The most famous book by local author Jack London is Call of the Wild. At least that’s the way it is in this country: “Oh, Jack London – he wrote dog stories, right?”
But Jack London was much more famous in his day for other writings. One of the novels that made him famous is The Iron Heel (1908). Never heard of it? Well, lots of other people are in that particular club.
It used to be that futuristic novels were much happier and more optimistic than they are now. Edward Bellamy’s nineteenth-century novel Looking Backward takes place in 2000. The future is full of happy brotherhood (as well as the time travel necessary to bring the hero, Julian West, forward 113 years). It was a huge best-seller when it was published in 1887.
However, it is all but forgotten today, as is London’s The Iron Heel, a frightening dystopian novel that takes place mostly here in the Bay Area (London’s home, after all), in which a grim oligarchy rules the U.S. for some 300 years before it is finally overthrown by the Brotherhood Of Man.
The Iron Heel was read widely by well – known historical figures from Lenin to George Orwell. London considered the novel a failure, but many others did not, including Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist Party leader who garnered 6% of the presidential vote in 1912 while he was in jail as a political prisoner. Big Bill Haywood, one of the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”), was also impressed. The book was translated into some 24 languages (including Esperanto), sold over 50,000 hardcover copies when it was first published, and was passed from hand to hand in factories and on production lines. It was at least as popular in Europe as it was here; the creator of Britain’s National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan, said he read the book and was converted to socialism by it when he was a young miner in Wales, and averred that “thousands of other men and women of the working class in Britain” (Kershaw) had the same experience.
The twentieth century is full of dystopian novels: Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984, to mention only a few of the best known. However, what brings these frightening “new worlds” about is technology; science is the basis of the “decanted” children of Brave New World and the ubiquitous screens with Big Brother’s ever-present face (and We, written by an engineer, shows people with numerical names – men odd, women even – and all buildings made of glass so everyone can be watched, to say nothing of the “Great Operation,” obviously a kind of routine lobotomy). Science and technology bring about horrifying fascist states.
But the Iron Heel’s terror needs no technology; what brings it into existence is raw power, a brutal coup paid for by the very rich that overturns the U.S. government and crushes all but the oligarchs and their mercenaries, changing semi-democratic rule to a kind of fascism that lasts for 300 years. A political revolution, based on economics and class, sets a wealthy 1% against a poor 99% - and the 1% wins hands down.
The dystopian novel most similar to the Iron Heel may be, curiously enough, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only are both stories of a fascist society of castes, of terrifying violence and of rights snatched away from virtually everyone but the oligarchs, they are structurally very similar. Both are stories told in the first person by women, probably in their thirties, who lose the husbands they love to the apocalyptic society into which they have been hurled. Both stories are fragments; we never find out what happened to Offred, though we are told that Avis Everhard was captured and executed by the Iron Heel. And both stories are framed by narrators who have found the manuscripts hundreds of years later.
A quarter of a century after the Iron Heel was published (and about 18 years after Jack London died), President Paul von Hindenburg named Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Within 5 months, Hitler’s Nazification of Germany and destruction of the Republic he had sworn to uphold were eerily similar to the Iron Heel’s transformation of North America. Fortunately for the world, Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” lasted only 12 years, instead of the 300 of the Iron Heel. But we all know what horrific damage was done in those 12 short years. We can only imagine what might have happened in 300 years. Perhaps it’s better not to.
I did say no dogs – but Call of the Wild is Jack London’s masterpiece, after all. There’s a very good reason why the story of Buck is still read today. And we can be happy that The Iron Heel is generally forgotten; the awful world that appears in it is one that we have managed to avoid – at least so far.