- Historic Sites
George Orwell’s America
The author of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ never set foot on our shores, but he had a clear and highly personal vision of what we were and what we had been
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
London had been deeply influenced by the theory of the Survival of the Fittest. His book, Before Adam—an inaccurate but very readable story of prehistory, in which ape-man and early and late Paleolithic men are all shown as existing simultaneously—is an attempt to popularize Darwin. Although Darwin’s main thesis has not been shaken, there has been, during the past twenty or thirty years, a change in the interpretation put upon it by the average thinking man. In the late nineteenth century Darwinism was used as a justification for laissez-faire capitalism, for power politics and for the exploiting of subject peoples. Life was a free-for-all in which the fact of survival was proof of fitness to survive: this was a comforting thought for successful businessmen, and it also led naturally, though not very logically, to the notion of “superior” and “inferior” races. In our day we are less willing to apply biology to politics, partly because we have watched the Nazis do just that thing, with great thoroughness and with horrible results. But when London was writing, a crude version of Darwinism was widespread and must have been difficult to escape. He himself was even capable at times of succumbing to racial mysticism. He toyed for a while with a race theory similar to that of the Nazis, and throughout his work the cult of the “nordic” is fairly well marked. It ties up on the one hand with his admiration for prize-fighters, and on the other with his anthropomorphic view of animals: for there seems to be good reason for thinking that an exaggerated love of animals generally goes with a rather brutal attitude towards human beings. London was a Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer and the education of a nineteenth-century materialist. In general the background of his stories is not industrial, nor even civilised. Most of them take place—and much of his own life was lived—on ranches or South Sea islands, in ships, in prison or in the wastes of the Arctic: places where a man is either alone and dependent on his own strength and cunning, or where life is naturally patriarchal.
Nevertheless, London did write from time to time about contemporary industrial society, and on the whole he was at his best when he did so. Apart from his short stories, there are The People of the Abyss, The Road (a brilliant little book describing London’s youthful experiences as a tramp), and certain passages in The Vattey of the Moon, which have the tumultuous history of American trade unionism as their background. Although the tug of his impulses was away from civilisation, London had read deeply in the literature of the Socialist movement, and his early life had taught him all he needed to know about urban poverty. He himself was working in a factory at the age of eleven, and without that experience behind him he could hardly have written such a story as “The Apostate”. In this story, as in all his best work, London does not comment, but he does unquestionably aim at rousing pity and indignation. … London’s better angel is his Socialist convictions, which come into play when he deals with such subjects as coloured exploitation, child labour or the treatment of criminals, but are hardly involved when he is writing about explorers or animals. It is probably for this reason that a high proportion of his better writings deal with urban life. In stories like “The Apostate”, “Just Meat”, “A Piece of Steak” and “Semper Idem”, however cruel and sordid they may seem, something is keeping him on the rails and checking his natural urge towards the glorification of brutality. That “something” is his knowledge, theoretical as well as practical, of what industrial capitalism means in terms of human suffering…