Science Fiction Studies

#27 = Volume 9, Part 2 = July 1982

Alessandro Portelli

Jack London's Missing Revolution: Notes on The Iron Heel*

[A slightly different and longer version of this paper appeared in Italian in Calibano, 5 (October 1980):52-76. I wish to thank Carole Beebe Tarantelli for this English translation.]

                                `A film about Birkut, without Birkut? It doesn't make sense!'
                                                                                Andrzej Wajda, The Man of Marble

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over          
Like a syrup sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
                                                Langston Hughes, "Harlem"

Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907) has been called "a small folk Bible of scientific socialism." Its historical relevance has been found to lie mostly in the introduction it provides to revolutionary thought and in its scientific predictions, rather than in its literary form. Even Trotsky, a not unsubtle literary critic, pointed out the exactness of London's predictions and defined the form of the fiction as nothing but a frame for its social analyses.1 Form would appear to be a kind of irrelevant "superstructure," an ornament and aid for uneducated readers.                

However, there are too many books in the utopian (and dystopian) genre in the late 19th century-early 20th century period for its form(s) to be discounted as merely an incidental feature of political-historical discourse. With the growth of industrialization and the birth of a working-class movement, this sort of text becomes a major instrument for the search into the future and the projection of utopian hopes or anguished fears. Between the year of the Haymarket Riot, 1886, and that of conservative restauration, 1896, more than 100 works of a utopian character were published in the US alone.2

Most—including the best known, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888)—have been read as nothing but reform tracts, entirely discounting their literary form. However, even if we leave aside Butler's Erewhon (1872) and Morris's News from Nowhere (1891), a book such as A Traveller from Altruria (1894) by an established writer like William D. Howells shows that literary intentions are an essential part of these novels. Jack London was very well aware of working not only in a political, but in a literary tradition as well. The mention of H.G. Wells's name in The Iron Heel is there to remind us that the imagination of those years was also laying the foundations of contemporary SF.               

The difficulty in perceiving the rationality of contemporary reality was at the time a problem not only for establishment intellectuals, but also for those engaged in the search for a "rational" way out of capitalism.3 This created a vacuum, which was occupied by "imaginary" solutions for the contemporary crisis: imagination became then an essential, if implicit, element of political discourse rather than a superimposition upon it. The novel is the only place where we find a tangible image of alternatives to capitalism: therefore, a reading of the utopian romances such as The Iron Heel as literary texts is necessary to grasp the ways in which these alternatives were imagined to be constructed and brought into being.

1. The most obvious formal element in The Iron Heel is the stratification of its narrators. The main text, "written" in 1932 and concerning events which "occurred" from 1912 to 1917, is narrated in the first person by Avis Everhard, the hero's wife. This text is framed by another, composed of footnotes and of a foreword by Anthony Meredith, the imaginary editor of Avis's manuscript, found and published seven centuries after the Revolution had overturned the Iron Heel and established socialism. Lastly, there is Ernest Everhard, who cannot be considered a narrator in the strictest sense but is nevertheless an important "voice" in that he speaks throughout the first part of the novel.                

This stratification of voices has multiple functions. In the first place, by sharing the responsibility for its contents, the different narrators accentuate the book's credibility. Everhard is the source of theoretical knowledge; Avis of direct experience; Meredith of historical knowledge. Each introduces a different literary genre: the essay and oratory (Ernest), the novel and autobiography (Avis), history and criticism (Meredith). The presence of Meredith's notes raises Avis's story to the status of a "document," conferring upon it the credibility belonging to historical "sources." The fact that Meredith questions some of Avis's secondary statements underlines the accuracy of the rest. At the same time, Avis's narrative clothes the bones of Ernest's theoretical discourse with the flesh of personal experience. Thus, the capacity of the text to function as an introduction to socialism depends largely on the literary artifices of its construction.4               

But Avis, Ernest, and Meredith are also hierarchically ranked. The difference between Avis's attitude toward Everhard and Meredith's is sufficient to reveal this. She exalts him as a hero, a God, a superman, while Meredith cuts him down to size in a footnote: "With all respect to Avis Everhard, it must be pointed out that Everhard was but one of many able leaders who planned the Second Revolt."5 As Meredith says in his foreword, the difference between Avis and himself is one of perspective: she looks at Ernest from below, he from the heights of centuries and of the successful revolution.                

The different perspectives generate different modes of perception in the text. The hero appears at the same time superior, equal, and inferior. Avis's narration often resolves itself into myth or romance; Meredith often introduces an element of irony with his comments and with the estrangement produced by the description of the "strange" customs of early 20th-century society.6 Finally, London himself tends to place Ernest Everhard on a plane of parity with himself: he places in Everhard's mouth a speech identical to the lecture he himself gave and published as "Revolution," and describes the meeting between Ernest and Avis much in the same terms as the later (and largely autobiographical) Martin Eden (1909).7               

The attribution of three different and gradually ranked perspectives to the three speakers allows London to offer the reader the choice of the perspective with which he or she feels most at ease. Thus the novel is able to function at different levels—a quality which is anything but irrelevant to a work of "propaganda."

2. In her description of the book's most dramatic episode—the Chicago Commune and the massacre of the proletarians—Avis says: "Many events are focused sharply on my brain, but between these indelible pictures I retain are intervals of unconsciousness. What occurred in those intervals I know not, and never shall know" (23:219). The event is too terrifying for Avis to be able to look at, remember, describe; the only reassurance derives from the fact that it has taken place in an interval—that is, that there was a before and an after. As horrible as these experiences have been, Avis has nevertheless survived them. In fact, she repeatedly stresses the prodigious character of her survival: "it seemed inconceivable that I could bear the weight I did and live" (23:210); "Garthwaite and I bore charmed lives" (23:215).                

The survival of the narrator is an essential characteristic of narratives of the future. SF consists of stories of the future told in the past tense; the fact that someone has lived to tell the story provides reassurance after the reader has glimpsed the traumatic possibilities inherent in it. As Adorno says in his essay on Huxley: "The formal trick of reporting future events as though they had already happened endows their content with a repulsive complicity."8 Thus, the narrator guarantees the reader's own survival: as terrible as the events imagined and described may be, the use of the past tense shows the continued existence of a narrating subject and thus allows the reader to exorcise them.9               

The Iron Heel grants the reader this relief in many ways, even beyond those provided by Avis's "kindly blanks" (24:219). The stratification of narrators allows for a story (Avis's) which begins before the Revolution and ends in defeat, as well as for one told after the fact and which informs us from the very first page that the Revolution has triumphed (Meredith's). We are thus presented with the before and the after of the Revolution, while the Revolution itself remains invisible: another object which cannot be faced and described. The procedure London uses to assure us that the Revolution will succeed (that is, that "we" will survive) implicitly defines the means through which the success is achieved: revolution appears as an event which is frightening even for its very proponents.                

This device is in line with a long literary tradition: Bellamy's Julian West falls into a hypnotic sleep and wakes up after the socialist state has been established; Irving's Rip Van Winkle founds the national literature by means of a 20-year sleep which exorcises the national revolution. Too often, the essential part of the story is placed in blanks, in gaps: this suggests that the impossibility of naming and describing the revolution is a recurrent motif in American literature. Revolution—the violent substitution of one order with another—is a "black hole" in the national consciousness.                

The traumatic nature of the events which occur in intervals is underlined in The Iron Heel by a double break in the chronology of narration. First, we have a gap between Avis's and Meredith's stories; then, we find that Avis's tale is itself in the form of a broken circle. She begins at the end, describing her situation at the moment of writing her memoir, but is unable to bring the tale up to this moment. The time of the story and the time of the narration do not run together: Avis writes in 1932, but her manuscript is interrupted (Meredith finds that the last pages are missing and he does not know whether they were lost or never written) at the end of 1917. Again, the space left undescribed contains a traumatic event: Ernest's death. The form of Avis's tale confirms the function of these breaks of narrations: hiding decisive but unnameable events. This procedure is repeated three times: at the level of the scene (Avis's "blank" during the insurrection), of the narration (Avis's account of Ernest's life and death), and of the connection between narrators (the gap of seven centuries between Avis and Meredith. during which the Revolution takes place). The People of the Abyss, the death of the hero, the social revolution—all are untold. This structure implicitly tells us more about London's attitude toward revolution than all his explicit political statements.

3. In the first part of the novel, Ernest Everhard meets several groups of emblematic characters: bishops, capitalists, small businessmen. He discusses with each group one aspect of socialist theory (philosophical foundations, power relationships' economic analysis), and at the same time offers a description of the contemporary reality which is necessary for the utopian tension with the future project.10 The prevalence of dialogue and monologue reveals the theatrical structure of these chapters: the hero is at the center of the scene, and the other characters, representing different types of humanity, alternate before him, in a structure reminiscent of the morality play. London's choice of names underlines this similarity. Everhard's name is not only allegorical in its own right, but is also reminiscent of Everyman. The use of allegorical names, a device of the morality play, extends to the hero's first name (Ernest) and to those of other characters: Avis (whose Latin meaning is evoked by her describing Ernest as "my eagle"), Morehouse (who gives up his house), Wickson (reminiscent of "wicked"), and Mr Calvin and Mr Owen among the small businessmen.11                         

However, among these types of humanity—who actually coincide with the various social classes—there is a conspicuous absence: that of the working class. This absence should be placed alongside the absence of the Revolution (of which—at least in the socialist theory to which London claims to subscribe—the working class is the historical agent). Both are defined by their absence.                

This first "movement" in the form of the morality play is followed by another, which describes the quest for the working class. Avis, her father, and Bishop Morehouse undertake a voyage of discovery of this world, whose very existence they had hitherto ignored. It is mostly an allegorical voyage, "a journey through hell" (6:69) which Bishop Morehouse undertakes with Ernest Everhard as his socialist Virgil. But it also takes other forms, so appropriate for a novel aimed at the masses: those of the detective story (Avis's investigations to discover who maimed Jackson and have his case reopened) and the adventure (her father's "adventure"—the term occurs three times on a single page, 11:115—in his search for the people).                

This multiple search for the working class yields no greater fruit than the mythological quest for the Holy Grail. The seekers move under, around, and at the margins of the working class, but they never touch its center. Morehouse first redeems thieves and prostitutes, then aids an old lady who can no longer work in a factory. Avis meets Jackson, who has been crippled by an accident and is therefore no longer a textile worker. Later, she talks to two supervisors. Her father goes through a sequence of jobs—night watchman, potato hawker, warehouse man, utility man, cater carrier, dishwasher—which belong more to a generically proletarian environment than to a specific working-class identity. The factory worker, employed in the productive process, remains outside the novel's reach; the place where the working class is formed, the central place of the class struggle—the factory—is unrepresented.                

Of course, this is not merely a documentary gap, but another essential "absence" related to the other "black holes" which form the structure of the novel: it corresponds on the theoretical level to London's description of the contrast between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat at the level of the division of wealth rather than of its production. Notwithstanding his revolutionary terminology, London offers a reformist image of social relationships: the working class does not appear as an active force in politics and production, but rather as a suffering, victimized class.12               

This approach is also revealed in London's modification of the final sentence in Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto. Instead of "The proletariat has nothing to lose but its chains. And they have a world to gain," in London's description of the Chicago insurrection we read: "The people of the abyss has nothing to lose but the misery and pain of living. And to gain?— nothing, save one final, awful glut of vengeance" (23:207). This places London, not in the Marxist tradition, but in that of the 19th-century popular novel, with its emphasis on the "excessive" consequences of capitalistic social relationships rather than on the relationships per se. The Iron Heel is thus a good example of how extreme forms of struggle are not incompatible with a reformist analysis of society.                

The absence of a direct, "sociological" representation of the working class, on the other end, ends up by stressing its symbolic presence. In fact, if blanks constitute the center of the novel, the blank concerning the working class accentuates its centrality. Despite its being invisible—or, perhaps, because of it—the working class is the essential force in the book.               

In fact, as is appropriate to the novel's structure, the symbol of the working class is an absence: Jackson's missing arm, torn off by the machine in the factory. If the sociological absence signifies passivity, this symbolic absence is the motive force of the whole plot. "Little did I dream the fateful part Jackson's arm was to play in my life," says Avis at the beginning of the chapter entitled "Jackson's Arm" (3:31). The next chapter begins with a similar sentence: "The more I thought of Jackson's arm, the more shaken I was" (4:41). The image of the "real," of the "concrete," of Ernest's "irrefragable fact" (4:41) is in fact an object which just is not there. This missing object becomes for Avis a symbol of the facts of life; and the "irrefragable fact" is the fact that "absence" is the form taken by the presence of the working class. Jackson, the emblematic worker, becomes productive on the level of the narrative at the moment in which he ceases to be productive at the social and economic level.13 The loss of Jackson's arm, torn and chewed by the teeth of the machine, sums up London's strategy of loss, absence, void, fragmentation by which he indicates—by not describing them—the essential objects of The Iron Heel.

4. Before going further in this direction, perhaps it would be best to deal with a possible objection—that is, whether Ernest himself should not be seen as representing the presence of the working class in the novel. There are hints in the text that this may have in fact been London's idea: Ernest's first appearance is announced by Avis's father with "We have with us a member of the working class" (1:8). "His behaviour was what was to be expected by a member of the working class." says Avis. upset by his manners. Ernest is again introduced as "member of the working class" to the Philomath Club (5:51).

However, Ernest's emotional impact is something else: upon first seeing him, Avis perceives him as "a natural aristocrat—and this in spite of the fact that he was in the camp of the non-aristocrats" (1:8). A similar contrastive formula is to be found later: "He had been born in the working class, though he was a descendant of the old line of Everhards that for over two hundred years had lived in America" (2:19). He is, indeed, a member of the closest thing America has to a blood aristocracy, the "old American stock," which is contrasted with a working-class identity more suited for recent immigrant stock. On the other hand, in turn-of-the-century America, there was enough social mobility to assure that family origins were not the decisive element in an individual's class identity: though born in the working class, Ernest (like Jackson) is no longer a member of it, at least not in the sense of the industrial working class of modern times. He earns a "meagre living" by intellectual work: "translating scientific and philosophical works" and collecting royalties from "his own economic and philosophical works" (2:19). Traces of his climb out of the working class are to be found occasionally in the text: Avis herself talks of his "rise in society" (5:53); and Ernest stresses his difference from the workers when he faces the masters at the Philomath Club:

I am not a working man, cap in hand, asking you to increase my wages or to protect me from the machine at which I work. You cannot be dogmatic with truth when you deal with me. Save that for dealing with your wageslaves.' (5:59)

Thus, even though Ernest speaks for the working class, he does not speak from it. He "represents" it much as the Party "represents" the masses. His name suggests an image of the Party as the steel core ("Everhard") of professional revolutionaries. The role of this type of political party is not only that of directing the class, but also (supposedly) of bringing consciousness to it from the outside, through intellectuals (like Ernest) who consider themselves to be its depositories. The synthesis of material and intellectual strength which characterizes Ernest is also reminiscent of the image of the Revolutionary Party as a union of the strength of the masses and the intellectual power of the vanguard—an image which has a long tradition on the Left.               

The third "movement" of the book, which is dedicated to the activity of the Socialists before and after the establishment of the Iron Heel, describes the emergence of this new entity, the Revolutionary Party. That the party occupies the void created by the absence of the class is perhaps one reason why The Iron Heel was required reading for members in several Communist parties at least until the '50s.14

5. The practice of the underground Revolutionary Party consists mostly in conspiracy and infiltration. A reciprocal infiltration, as a matter of fact: "We permeated the entire organization of the Iron Heel with our agents, while our own organization was permeated with the agents of the Iron Heel" (16:157); "We mined the organization of the Iron Heel with our secret agents, and the Iron Heel countermined with its secret agents inside its own organization" (ibid.). The very verbal form of this description shows the situation in terms of an exchange: the revolutionaries and the agents of the oligarchy are interchangeable—to the point that the revolutionary Garthwaite reveals his identity to Avis not by the Party's password but by that of the Iron Heel.                

Hannah Arendt has written that in the totalitarian state, the underground opposition and the secret police end up by resembling each other very closely:15 this book seems to be a case in point. The resemblance between the two sides is emphasized so often that it cannot be accidental. Twice, in their discussion, the capitalist Mr Wickson and the revolutionary Ernest Everhard use identical words: "In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine guns will our answer be couched" (Wickson, 5:63; Everhard, 5:64); "There is the word. It is the king of words—Power....Pour it over your tongue till it tingles with it. Power" (Wickson, 5:63); "...power. We of the labor hosts have conned that word over till our minds are all a-tingle with it. Power. It is a kingly word" (Everhard, 5:64).                

The use of identical expressions indicates the head-on nature of the clash; but in a certain sense, the opposition appears to be made more irreconcilable from the very similarity of the opponents. The only real difference between the masters and the wage slaves seems indeed to lie in that kingly word, "Power." The masters have it; the workers do not, both adore it. 16

Correctly, but typically, London emphasizes the fact that both sides are driven by an identical conviction of the righteousness of their cause: "The great driving force of the oligarchs is the belief that they are doing right....For that matter, the strength of the Revolution, during these frightful twenty years, has resided in nothing else than the sense of righteousness" (21:191).17

In fact, the revolutionaries' plan for seizing power is rather a coup d'état than a social revolution. The proletariat will be loosed upon the ruling class, hurled upon them, in order to keep the police busy, while the steel core of the Revolutionary Party carries out the really important actions. "It would merely mean that various dangers to us were harmlessly destroying one another. In the meantime we would be doing our own work, largely unhampered, and gaining control of all the machinery of society" (21:196). The masses, like the police, are a danger; rather than "directing" them, the Party is prepared to use and control them. This use and control of the masses by the Party seems to be intended to continue also after the seizure of power. The word "control," which punctuates the text, seems to imply that the future revolutionary élite will exercise their power and control of the People and the Abyss, rather than let it come into its own.18               

The separation between the party and the class, between the leaders and the masses, shows that there is a split between the elements that London had attempted to unite in Ernest Everhard, those of physical and intellectual strength.19 Intellectual functions are drained away from the working class: the ruling class co-opts those skilled workers whose work implies at least an element of intelligence and knowledge; and the Party drains the proletariat of all functions except those of a battering ram, drains away the most promising individuals, reduces the intellectual function of the Revolution to conspiracy and plotting. The owners and the Party together turn people into "agents"— meaning not that they act, but that other forces act through them: the shadow-world of secret service identity was nebulous. Like ghosts, the agents came and went, obeying commands, fulfilling duties, following clues, making their reports often to officers they never saw or co-operating with other agents they had never seen before and would never see again. (21: 194)

This is Avis, describing both the revolutionary secret service and that of the oligarchs.

6. Ernest's inablility to function as a synthesis points out even greater discrepancies in the text, which are mirrored in the difference between the levels of discourse. At the two extremes of Avis's narrative, we find two examples of descriptive discourse: Ernest's depiction of the capitalist present, and Meredith's notes on the socialist future. The function we would expect Avis's text to fulfill is that of linking the two levels: to show how one becomes the other. But Avis's story is interrupted: in place of the process of the advent of utopia, we find both an absence (the missing Revolution) and a continuity (Ernest is like Wickson: the Socialists take over, unchanged, the cities built by the oligarchs). If utopia is, as Louis Marin suggests, the prefiguration of something which cannot yet be conceptualized,20 then London's book is the reverse of the utopian discourse: rather than imagining something which political theory cannot yet visualize, it divulgates a fully developed theory but cannot countenance its consequences. The blank at the center of the book, the impossibility of showing how the present becomes the future, is the not caused by a theory which has lagged behind the imagination, but by the crisis of an imagination that dares not face the consequences of the theory.                

What brings The Iron Heel back into the realm of the utopian genre is the role London assigns to the Party. We cannot read the future in what Ernest and his comrades are today; we cannot read their heritage in the world Meredith lets us glimpse in his notes. There is no communication between these two worlds—unless the communication be established by an act of the will. All of Avis's narrative shows that the Revolution is, if necessary, also impossible; on the other hand, we know it has triumphed. The Party presents itself as the absolute subjective will which overcomes this rational impossibility, a collective Superman freed from all control, independent of every sanction which is not internal to itself, its own theories, its own ethics.

Here London touches the link between utopia, despair, and terrorism. "What happens to a dream deferred?" asks Langston Hughes's poem. London's socialism is just that, a dream deferred—so much deferred that real experience and dreamed experience are separated by seven centuries, given to two different narrators, kept apart by an unsurmountable barrier. Thus, what happens to Hughes's dream deferred also happens to London's: it rots, it festers, it explodes. Images of rotting and festering flesh and sores appear in the irruption of the People of the Abyss; and they are linked to the revolutionaries' decision to provoke the explosion. At this point, there is very little difference between Ernest Everhard's underground party, with its inflexible sentences, and the "Assassination Bureau, Ltd.," which gives its name to the title of London's unfinished last novel—where we are told of a further division of labor, in which a group of "insane moralists," in the pay of underground anarchists and revolutionaries, execute death sentences passed on individuals judged dangerous to society, and justify themselves on the basis of the ethical superiority of their philosophical vision

7. Avis's description of the world of secret agents is replete with words like "shadow," "nebulous," "ghosts." To join the secret service is to lose one's body. The separation of party and class can-also be interpreted as a case of the duality which runs through the American naturalist tradition in general, and London's work specifically, in which rationality, spirituality, and culture are opposed to the body, to the instincts, to the atavistic remains of man's animal nature; the separation between the forces of control and those ("dangerous to us") that must be controlled, the "abysmal beast" which is even more threatening in that it possesses an undeniable element of fascination and attraction. Thus, in The Iron Heel the proletariat is also a symbol of the material, bodily aspect of human nature in general.                

Ernest's claim to a working-class identity is always substantiated in terms of his body; the strength of the working class is also physical:

Our strength, the strength of the proletariat, is in our muscles, in our hands to cast ballots, in our fingers to pull triggers. This strength we cannot be stripped of. It is the primitive strength, it is the strength that is to life germane. (9:95)

London repeats these words of Ernest's in his own essay, "Revolution." But there is a significant difference between the essay and the novel: Ernest's body. Ernest's extended hands, stretched toward the masters, frighten them more than all his words: "Truly Ernest had shaken them when he stretched out his hands for their money-bags, his hands that had appeared in their eyes as the hands of fifteen hundred thousand revolutionists" (5:58).21               

In Ernest's version, the philosophy of the proletariat is characterized by a dependence on "facts" which reduces Marxism to a variant of positivism.22 He accuses his philosophical opponents of being "metaphysical," that is, incorporeal: "He bristled with facts. He tripped them up with facts, ambuscaded them with facts, bombarded them with broadsides of facts" (1:13). "I can hear him now, with that war-note in his voice, flaying them with his facts, each fact a lash that stung and stung again" (1:16). The proletarian metaphor of culture as a class-weapon merges here with a vision of proletarian philosophy as of something made with things, concrete, tangible objects.                

In view of this link between the materiality of the body and the proletariat as a class, the obliteration of the body becomes one more link in the chain of significant absences that runs through the book. The device by which the body is made to disappear is disguise: Meredith and Avis often repeat that disguise is not a dissimulation but an annulment of the original identity. Throughout the chapters devoted to the Party's underground activity, a key word is "disappear": Avis disappears when she dresses up as an oligarch ("An hour later Avis Everhard was no more"), and then her temporary identity "disappeared for ever in turn" (18:167-68). Revolutionaries and proletarians disappear, kidnapped and killed, like Avis's father, by the Iron Heel, or swallowed up by the underground; oligarchs disappear too, like young Wickson, kidnapped and then returned to the world as an agent of the revolutionists, his identity as an oligarch turned into a disguise.                

The obliteration of identity leads to a total manipulation of the body— destroyed by physical annihilation, completely transformed by disguise:

Among the revolutionists were many surgeons, and in vivisection they attained marvellous proficiencey. In Avis Everhard's words, they could literally make a man over. To them the elimination of scars and disfigurements was a trivial detail. They changed the features with such microscopic care that no traces were left of their handiwork....(21:193n)

The body—the "concrete," "natural" component of personal identity—is placed under total control, and can oppose no resistance to the rational will. The manipulation of the body through disguise and surgery is another example of the control revolutionaries possess not so much over themselves as over the masses.23               

In fact, the rebellion of the People of the Abyss is described largely as an explosion of the manipulated, annihilated, wounded, festered body. As opposed to the "nebulous" world of the "agents," the proletarians are characterized by concreteness—but a concreteness that is swollen and rotten:

It surged past my vision in concrete waves of wrath, snarling and growing carnivorous....swollen with physical grossness and coruption... festering youth and festering age, faces of fiends, crooked, twisted, misshapen monsters....(23:207)

Even their rags seem to suggest that nothing can contain and hide these exploding bodies. The opposition between absence and presence, manipulation and eruption of the body, indicates the opposition between the underground élite and the People of the Abyss.                

The absence of the body, together with that of the Revolution, of the working class, of the factory, emphasizes the abstract nature of these revolutionaries, of their party line, of their utopian revolutionary project. They have no specific social role and identity, no class stake in the Revolution: they are on the side of the Revolution only by individual choice. The ease with which they can "pass" into the oligarchy as agents shows that no objective reason prevents them from joining its ranks—or from imitating it once they seize power. Nearly all the characters become revolutionaries for individual motives, which have only indirectly (or not all) to do with the class struggle. The only member of the underground who at least has a job and is not a full-time revolutionary is also the only one whose motivation Avis fails to understand and who is described as unintelligent: "He was phlegmatic, stolid to such a degree that one could not but wonder how the Revolution had any meaning to him" (18:171).

8. The emergence of the People of the Abyss from their nameless obscurity points to meanings beyond the sociological reference to the proletariat, to something hidden and secret inside the human personality. If the proletariat corresponds to the aspects of human nature that must be ignored, repressed, controlled, or buried (in an "abyss"), the rebellion of the Chicago ghetto must also be read in psychological terms. When an oligarch tells Avis that something is about to happen in Chicago, something inside her seems on the point of exploding too:

I flatter myself that I maintained my composure under the keen eye of the oligarch, but my heart was beating madly. I could almost have shrieked and flown at his throat with my naked hands before his final cold-blooded instructions were given. (22:198)

Avis has already made her own body disappear, and built an alternative identity so perfect that it fools even her husband. And yet, underneath her ironclad "composure'' and control, lurks something animal-like; a primeval fury is stirring: a hidden, suppressed part of Avis's personality, similar to that part of society which roars from the abyss and which the Party controls and uses much as reason controls and uses the body and its instincts.                

We can now see in a new light the correlation between the disappearance of the hod! and the absence of the working class. The proletariat breaking out of its ghetto is also the symbolic form in which the repressed re-emerges: the Revolution stands for the liberation of the instincts, desired and wished for, hut frightening. This ambivalence is visible from the first meeting of Avis and Ernest. Attracted above all by his "heavy shoulder-development,'' his neck of a prize-fighter, thick and strong'' (1:7). Avis tends to sublimate this attraction by turning him into a Superman of a semi-divine nature. But even when she struggles to deny the meaning of Ernest's body, still it is the first thing she names: "Regardless of his bulging muscles and prize-fighter's throat, he impressed me as an ingenuous boy...a delicate and sensitive spirit" (2:18). She finally admits to a mixture of fear and fascination: "His masterfulness delighted and terrified me, for my fancies wantonly roved until I found myself considering him as a lover, as a husband" (2:20). "Delighted and terrified": it is the same ambivalence which later appears in Avis's description of the People of the Abyss as "a fascinating spectacle of dread" (23:207).                

Avis is soon able to control her "wanton" attraction, and her relationship with Ernest seems purged of all references to sexuality: "our love was never smirched by anything less than perfect" (11:119). From fancies of physical strength and love, she goes on to the negation of the body, to the point that Ernest does not recognize her in her underground disguise—but accepts the change as if nothing had happened, as if the body had no part in their relationship. The symbolical result of this state of affairs is that the marriage produces no children. A revolutionary's life is too filled with dangers to permit it, Avis says. But it is such a costly sacrifice (not for the children themselves so much as for the sexuality they imply) that Avis mentions it only as regards another woman, Anna Roylston, who "dearly loved children, but...held that a child of her own would claim her from the Cause, and that it was the Cause to which her life was devoted" (18:179).                

The revolutionaries have no body, no family, no sexual life.24 These negations are requisites for their being "free agents," as Ernest says; actually, they enable London to project them as supermen with no ties and no personal responsibilities such as bind ordinary people. More than once, the defeated and the traitors blame their plight on the family: "Me only friend is the company. It's not me duty, but me bread and butter an' the life of me children to stand by the mills....I'd let me soul an' body burn in everlastin' hell for them children of mine," says Donnelly, Jackson's foreman, who later turns into an agent of the oligarchy (3:34-35). And his supervisor, Henry Dallas: "When I was promoted to foreman I got married, then the family came, and...well, I wasn't my own boss anymore" (3:37). Jackson's lawyer: "So have I a wife and children... And there's not a soul in this world except me that cares whether they starve or not" (3:34).                

Revolutionaries, on the other hand, tend to cut to a minimum even those family relationships that are still standing. An example can be seen in Avis's courting (or lack of courting) by Ernest: "He did not propose. He put his arms around me and kissed me and took it for granted that we should be married. There was no discussion about it" (5:48). This procedure anticipates another revolutionary's marriage without courting: Malcolm X's, as told in his Autobiography. In both cases, the narration stresses both the man's masterfulness and the fact that a revolutionary has no time for such things.                

Of course, whether the author is aware of it or not, this has a political implication, among the most important in the novel. The relationship between the reader and the narrator of SF assures not only their survival, but also the continuity of the essential foundations of their culture. The more the plot concerns itself with historical, political, and otherwise public events, the more it allows us to take for granted that things are unchanged in private and daily life. Hence, the deeply political meaning of Avis and Ernest's relationship, which stresses her subordination "by merging my life completely into his": "I learned shorthand and typewriting, and became his secretary"; "I did not fail. I gave him rest" (11:119).                

However, we cannot just raise our eyebrows and add London to the endless ranks of those who did not foresee the rise of women's liberation (where he belongs for plenty of other reasons anyway). We should rather try to understand why he stresses so much this relationship, dwelling on it explicitly several times, in spite of the fact that it is apparently of little relevance to the "great events" with which the novel deals. We also ought to understand the relationship between Avis's subordinate role as a woman and her central role not only as narrator but, throughout the final part of the book, as heroine.

9. The chapter which describes Avis and Ernest's married life also informs us about their philosophical discussions. Ernest never succeeds in fully converting Avis to his version of materialism: to the end, she believes there is a God and a transendent reality, to the point that Ernest calls her "his sweet metaphysician" (11:117), thus linking her with the bishops of the first chapter.                

This is not a casual occurrence. The paradigm of religion accompanies Avis throughout the novel: her language bristles with religious terms. Even Ernest appears to her in a metaphysical light:

Ernest rose before me transfigured, the apostle of truth, with shining brows and the fearlessness of one of God's angels.... And then there arose before me another figure, the Christ! He, too, had taken the part of the lowly and oppressed, and against the established power of priest and pharisee. And I remembered His end upon the cross, and my heart contracted with a pang as I thought of Ernest. Was he. too, destined for a cross? (4:42)

The answer is yes: "he did it out of sheer love of man, and for man he gave his life and was crucified" (11:116).                

Religion is a clue to Avis's role. She re-introduces in the text, albeit subordinately, those values of feeling, emotion, and spirituality which the "ever-hard" revolutionary (as well as the competitive capitalist) must cut off from himself at a very high psychic cost. What has been eliminated by political reason is readmitted by attributing it to persons who are not endowed with the power to define and operate the winning, dominant values. Thus, Avis appeals to those readers who do not feel equal to the model posed by Ernest; they, too, can be in the revolution even though they cannot expect to lead it. The "womanly" values that re-enter the text through Avis are, finally, the attenuated, acceptable version of the irrationality attributed to the proletariat. Her presence is an attempt to mediate between the Party and the People of the Abyss and also a testimony to the human insufficiency of the revolutionary ethic embodied in Ernest.                

In order to be able to bear these values, Avis must maintain at least a vestige of a social role: as opposed to Ernest, who is only a full-time revolutionary, she is still a daughter and a wife. These roles, though subordinate, make her more of a flesh and blood creature, and she appears as such in the second half of the novel. When it was necessary to argue in the abstract the theory of revolution, it is Ernest's word that prevails. But when it comes to seeing, touching, living, and narrating concrete experiences, only a socially concrete person is able to do it. It is as though against his own ideological intentions, London were telling us that revolutionary supermen like Ernest are alright as far as talking of the revolution is concerned; but in order to live through it, it takes normal people like Avis Cunningham.


                1. Goffredo Fofi, "Jack London ed it socialismo," preface to the Italian edition of The Iron Heel, Il tallone di ferro (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1972), p. 9. Lev Trotskij's opinion on The Iron Heel is expressed in a letter to Joan London, October 16, 1937. The Italian version of my paper contains an analysis of the influence of the book on the Italian working class, with a sample of interviews with working-class readers of The Iron Heel.
2. J. Pfaelzer, "American Utopian Fiction 1888-1896: The Political Origins of Form," The Minnesota Review, 6 (Spring, 1976):114.
                3. Vito Amoruso, Letteratura e società in America. 1890-1900 (Bari, 1976).
                4. From our perspective, we can add another element, which the text potentially possessed, and which became visible to its later readers: the fact that the events told in it corresponded to what had happened later. This is of course only possible in a story set in the future; therefore, The Iron Heel derives this credibility from the literary genre to which it belongs. The effect of the prophecy is accentuated by the fact that it is couched in the forms of "imagination," and yet it has foreseen "reality": this accentuates the surprise of the reader and encourages crediting the book in its entirely with a sort of "reality."
                5. Jack London, The Iron Heel (London: Journeyman Press, 1974), 1:ó. All subsequent quotations are taken from this edition.
                6. For instance, when Avis tells of her admiration for Ernest's "prizefighter" neck, Meredith comments: "In that day it was the custom of men to compete for purses of money. They fought with their hands. When one was beaten into insensibility or killed, the survivor took the money" (1:7).
                Philip S. Foner, Jack London: American Rebel (NY, 1973), p. 89, writes:

Throughout the work are footnotes which are intended to interpret various obsolete references for readers who live under socialism. The comments, drawn from his extensive file of newspaper clippings and government documents, are devastating notes on conditions in Jack London's times and are set forth with so keen a satiric sense as to give them place among the most brilliant indictments of capitalism ever written.

Footnotes are a device which applies with equal effectiveness and similar functions to all genres which imply a chronological distance from the narrative "present." In the historical novel, we find them used by Walter Scott: "a very able, though unprecise, collage of quotations allusive and elusive at the same time. The public which is now being molded into the great audience, demands correct, historically based citations; references to real or legendary persons must be inserted into a context with which the reader feels familiar": Benedetta Bini, "Della parole all'oggetto," Calibano, 3 (1979):141-65; my translation. An excellent example of this procedure in SF is the footnotes and quotations from the Galactic Encyclopacdia in Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.
                7. London's essay, "Revolution," appeared in the Contemporary Review (January, 1908). Irving Stone's biography of Jack London, Jack London, Sailor on Horseback (NY, 1938), describes a lecture given by London at Yale in 1906 which is reminiscent of the Philomath Club episode in The Iron Heel (see Stone's chapter 8).
                As for the relationship between London, Ernest Everhard, and Martin Eden, we may note that working-class readers often confuse the three. Philip Foner mentions a testimony of Ernest Unterman, who lived on Jack London's ranch after 1910, as to the fact that London saw Ernest as a synthesis of himself, Eugene London, and Unterman. The meeting and falling in love of a working-class hero with a bourgeois girl is a recurrent motif in social" literature in the early 20th century: see, for instance, Iola Leroy's The Walking Delegate (1905). It also goes back to a folk motif, with a strong tinge of class feeling, often found in popular ballads: that of the lady seduced by a beggar, a shepherd, a gypsy. Usually, the seducer is finally revealed to belong to an even higher class than the seduced: which, in a way, is also the case with Ernest Everhard.
                8. Theodor W. Adorno, "Aldous Huxley and Utopia," in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (London, 1967), p. 117.
                9. This function of the narrator and its "pact" with the reader is discussed in my paper "Il presente come utopia: la narrative di Isaac Asimov," Calibano, 2 (1978):138-84.
                10. See Frederic Jameson, "Of Islands and Trenches: Naturalization and the Production of Utopian Discourse," Diacritics, 7, no. 2 (1977):2-21. London's procedure is similar to Thomas More's at the beginning of Utopia, with the dialogue between Raphael Hythloday and the English courtiers (emblematic representatives of the "present" world) about the condition of England.
                11. Alan Swingewood writes that The Iron Heel is "seriously lacking in genuine characters" (The Novel and Revolution [London, 1975], II, 6:145). This remark can only be explained by the fact that the critic misses the "morality play" quality of London's book, which is not intended to present us with "realistic" characters but with types of humanity.
                12. Alberto Asor Rosa and Bianca Saletti find that this is a characteristic of most fiction about the working class: "Poor and hungry, humbled and oppressed, the workers are always seen as the representatives of a subordinate class....As a consequence, we never see the factory behind this working class" (Lo sciopero nella letteratura [Rome, 19741, p. 4).
                13. A further paradox lies in the fact that Jackson's episode is historically real: London informs us, through one of Meredith's notes, that he drew it from a newspaper article of August, 1906.
                14. For information on the didactic use of The Iron Heel in the Italian Communist Party, see the original version of this paper.
                15. There is an "essential affinity between the functioning of a secret society of conspirators and of the secret police organized to combat it": Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (NY, 1971 [1966]), VI, 11:380.
                16. "You have the wrong idea about revolutionaries. They are often identical with the bourgeois, except for one thing: they want the revolution, the bourgeois don't": Alberto Moravia, La vita interiore (Milan: Bompiani, 1978), 3:365; my translation.
                17. The interchangeable nature of the Iron Heel and the revolutionaries is also implicit in other parts of the book. The most notable case regards the beautiful cities built by the oligarchs but planned and designed by revolutionary artists; after the revolution, they will be preserved and used as they are, without its being necessary to change anything in order to adapt them to Socialism. Oligarchs and revolutionaries share the same concept of beauty: the references scattered in Meredith's notes suggest that under Socialism everyone will live as the oligarchs live now. This is an extension of a concept of Socialism as a development from and publicization of the capitalistic trusts, advanced by Everhard in his debate with the small businessmen and widespread in turn-of-the-century Socialist thought. The same idea is also to be found, worked out to the fullest extent, in Bellamy's Looking Backward, which is based on an evolutionary theory of social development from capitalism to Socialism. Of course, the Revolution, as a traumatic break in this process, has no place in such vision except in the terms of a seizure of state power. Socialism appears as the logical outcome of the growing centralization of capitalist economy.
                18. A hint of the future control function of the party is to be seen in the fact that it finds it necessary to have its agents infiltrate other revolutionary organizations (see 18:178). We should also remember that the concept of "People of the Abyss" is derived by London from H.G. Wells's Anticipations, which describes an enlightened technocracy ruling "inferior" masses. See G. Harpham, "Jack London and the Tradition of Superman Socialism," American Studies, 16
(1975) :22-33.
                19. Ernest never uses his physical strength in the novel (except to bring a young captured oligarch to reason); he never engages in a manual function. His role in the Revolution is purely intellectual; his prize-fighter's body only serves as a sign of origins, but is never used.
                20. See the discussion of Marin's Utopiques: Jeux d'espaces, in Jameson's article referred to in n. 10 above.
                21. Here London perceives very well the link between the sound of the voice and the physical presence in oral communication. See Paul Zumthor, "Pour une poétique de la voix," Poétique, 10 (1979):513-24.
                22. Compare this with Mr Gradgrind's speech at the opemng of Dickens' Hard Times, where "facts" are exalted as the basis of the education masters wish to give to the lower classes.
                23. It is interesting to note the relationship between Ernest's body and his clothes. At his first appearance, when his working-class origins are stressed by contrast with Prof. Cunningham's other guests, we are told that his formal dress can hardly restrain his bulging muscles. Later, when he disguises himself as an oligarch, he has no problem in finding clothes that contain and hide his now defunctionalized body.
                24. Of course, as Kate Millett points out, Ernest Everhard is an embodiment of male domination (and in this sense, too, his is a crudely allegorical name). However, it is a sexuality that stands for something else, as does all of Ernest's physical dimension. See Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (NY, 1969), I, 2:38n.

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