- Materials: Interview II -
Taken from the Jack London Journal
Is Jack London a Capitalist? No! But Is Certainly "Magnifique, by Gosh!"
Interview taken by
Sophie Treadwell - Feb. 28, 1914
"Magnifique, by gosh!"
One of the ranch men was driving me from the Glen Ellen station to Jack London's place in the hills. He was a French Swiss, who had lived in South America before coming to California; and he was giving polyglot expression to his love for the fields, the flowers, the trees, and Jack London. We had come to a crest in the road from whence we could see the startling ruins of the great brown stone pile London built for a home that was burned some months ago, just when it was done.
"Three years we work to build him and someone burn, What a tristesse for me! But Jack London say, 'Cheer Pierre, we build again.' 'Not for a life of you,' I tell to heem. 'There is not in me so bigness of heart for a work and a expense.' But already we cut the trees. One year to—what you call—season? Por Dios! Get up you lassie—Magnifique, by gosh!"
The Londons live in the sprawly old house of an ancient winery that was on the place. It is set in the midst of the quiet hills. Mrs. London has arranged it cleverly, and there is an air of comfort and happiness and work about it as well as sunshine and country calm.
At the end of a long hall running through the center of the house is a door bearing the legend in heavy black letters on a white card: "Hands Off!" Behind this mute but screaming protector the California author is secure until noon. One hundred dollars' worth of story writing is done there every morning—1000 words at 10 cents a word. This takes between one and two hours. Then the mail is gone through with, and about then a dull booming South Sea gong sounds. The midday meal is ready. The forbidding door opens, an attractive looking man with an adorable smile comes out—tramp, political economist, rancher, philosopher, author—and laugher.
Mr. London was late for lunch this day, but when he got there he made up for lost time—from the point of view of the interviewer—talking swiftly and to the point. I suppose he ate, too. That's what he was there for; so no doubt he did it. Action and directness seem to be two of his many middle names.
London answers every question one puts to him, quickly, directly and without hedging. Yet he is a very difficult man to interview. The very minute he came into the room, in spite of the blue eyes, in spite of the smile, in spite of a very charming expression, I knew that I was in for it. He has a steel-trap body and a steel-trap mind. He turns this battery on you, and lets it go at you, slam-bangs own success and self-confidence. And he laughs.
"Why have you come to ask me? Out with it! I know your paper didn't send you up here for nothing. Just to talk to Jack London? Here in California? I'm only interesting to interviewers away from home. All that the papers here can do for me is to misquote and belittle me! No? Say, I know what I'm talking about.
"So you know that when a university girl wandered into the hills in back of Berkeley and was attacked by a tramp the papers said it must have been Jack London? Don't know about that, eh? Well, do you know that when some Italians sought to play the badger game—do you know what the badger game is? All right! Well, these Italians tried to pull the badger game, and when the victim didn't come through with the money they cut him up in pieces and dumped him in the bay, or tried to, when they were interrupted. Do you know what the papers said then? That it must have been Jack London who did it. You don't believe that? Well, look it up in the files! How long have you been in the newspaper game? It was before your time. But it's the God's truth.
"Do you belong to the Woman's Press Club? No? Take a harp! Take two harps! Ever hear that story of Bierce's about the woman who had committed every sin in the book and went up to be questioned by Saint Peter? He told her to tell all and was just going to send her below, when she said she had been blackballed by the Woman's Press Club. 'Come in,' said Peter. 'Take a harp! Take two harps!' But they are no worse than the men's press club. Of all the flat-footed, bone-headed pinheads! Do you know that they knocked me consistently for twelve years; never as much as invited me to their club, and here the other day I got a letter asking me for $2000 for their clubhouse! Can you beat that?"
"My new novel?¹ ) I think I'll call it "The Jacket." It's a punch against prison conditions in California. What I have to say in it is just what is said by every well-known criminologist in the world. Everybody who thinks knows it, and they have been hiring little halls and telling it to each other.
"What's the use of people who all more or less, think the same, getting little halls, and agreeing with one another?"
"I'm trying to get some of these ideas over to fiction readers. Do you know that today it is possible to sentence a man to solitary confinement in California? That it is possible for us to hang a man for assault and battery? That, in fact, last year in 1913 we did hang a man for assault and battery? Jake Oppenheimer was hanged for assault and battery here in your own State, in California. The straitjacket still obtains in our prisons. Didn't you know that? "Do I put any constructive ideas for prison reform into this novel? No, I do not. I just draw the picture of conditions as they are now. Have I any constructive ideas along those lines? Of course I have. I would turn prisons into hospitals. My basic belief is one of pure determinism. Each person moves along a line of least resistance. We do what is easier for, us to do than not to do. We can't help doing what we do."
"If I'm short-sighted and bump into posts, I'm not to blame. It's because of my short sight. I ought to get glasses? Of course. That is just it! If I break our so-called laws, I can't help it. I do it because I am sick. There is something wrong with me, I'm a sick man. And I need doctors. I need all the skilled science of the twentieth century to investigate and see, and try if anything can be done for me to keep from doing what is hurtful to the whole body of my fellow-creatures. The whole school of scientific criminology is with me in this. It's only the fools who are not.
"Do I believe in capital punishment? No, I do not. It is too silly. I saw a man hanged because he killed another man. And he killed the other man over 25 cents. One said that the other owned the 25 cents. That one said he did not. They began to quarrel and finally, like two bulls in a pasture, they got to fighting; and in the fight one killed the other. So the state hanged him. Oh, the pomp and circumstances with which they stretched that man's body at the end of a rope! And when it was all over the warden said: 'Gentlemen, take your hats off!' It was then that I laughed."
"Am I still a Socialist? I'm in the same position that I've always been. Now they call it Syndicalism. I'm a Syndicalist. I believe in taking over, by whatever means necessary, the existing forms of government. The Boston Tea Party was an expression of that kind of feeling. Revolution? What about it? Our Pinker-tons, our police, our soldiers—they are all organized for an allied purpose, the purpose of banging an offensive foreign substance into another man's body. But after all, Syndicalism is only a blind expression of personal feeling, of emotion."
"I have been interested in the Western Fuel case. And I'll tell you the point that got me, in that—the absolute horror and consternation of those men when one director was finally found guilty. Well, why not? They feel that they haven't done anything wrong. And they haven't. This is their society. The United States is their clubhouse. That same game is going on by gentlemen members all over the clubhouse. Why should these men go to jail?"
"Yet, other men are going to jail—thousands of them—every day. And some of them are going, denied the right of trial by jury, denied the right to plead guilty or not guilty. You don't believe that? But it is true. I myself have been sent to jail, denied the right of trial by jury; denied the right to plead guilty or not guilty. And my name is legion. What was I doing? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Walking along the streets of a city, when a cop hauled me in."
"What was I booked for? -Vagrancy, yer Honor.' I tried to plead not guilty, to explain. The judge didn't even look at me. 'Thirty days. And I was yanked aside while the judge went down the line. You must have seen men sentenced like that, dozens of times, haven't you? Then why do you look at me as though you doubted when I told you men were sentenced to jail without the right to plead? You have heard too much Fourth of July oratory. Be more brass tacks! Lose some of your illusions!"
"It's your education that's to blame for your lack of brass tacks, not you. What a training we give to children! If I had a son I would not send him to school until he was ready for the last year of grammar school, and then only that he could get used to our form of democracy. No, I wouldn't give him a free choice of what he wanted to learn any more than I give a colt a free choice! I'd train him—freedom—but within limits. No, he would not go to a university; not unless he could run faster than I."
"The reason I quit the university was because I did not have money enough to get through and because I wasn't getting anything there that I wanted. Do you know what happened to me over there, in that State university at Berkeley, supported by the taxes of the people? I was called out before a whole regiment of students undergoing, as I was, enforced military drill, and I was publically humiliated by an officer of the regular army because my uniform was shabby, because I lacked $40 to buy a new one. My uniform was a second-hand one. I bought it from a fellow for five dollars, and he had bought it from one before him. It was handed down from one poor student to another, and no doubt it did lack style. But was that any reason why the poor boob who had to wear it because he couldn't get a better one should be humiliated?"
"Do you know who are the arbiters of American literature today? The failures of American literature! Men who could not get a half cent a word for a story of their own, dictate to men who get ten. When I was in New York this time a $6000 a year editor tried to tell me what to do. His magazine pays me $24,000 a year."
After luncheon Mr. London drove to the station. He drove a light team and handled it well; with all the firm ease one would expect of him. Conversation turned to farming. As the rig wheeled smartly down the country roads, Mr. London would wave the whip hand over the landscape."
"My land goes to the crest of those mountains there. We stretch the length of that valley. I have 500 acres in vines. These are my eucalypti. I put all these in. Got several hundred acres of them. This road isn't bad, is it, considering the rains we've had? This is my private road. Wait until you come to the county road—a fright. I always keep my own roads up—and my gates."
"Mr. London," I asked, widening my eyes to the breadth of valley and mountain that he calls "mine." "Is there such a thing as a Socialist capitalist?"
"I don't know," he answered easily. "When I was in New York I met a man who told me he was a bourgeois anarchist."
And I was just making a mental note about a clever hedge—when he burst out:
"You mean that for me. But I'm no capitalist. What is a capitalist?"
"One who has capital," I ventured weakly.
"No, a capitalist is one who lives off capital, who makes money earn money. I don't. I live off wage, the wages that I coin out of my Own brain. And you don't think this ranch earns me anything, do you? Why, if I'd die today you wouldn't believe it if I'd tell you how much in debt I'd be. But that's my way of getting ahead of the game. If I die owing $200,000 I'm just that much ahead of the game, am I not? If you die owing eight dollars, you'd be just eight dollars to the good, wouldn't you? Of course, one can take pride in always paying their bills and all that, but somehow that slide to eight bones as a possible debt capacity for me didn't thrill as it might".
"What are your ideas about marriage?" I asked. That's always a good way to change the subject.
believe in marriage. The march of civilization has proven out monogamy
and shown it to be the best proposition along those lines for the human
race. I insist that all the people that work for me be married. I'm
not going to have any promiscuity around here."
I wanted to ask him if there is such a thing as a socialist dictator, but I knew he was laughing at me."
For there is something that I haven't been able to put into this interview, the undercurrent of laughter that is new in Jack London—that laughter that is born of vision and disillusion.
I was on the train coming back the conductor came right away to punch.
End of Interview.
(Editor's note: While it is true that the use of the straitjacket is still permitted by law in California prisons, it is not used by the present wardens at San Quentin or Folsom.)
—San Francisco Bulletin, 28 Feb. 1914;
reprinted in part in Appeal to Reason, 21 Mar. 1914
the "Jack London Journal, Number 3, 1996
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