When I was in college, I learned about ambiguity by reading the novels and the essays of Henry James, the Anglo-American author who was born in New York and who died in London, England in 1916, the same year that Jack London died in Californa. Almost all of my professors — Thirties lefties who become Fifties conservatives — adored James and expected that their students would adore him, too. I did that for a time — I also became an anglophile — and learned to love ambiguity. A crucial essay in my own education was Edmund Wilson’s “The Ambiguity of Henry James.” After I immersed myself in Wilson, I saw ambiguity everywhere I turned in fiction and poetry. I even wrote a thesis about Henry James’ ambiguity.
Then the Sixties of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and radical protest came along and my sensibilities (to borrow a Jamesian term) shifted. From V. I. Lenin and from Mao, I learned to appreciate “contradictions,” which was once a word and concept used almost exclusively by and on the left, but that has now been taken over by authors and thinkers on the right and in the so-called center. That’s a story in and of itself.
Lenin’s surprisingly insightful essay, “Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution” opened my eyes not only to Tolstoy and his work, but also to Lenin and Leninist literary criticism. “The contradictions in Tolstoy’s views and doctrines are not accidental; they express the contradictory conditions of Russian life in the last third of the nineteenth century,” Lenin wrote. That was a valuable lesson: to see that the contradictions contained in the work of an individual writer might reflect the larger contradictions of the era in which he or she lived.
Lenin read London, especially his collection of essays, War of the Classes. Moreover Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, read to him from a collection of London’s short stories, at least one of which he enjoyed, while another, “The Seed of McCoy,” he dismissed because it expressed “bourgeois morals.” Lenin died two days later. Literary Russians are familiar with the connections between Lenin and London; few American scholars are. That’s our loss; we tend to be focused on our own little world and exclude the rest of the world.
Over the years, ambiguity and contradiction have served as tools for my own critical thinking and literary analysis. I would not and probably could not do without them. They are so ingrained in my habits of mind that to give them up would require brain surgery or at least a fundamental restructuring of my brain waves.
But recently I’ve heard readers, teachers and critics use the terms to avoid coming down on one side or another of an argument or divide. Or so it seems to me. I can understand the reluctance to chose sides, condemn a writer or critic and take an unambiguous stand.
I have often hailed Keats’s notion of “negative capability” a term that he defined as a state of being and thinking “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Then, too, I have borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald who noted that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Then, too, there’s George Orwell’s notion of “doublethink” when someone is unaware of any contradiction, as for example in the slogans from the novel 1984, including, “Love is Hate” and “War is Peace.”
In the last year or so, I’ve thought deeply about biographers and literary critics — Jay Williams and Cecilia Tichi come to mind — who habitually refuse to acknowledge what might be called Jack London’s belief in white supremacy and his almost instinctive anti-Semitism, or to see that he was a profoundly divided writer who scorned the working class as much as he identified with it. Read The Sea-Wolf carefully. London describes the sailors abroad the Ghost as exploited workers who are easily besotted with alcohol and diverted from any desire to protest or mutiny against their boss and captain, Wolf Larsen.
For the most part, the clubby London critics who praise one another’s work don’t begin to appreciate Lenin’s approach to Tolstoy or apply it to London. They seem unwilling and or unable to recognize that London’s contradictions express the contradictions in American society from about 1900, when he broke into print, until he died in 1916 at the age of 40. Indeed, they’re too eager to turn London in a heroic figure who had no contradictions at all and who stood firmly on the side of truth, justice and the American way. What they write might be called hagiography. Since 2016 is the one-hundredth anniversary of London’s death there has been an outpouring of work about him.
In Author Under Sail: The Imagination of Jack London, 1893-1902, Jay Williams describes his hero as an academic writer, a Christian socialist, a bohemian, and more but says nothing about his allegiance to white supremacy, his muddle headed thinking about class, race and sex. Williams takes a Freudian approach and concludes his book with a discussion of London’s contract with the Macmillan publishing company and the start of a relationship with his long time editor George Brett. “He had finally found a father and a home,” Williams writes. Not really. He soon abandoned Macmillan and found another house to publish his work.
In Jack London: A Writer’s Fight for a Better America, Professor Tichi portrays the author as a “progressive” who “set the stage” for the New Deal and specifically for the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. She begins her book by describing London as “the great American public intellectual” and does not see fit to explore the work of other America intellectuals active in the same period, including W.E. B. Du Bois, the author of the pioneering The Souls of Black Folk. Henry George and Thorstein Veblen, two significant thinkers from the same era who might be considered “great American public intellectuals,” are mentioned only in passing in Tichi’s work.
Reaching conclusions about London can be challenging. After all, he wrote 50 books. He changed his mind over the course of his life; one can comb through his work and find expressions of contradictory statements about all kinds of subjects and issues. Still, if one examines, weighs and judges all his work, unambiguous conclusions seem unavoidable. Namely, that he believed that there were inferior and superior races and classes. London insisted that Anglo Saxons were superior to Africans, Asians and Latin Americans. He thought that the American worker was superior to all other workers.
Yes, he was of his time. Social Darwinians expressed many of the same ideas that he expressed. However, other notable thinkers and writers — including Mark Twain and William Dean Howells — held more enlightened views than London did. They transcended the jingoism and the chauvinism of their own era and condemned American empire building and imperialism. The London faithful might include critical thinking in their scholarship.
They might not circle their own literary wagons and defend their favorite writer against anyone to challenges conventional thinking. They might read Lenin on Tolstoy and see that Lenin’s ideas about contradictions can help to understand London life, work and times. Indeed, you don’t have to be a Leninist to appreciate Lenin’s literary criticism. And please no hero worship or demonization, either, of the father of the Bolshevik Revolution. Contradictions infuse the life and the work of Lenin himself.