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JACK LONDON'S



"WHAT LIFE

MEANS TO ME"



MEMORIAL EDITION



SAN FRANCISCO
December 3, 1916



"Last of all, my faith is in the working
class." Jack London.



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GEORGE STERLING'S TRIBUTE
TO JACK LONDON

George Sterling, foremost of California's
poets, stood by the bier of Jack London
in Oakland while Dr. Edward Payne read
the following poem as Sterling's tribute to
his life-long friend:



Oh! was there ever face, of all the dead,
In which, too late, the living could not

read

A mute appeal for all the love unsaid
A mute reproach for careless word and
deed?

And now, dear friend of friends, we look

on thine,
To whom we could not give a last

farewell

On whom, without a whisper or a sign,
The deep, unfathomable Darkness fell.

Oh! gone beyond us, who shall say how
far?

Gone swiftly to the dim eternity,
Leaving us silence or the words that are

To sorrow as the foam is to the sea.



Unfearing heart, whose patience was so

long!
Unresting mind, so hungry for the

truth !
Now hast thou rest, O gentle one and

strong,
Dead like a lordly lion in its youth!

Farewell ! although thou know not, there

alone !
Farewell! although thou hear not in

our cry
The love we would have given had we

known.
Ah ! and a soul like thine how shall it

die?



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME
By Jack London

(As Reprinted by C. H. Kerr & Co., from The
Cosmopolitan Magazine, by permission.)

I was born in the working class. I
early discovered enthusiasm, ambition,
and ideals; and to satisfy these became
the problem of my childlife. My en
vironment was crude and rough and raw.
I had no outlook, but an uplook rather.
My place in society was at the bottom.
Here life offered nothing but sordidness
and wretchedness, both of the flesh and
the spirit; for here flesh and spirit were
alike starved and tormented.

Above me towered the colossal edifice
of society, and to my mind the only way
out was up. Into this edifice I early
resolved to climb. Up above, men wore
black clothes and boiled shirts, and
women dressed in beautiful gowns. Also,
there were good things to eat, and there
was plenty to eat. This much for the



6 WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

flesh. Then there were things of the
spirit. Up above me, I knew, were un
selfishness of the spirit, clean and noble
thinking, keen intellectual living. I knew
all this because I read "Seaside Library"
novels, in which, with the exception of
the villains and adventuresses, all men
and women thought beautiful thoughts,
spoke a beautiful tongue, and performed
glorious deeds. In short, as I accepted
the rising of the sun, I accepted that up
above me was all that was fine and noble
and gracious, all that gave decency and
dignity to life, all that made life worth
living and that remunerated one for his
travail and misery.

But it is not particularly easy for one
to climb up out of the working class
especially if he is handicapped by the
possession of ideals and illusions. I lived
on a ranch in California, and I was hard
put to find the ladder whereby to climb.
I early inquired the rate of interest on
invested money, and worried my child's
brain into an understanding of the virtues
and excellencies of that remarkable in
vention of man, compound interest.



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 7

Further, I ascertained the current rates
of wages for workers of all ages, and the
cost of living. From all this data I con
cluded that if I began immediately and
worked and saved until I was fifty years
of age, I could then stop working and
enter into participation in a fair portion
of the delights and goodnesses that would
then be open to me higher up in society.
Of course, I resolutely determined not to
marry, while I quite forgot to consider
at all that great rock of disaster in the
working-class world sickness.

But the life that was in me demanded
more than a meager existence of scraping
and scrimping. Also, at ten years of age,
I became a newsboy on the streets of a
city, and found myself with a changed
uplook. All about me were still the same
sordidness and wretchedness, and up
above me was still the same paradise
waiting to be gained ; but the ladder
whereby to climb was a different one.
It was now the ladder of business. Why
save my earnings and invest in govern
ment bonds, when by buying two news
papers for five cents, with a turn of the



8 WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

wrist I could sell them for ten cents and
double my capital? The business ladder
was the ladder for me, and I had a vision
of myself becoming a baldheaded and
successful merchant prince.

Alas for visions ! When I was sixteen
I had already earned the title of "prince."
But this title was given me by a gang of
cutthroats and thieves, by whom I was
called "The Prince of the Oyster Pirates."
And at that time I had climbed the first
rung of the business ladder. I was a
capitalist. I owned a boat and a complete
oyster-pirating outfit. I had begun to
exploit my fellow-creatures. I had a
crew of one man. As captain and owner
I took two-thirds of the spoils, and gave
the crew one-third, though the crew
worked just as hard as I did and risked
just as much his life and liberty.

This one rung was the heights I climbed
up the business ladder. One night I went
on a raid amongst the Chinese fishermen.
Ropes and nets were worth dollars and
cents. It was robbery, I grant, but it
was precisely the spirit of capitalism.
The capitalist takes away the posses-



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 9

sions of his fellow-creatures by mean's
of a rebate, or of a betrayal of trust, or
by the purchase of senators and supreme
court judges. I was merely crude. That
was the only difference. I used a gun.

But my crew that night was one of
those inefficient against whom the capi
talist is wont to fulminate, because, for
sooth, such inefficients increase expenses
and reduce dividends. My crew did
both. What of his carelessness he set fire
to the big mainsail nd totally destroyed
it. There weren't any dividends that
night, and the Chinese fishermen were
richer by the nets and ropes we did not
get. I was bankrupt, unable just then
to pay sixty-five dollars for a new main
sail. I left my boat at anchor and went
off on a bay-pirate boat on a raid up the
Sacramento River. While away on this
trip another gang of bay pirates raided
my boat. They stole everything, even
the anchors; and, later on, when I re
covered the drifting hulk, I sold it for
twenty dollars. I had slipped back the
one rung I had climbed, and never again
did I attempt the business ladder.



10 WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

From then on I was mercilessly ex
ploited by other capitalists. I had the
muscle, and they made money out of it
while I made but a very indifferent living
out of it. I was a sailor before the mast,
a longshoreman, a roustabout; I worked
in canneries, and factories, and laundries ;
I mowed lawns, and cleaned carpets, and
washed windows. And I never got the
full product of my toil. I looked at the
daughter of the cannery owner, in her
carriage, and knew that it was my
muscle, in part, that helped drag along
that carriage on its rubber tires. I
looked at the son of the factory owner,
going to college, and knew that it was
my muscle that helped, in part, to pay
for the wine and good-fellowship he en
joyed.

But I did not resent this. It was all in
the game. They were the strong. Very
well, I was strong. I would carve my
way to a place amongst them, and make
money out of the muscles of other men.
I was not afraid of work. I loved hard
work. I would pitch in and work harder



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 11

than ever and eventually become a pillar
of society.

And just then, as luck would have it, I
found an employer that was of the same
mind. I was willing to work, and he
was more than willing***that I should
work. I thought I was learning a trade.
In reality, I had displaced two men. I
thought he was making an electrician out
of me; as a matter of fact, he was mak
ing fifty dollars per month out of me.
The two men I had displaced had re
ceived forty dollars each per month; I
was doing the work of both for thirty
dollars per month.

This employer worked me nearly to
death. A man may love oysters, but too
many oysters will disincline him toward
that particular diet. And so with me.
Too much work sickened me. I did not
wish ever to see work again. I fled from
work. I became a tramp, begging my
way from door to door, wandering over
the United States, and sweating bloody
sweats in slums and prisons.

I had been born in the working class,
and I was now, at the age of eighteen,



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

beneath the point at which I had started.
I was down in the cellar of society, down
in the subterranean depths of misery
about which it is neither nice nor proper
to speak. I was in the pit, the abyss, the
human cesspoffl, the shambles and the
charnel house of our civilization. This is
the part of the edifice of society that
society chooses to ignore. Lack of space
compels me here to ignore it, and I shall
say only that the things I there saw gave
me a terrible scare.

I was scared into thinking. I saw the
naked simplicities of the complicated
civilization in which I lived. Life was a
matter of food and shelter. In order to
get food and shelter men sold things.
The merchant sold shoes, the politician
sold his manhood, and the representative
of the people, with exceptions, of course,
sold his trust; while nearly all sold their
honor. Women, too, whether on the
street or in the holy bond of wedlock,
were prone to sell their flesh. All things
were commodities, all people bought and
sold. The one commodity that labor had
to sell was muscle. The honor of labor



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 13

had no price in the market place. Labor
had muscle, and muscle alone, to sell.

But there was a difference, a vital
difference. Shoes and trust and honor
had a way of renewing themselves. They
were imperishable stocks. Muscle, on the
other hand, did not renew. As the shoe
merchant sold shoes, he continued to re
plenish his stock. But there was no way
of replenishing the laborer's stock of
muscle. The more he sold of his muscle,
the less of it remained to him. It was his
one commodity, and each day his stock
of it diminished. In the end, if he did
not die before, he sold out and put up
his shutters. He was a muscle bankrupt,
and nothing remained to him but to go
down in the cellar of society and perish
miserably.

I learned further, that brain was like
wise a commodity. It, too, was different
from muscle. A brain seller was only at
his prime when he was fifty or sixty
years old, and his wares were fetching
higher prices than ever. But a laborer
was worked out or broken down at forty-
five or fifty. I had been in the cellar of



14 WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

society, and I did not like the place as a
habitation. The pipes and drains were
unsanitary, and the air was bad to
breathe. 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. So I resolved to sell no more
muscle, and to become a vender of brains.

Then began a frantic pursuit of knowl
edge. I returned to California and opened
the books. While thus equipping myself
to become a brain merchant, it was in
evitable that I should delve into soci
ology. There I found, in a certain class
of books, scientifically formulated, the
simple sociological concepts I had al
ready worked out for myself. Other and
greater minds, before I was born, had
worked out all that I had thought, and a
vast deal more. I discovered that I was
a Socialist.

The Socialists were revolutionists, in
asmuch as they struggled to overthrow
the society of the present, and out of the
material to build the society of the
future. I, too, was a Socialist and a



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 15

revolutionist. I- joined the groups of
working-class and intellectual revolution
ists, and for the first time came into in
telligent living. Here I found keen-flash
ing intellects and brilliant wits ; for here
I met strong and alert-brained, withal
horny-handed, members of the working
class ; unfrocked preachers too wide in
their Christianity for any congregation
of Mammon - worshippers ; professors
broken on the wheel of university sub
servience to the ruling class and flung
out because they were quick with knowl
edge which they strove to apply to the
affairs of mankind.

Here I found, also, warm faith in the
human, glowing idealism, sweetnesses of
unselfishness, renunciation and martyr
dom all the splendid, stinging things of
the spirit. Here life was clean, noble, and
alive. Here life rehabilitated itself, be
came wonderful and glorious; and I was
glad to be alive. I was in touch with
great souls who exalted flesh and spirit
over dollars and cents; and to whom the
thin wail of the starved slum-child meant
more than all the pomp and circumstance



It; WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

of commercial expansion and world-
empire. All about me were nobleness of
purpose and heroism of effort, and my
days and nights were sunshine and star-
shine, all fire and dew, with before my
eyes, ever burning and blazing, the Holy
Grail, Christ's own Grail, the warm
human, long suffering and maltreated,
but to be rescued and saved at the last.

And I, poor foolish I, deemed all this
to be a mere foretaste of the delights of
living I should find higher above me in
society. I had lost many illusions since
the day I read "Seaside Library" novels
on the California ranch. I was destined
to lose many of the illusions I still re
tained.

As a brain merchant I was a success.
Society opened its portals to me. I
entered right in on the parlor floor, and
my disillusionment proceeded rapidly. I
sat down to dinner with the masters of
society, and with the wives and daugh-
UTS of the masters of society. The
women were- -owned beautifully, I admit ;
but to my naive surprise I discovered
that they were of the same clay a& all



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 17

the rest of the women I had known down
below in the cellar. "The colonel's lady
and Judy O'Grady were sisters under
their skins" and gowns.

It was not this, however, so much as
their materialism, that shocked me. It is
true these beautifully gowned, beautiful
women prattled sweet little ideals and
dear little moralities ; but in spite of their
prattle the dominant key of the life they
lived was materialistic. And they were
so sentimentally selfish ! They assisted
in all kinds of sweet little charities, and
informed one of the fact, while all the
time the food they ate and the beautiful
clothes they wore were bought out of
dividends stained with the blood of child
labor, and sweated labor, and of prostitu
tion itself. When I mentioned such facts,
expecting in my innocence that these sis
ters of Judy O'Grady would at once strip
off their blood-dyed silks and jewels,
they became excited and angry, and read
me preachments about the lack of thrift,
the drink, and the innate depravity that
caused all the misery in society's cellar.
When I mentioned that I couldn't quite



18 WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

see that it was the lack of thrift, the in
temperance, and the depravity of a half-
starved child of six that made it work
twelve hours every night in a Southern
cotton mill, these sisters of Judy O'Grady
attacked my private life and called me
an "agitator" as though that, forsooth,
settled the argument.

Nor did I fare better with the masters
themselves. I had expected to find men
who were clean, noble and alive, whose
ideals were clean, noble and alive. I
went about amongst the men who sat
in the high places, the preachers, the
politicians, the business men, the pro
fessors, and the editors. I ate meat with
them, drank wine with them, automobiled
with them, and studied them. It is true,
I found many that were clean and noble ;
but with rare exceptions, they were not
alive. I do verily believe I could count
the exceptions on the fingers of my two
hands. Where they were not alive with
rottenness, quick with unclean life, they
were merely the unburied dead clean
and noble, like well-preserved mummies,
but not alive. In this connection I may



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 19

especially mention the professors I met,
the men who live up to that decadent
university ideal, "the passionless pursuit
of passionless intelligence. "

I met men who invoked the name of
the Prince of Peace in their diatribes
against war, and who put rifles in the
hands of Pinkertons with which to shoot
down strikers in their own factories. I
met men incoherent with indignation at
the brutality of prize-fighting, and who,
at the same time, were parties to the
adulteration of food that killed each year
more babies than even red-handed Herod
had killed.

I talked in hotels and clubs and homes
and Pullmans and steamer chairs with
captains of industry, and marveled at
how little traveled they were in the realm
of intellect. On the other hand, I dis
covered that their intellect, in the busi
ness sense, was abnormally developed.
Also, I discovered that their morality,
where business was concerned, was nil.

This delicate, aristocratic - featured
gentleman was a dummy director and a
tool of corporations that secretly robbed



20 WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

widows and orphans. This gentleman,
who collected fine editions and was an
especial patron of literature, paid black
mail to a heavy-jowled, black browed
boss of a municipal machine. This editor,
who published patent-medicine advertise
ments and did not dare print the truth
in his paper about said patent medicines
for fear of losing the advertising, called
me a scoundrelly demagogue because I
told him that his political economy was
antiquated and that his biology was con
temporaneous with Pliny. This senator
was the tool and the slave, the little
puppet of a gross, uneducated machine
boss; so was this governor and this
supreme court judge; and all three rode
on railroad passes. This man, talking
soberly and earnestly about the beauties
of idealism and the goodness of God, had
just betrayed his comrades in a business
deal. This man, a pillar of the church
and heavy contributor to foreign mis
sions, worked his shop girls ten hours a
day on a starvation wage and thereby
directly encouraged prostitution. This
man, who endowed chairs in universities,



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 21

perjured himself in courts of law over a
matter of dollars and cents. And this
railroad magnate broke his word as a
gentleman and a Christian when he
granted a secret rebate to one of two
captains of industry locked together in a
struggle to the death.

It was the same everywhere, crime and
betrayal, betrayal and crime men who
were alive, but who were neither clean
nor noble, men who were clean and
noble, but who were not alive. Then
there was a great, hopeless mass, neither
noble nor alive, but merely clean. It did
not sin positively nor deliberately; but it
did sin passively and ignorantly by ac
quiescing in the current immorality and
profiting thereby. Had it been noble and
alive it would not have been ignorant,
and it would have refused to share in the
profits of betrayal and crime.

I discovered that I did not like to live
on the parlor floor of society. Intellect
ually I was bored. Morally and spirit
ually I was sickened. I remembered my
intellectuals and idealists, my unfrocked
preachers, broken professors, and clean-



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME

minded, class-conscious workingmen. I
remembered my days and nights of sun
shine and starshine, wtere life was all a
wild sweet wonder, a spiritual paradise
of unselfish adventure and ethical ro
mance. And I saw before me, ever blaz
ing and burning, the Holy Grail.

So I went back to the working class,
in which I had been born and where I
belonged. I care no longer to climb.
This imposing edifice of society above
my head holds no delights for me. It is
the foundation of the edifice that inter
ests me. There I am content to labor,
crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder
with intellectuals, idealists, and class-
conscious workingmen, getting a solid
pry now and again and setting the whole
edifice rocking. Some day, when we get
more hands and crowbars to work,
we'll topple it over, along with all its
rotten life and unburied dead, its mon
strous selfishness and sodden materialism.
Then we'll cleanse the cellar and build a
new habitation for mankind, in which
there will be no parlor floor, in which all
the rooms will be bright and airy, and



WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME 23

where the air that is breathed will be
clean, noble and alive.

Such is my outlook. I look forward to
a time when man shall progress upon
something worthier and higher than his
stomach, when thertT~will be a finer in
centive to impel men to action than the
incentive of today, which is the incentive
of the stomach. I retain my belief in the
nobility and excellence of the human. I
believe that spiritual sweetness and un
selfishness will -conquer the gross glut
tony of today.

And, last qfall, MY FAITH IS IN
THE WORKING CLASS. As some
Frenchman has said, "The stairway of
time is ever echoing with the wooden
shoe going up, the polished boot descend
ing."



(Copies of this memorial edition of
"What Life Means to Me" may be had
at headquarters of Socialist Party, 1530
Ellis Street, or at McDevitt's Book
Stores, 1346 Fillmore near Ellis, and
2079 Sutter Street, near Fillmore.)



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Online LibraryJack LondonJack London's What life means to me. → online text (page 1 of 1)