouac would have envied, after spending nearly a year traveling across America to speak on college campuses and urge students to join the revolution and overthrow the capitalist system, with violence if need be. At the time he was already world-famous and one of the highest-paid authors in America.

He was also, perhaps, “the only revolutionary writer in America,” to borrow the words of Emma Goldman, the Russian-born anarchist who was his friend, comrade and a frequent visitor to Beauty Ranch, his California estate. The New York Times argued that he’d betrayed his poetic genius by embracing revolution and even armed insurrection. “He is sacrificing the best of him to the worst of him,” the Times proclaimed, though the reporter had enough sense to add that London “would violently disagree with me.”

Still, following the publication of The Road, London withdrew from active participation in the Socialist Party–after more than a decade of intense involvement that began with his 1894 road trip–and became gloomy about the prospects for revolution in the United States. In the spring of 1907, he set sail on his luxury yacht, the Snark, and vowed not to return for seven years. All across the Pacific Ocean, he wrote Martin Eden, an autobiographical novel about a struggling writer, not unlike himself, who becomes famous, finds bourgeois success hollow and commits suicide. In The Iron Heel (1908), a prophetic novel, he describes government surveillance of citizens and control of news and information, and he envisions the United States as a fractured, polarized society whose power elite believes in its own moral righteousness even as it pursues immoral, illegal policies and wars. It inspired radicals around the world, including Lenin and Trotsky, but has been largely ignored in the United States.

Truman Capote once quipped that Kerouac didn’t write but merely typed. Similar charges were leveled against London, who, it was said, wrote too much and too quickly. Indeed, he did; but some of that massive output–the stories of war and boxing, revolution and male camaraderie–influenced several generations of American writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Norman Mailer. The Road and The Iron Heel inspired George Orwell to write Down and Out in Paris and London and 1984. “Much of London’s work is scamped and unconvincing,” Orwell wrote in an introductory essay to a collection of London’s work that was published in the late 1940s, shortly before his death. “But he produced at least six volumes which deserve to stay in print, and that is not a bad achievement from a life of only forty years.”

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