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The Man Who Invented Himself
August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
The voyage also taught him about the bloody business of life. There was month after month of following the seal herd, killing and stripping the skins off the pretty beasts, then flinging their carcasses to the sharks that followed the boat for their share of the massacre. This daily slaughterhouse was the young sailor’s first sight of nature red in tooth and claw. The men were more bestial than the animals they killed. It was a crude, commercial competition, dictated by the market in furs. Jack began to see that the struggle among humans to live was part of the battle among species to survive. The men got the wages, the captain took the profits, the women wore the furs, the sharks devoured the meat, the masses of the seals died.
Yet the sea was only a place to escape to, not to work upon. He returned to factory jobs and heaving coal in Oakland in a time of national depression. When his free spirit could endure no more, he took to the road. Although he went with “Kelly’s Army,” California’s detachment of Coxey’s army of the unemployed, which set out for Washington, D.C., in 1894, he was no radical when he started, just a young man on the loose. In fact, he rode a raft down the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn, eating the food he was supposed to be begging for the mass of the marchers behind, and he deserted the army at Mark Twain’s home town of Hannibal. As he wrote later in The Road , he went on the bum because he could not keep away from it; he did not have the price of the fare in his jeans; he was so made that he could not work always on the same shift; and, finally, “just because it was easier to than not to.”
So Jack turned into a thoughtless road kid, until a month in Pennsylvania’s Erie County Penitentiary on a charge of vagrancy made a radical out of him. Jack saw in the jail the depths of human degradation, a society of degenerates and misfits tyrannized by a few trusties and hallmen, who shamefully exploited their fellow prisoners. To him, it seemed a parable of the whole of industrial America. He found himself living one of his childhood nightmares about falling into the stench and darkness of a bottomless pit. The alternative was the tooth-and-claw fight for social success, and upon his release he returned to his mother’s home in Oakland, determined to educate himself.
Then began a frantic pursuit of knowledge. Jack was brave to go to high school after dropping out of the educational system for six years. His schoolmates were so young that he felt he was in a kindergarten. To them, he was an object of fear, an unbelievably shabby and careless man who had been a tramp and who chewed tobacco. His determination was so great, however, that after only two years he qualified in 1896 as a special student to enter the University of California at Berkeley.
Yet already a pattern in his career had begun to emerge. The rootlessness of his upbringing made him stick at no job or plan of study for too long. He had been brought up on the move, and he remained on the move in restless California. Whenever the pressures on his life seemed too great for him, he would pack up and go. Early in 1897 he dropped out to become a writer, because gossip about his birth was too much to bear; what was more, by then Jack had learned of and had contacted his real father—who had promptly denied his paternity. Jack was now determined to succeed on his own, without the help of the society that had made him poor, of the mother who did not love him, of the father who had deserted and denied him. Isolated, he determined to be utterly self-made—and how better to do it than by writing?
He worked at this new trade as diligently as ever, but found only frustration. The one anchor in his drifting, driven young life was his socialism, to which he had been converted by his jail, road, and sea experiences and by the books he read so voraciously. Radical socialism, he was now convinced, was the only thing that could keep men from being degraded and thrown out of work and crippled by the factory system. At the same time, the horror of the vicious struggle to survive in the gutters of America had hardened Jack’s dreams into a fierce personal ambition. “I had been in the cellar of society,” he later wrote, “and I did not like the place as a habitation.… If I could not live on the parlor floor of society, I could, at any rate, have a try at the attic. It was true, the diet there was slim, but the air at least was pure.”
Although Jack’s socialism was the passion of his life and made him many friends among the young radicals of San Francisco Bay, he did not put the good of the cause before his ambition for himself. He left California to look for instant fame and fortune in the Yukon gold rush of 1897. It was a stampede to illusion. He started off with enormous enthusiasm and energy, backpacking up Chilkoot Pass and getting to Dawson City before the ice froze the river. He staked a claim, but when he saw the actual grim drudgery of extracting a few ounces of gold from tons of frozen gravel, he did not stay to work it. The fact that he caught scurvy and hated to be ill also sent him back home to cure himself. The trip back to the sea two thousand miles down the river inspired him to keep a detailed diary. There was a gold mine, perhaps, in writing about Alaska.