In Chapter 11, Jack London, dead on his feet after a day and a night without sleep, waited with hundreds of homeless for a free breakfast offered by the Salvation Army. He refered to time he spent as a tramp, and told of having worked just to get his breakfast in the past. This past history accounts in part for his ability to get along with the homeless and for his compassion.
Jack London had worked at hard labor. He’d been to sea as an oyster pirate and sealer. While working in the Alaskan gold rush, he’d suffered plenty of extreme weather, hunger, and malnutrition that resulted in loss of teeth and damage to bodily joints. He’d come up rough and worked with and for a variety of men, and knew something of their character. He also clearly knew something of the world. Much of this is found in his narrative. In 1902, he would have been 26 years old, young for so worldly a man. He would die at age 40 from kidney failure, probably due to an infection picked up while traveling in the Pacific.
Jack London didn’t like the attitude of the man in charge at the Salvation Army breakfast because the fellow seemed to enjoy threatening to withhold the food in order to keep those who had come for it in line. The author thought that the look in the man’s eyes and his manner indicated that he acted the way he did to be cruel. Jack London didn’t speculate on why a fellow like that would work for a charity that helped the poor. When after the meal was finished, the author tried to leave in an effort to do what a poor unemployed man would want to do, which was to go out looking for work, the Salvation Army staff tried to stop him because they weren’t through with him. They expected him to remain for the entire program. He had not been told he had to remain for the gospel portion program until he tried to leave. The berating he received before he was finally allowed to leave was full of the suggestion that he, being a homeless, unemployed fellow, had no where else to be, certainly nothing important; further, that if he thought there were jobs to be had, then he obviously could work to earn money to feed himself and so had no business seeking a free breakfast.
I suppose those particular staff members did their work purely for the absolutely hopeless. Should they have had someone to question the unfortunates that came for a meal? “Just how hopeless are you sir? Madam, do you have any ambition to better yourself in life?” Clearly they weren’t offering the “free breakfast” advertised. No, one was expected to listen to them preach in exchange for the meal. That was a small price to pay if you were truly hungry.
In an earlier chapter, the author spoke bitterly of those he’d seen with power over others using it with apparent selfish relish. He’d also referred to his pauper companions reacting to the hardships they endured by talking like anarchist, and throwing around hollow threats. The author understood their sentiments though he was not in agreement. A socialist, he believed that laws might be changed to help the unfortunates. He also believed in the power of unions to do workers good.
As an American, I am a socialist in that I am grateful to have benefitted from many socialist programs, such as those that provide public schools, public health, law enforcement, military defense, parks, museums, support of the arts, infrastructure, and a social safety net. With the latter, the only time I’ve personally benefitted was when my wife was out of work for a year and a half and received unemployment checks from the government that helped us a lot.
As an American, I am a Republican in that I want federal and state governments that spend tax dollars carefully, and a federal government that allows states to make decisions about their futures and a free enterprise system that allows for competition in the market place.
As an American, I am a Democrat in that I want to protect civil liberties, political and religious freedom and freedom of expression. I want regulations on business and industry to prevent those in a hurry to make a profit from creating situations harmful to the public, and I also want a social safety net.
I am a moderate. I believe most American are.
I’m also like Jack London in that I don’t like seeing those with power dispense it in a purely self-serving manner. Some who seek power do that, and that’s always been the case. In 1902 London, brutality was more common, expressions of cruelty more accepted, especially across class, gender, and racial boundaries.
Not intending to truly defend politically correctness, but give me the PC society we have over that of brutal Edwardian England any day.
—Alan M. Clark
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