Jack London’s “The Scarlet Plague” (1912): Eugenics, Socialism, and a Deadly Pandemic | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo

In the May and June issues of the London Magazine in 1912 an interesting short story titled The Scarlet Plague appeared from one of the most famous American writers of the day: Jack London (1876–1916). Born in San Francisco, California, to a working-class family, London’s life was one of interesting variety; from working twelve hours a day in a food canning factory, he forged a friendship with a local librarian who encouraged his reading pursuits and went on to write two commercially successful full-length novels: White Fang (1906) and The Call of the Wild (1903), both of which have been turned into successful Hollywood movies. Short stories by him also appeared in various magazines.

Jack London

London was not only a novelist, however, but also a social investigator. His People of the Abyss (1903) is a hard-hitting first-hand account of the poverty he witnessed during the time he spent in the East End of London. His own experience of poverty made him very alert to contemporary social injustices which is probably why he became a socialist. In his essay ‘How I Became a Socialist’ (1903) he described how he fully bought into capitalist and individualist ideology when he was young:

I was as faithful a wage slave as ever capitalist exploited. To shirk or malinger on the man who paid me my wages was a sin, first, against myself, and second, against him. I considered it a crime second only to treason and just about as bad. In short, my joyous individualism was dominated by the orthodox bourgeois ethics. I read the bourgeois papers, listened to the bourgeois preachers, and shouted at the sonorous platitudes of the bourgeois politicians. And I doubt not, if other events had not changed my career, that I should have evolved into a professional strike-breaker, (one of President Eliot’s American heroes), and had my head and my earning power irrevocably smashed by a club in the hands of some militant trades-unionist.[1]

Dorset St, Whitechapel, photographed for London’s People of the Abyss.

However, having spent time venturing among the working-class quarters of major British and American cities, his opinion soon changed:

I found there all sorts of men, many of whom had once been as good as myself and just as blond-beastly; sailor-men, soldier-men, labor-men, all wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses. I battered on the drag and slammed back gates with them, or shivered with them in box cars and city parks, listening the while to life-histories which began under auspices as fair as mine, with digestions and bodies equal to and better than mine, and which ended there before my eyes in the shambles at the bottom of the Social Pit.

 And as I listened my brain began to work. The woman of the streets and the man of the gutter drew very close to me. I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat. And I confess a terror seized me. What when my strength failed? when I should be unable to work shoulder to shoulder with the strong men who were as yet babes unborn? And there and then I swore a great oath. It ran something like this: All my days I have worked hard with my body and according to the number of days I have worked, by just that much am I nearer the bottom of the Pit. I shall climb out of the Pit, but not by the muscles of my body shall I climb out I shall do no more hard work, and may God strike me dead if I do another day’s hard work with my body more than I absolutely have to do.[2]

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a period in which the Socialist Party of America was founded and the party even fielded presidential election candidates. Social reform was in the air and London became an advocate for social change; from small gestures such as signing off all of his letters with the words ‘Yours for the Revolution’,[3] he also made more meaningful ‘real-life’ steps towards improving the condition of his fellow workers. In 1901 and 1905, for example, he ran for the position of Mayor of Oakland on an explicitly socialist ticket. He was not elected but decided instead to tour the country to give lectures on the need for socialism and social reform. He also published two essay collections titled War of the Classes (1905) and Revolution, and other Essays (1906), the former of which contained the essay ‘How I Became a Socialist’.

His conversion to socialism, an ideology which looks forward to a possible future societal state in which the working classes have revolted, seized the means of production, and placed them under democratic control, perhaps led him to ponder the kind of society that might emerge if socialism never came about. Several socialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pondered the question of the future state of society in essays and newspaper articles. This mode of thought even found its way into the realm of fiction. William Morris, the artist, designer, and socialist activist, for example, wrote News from Nowhere (1890) which, set sometime in the late twentieth century, depicted society as a socialist utopia where class distinctions have been abolished. We might say that London had a more pessimistic view of the ages to come: in 1907 he wrote a futuristic dystopian novel titled The Iron Heel which depicts a society in which individualism and capitalism have run rampant and a highly privileged oligarchy lords it over the teeming mass of starving proletarians.

London’s alternative vision of what might happen to society in the future is presented in The Scarlet Plague. The novel begins in the year 2073, which is many decades after the pandemic struck the world in 2013. Nature has reclaimed a lot of the urban landscape: where once stood railway tracks—which, in the early twentieth century, were the ultimate sign of civilization signifying man’s domination over the natural world—all that exist in their place are grassy verges. As one character remarks:

All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam … all because of the Scarlet Death.[4]

Society has completely broken down. Money is meaningless. There is no government but various tribes of people who look to certain strong men, petty little tyrants who have raised themselves up as leaders, to lead them. Children born in this post-apocalyptic society are, for the most part, uncouth and stupid little savages more or less incapable of thinking of anything beyond hunting and filling their bellies. Their savage and uneducated minds frustrate ‘Grandseer,’ a former professor of English literature who lived through the first outbreak and, in the post-pandemic world, now cares for his grandchildren.[5] The children, who dress in bear skins so they resemble cavemen, are a symbol of degeneracy. London was, in fact, a proponent of eugenics—a pseudoscientific idea from the early twentieth century which was obsessed with creating a “master race”—and the children represent his fears of degeneracy taking hold among the population.[6]

While eating dinner that the boys have caught Grandseer begins to relate the tale of how the pandemic first struck San Francisco in 2013. Having been clearly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Mask of the Red Death (1842), London’s novel relates the story of the fall of civilization in the early 2000s when a mysterious and deadly plague known as the Scarlet Plague or Red Death decimates humanity leaving just a few survivors. The plague attacked with much virulence and people died within hours of contracting it, some within fifteen minutes:

The plague was scarlet. The whole face and body turned scarlet in an hour’s time … the heart began to beat faster and the heat of the body to increase. Then came the scarlet rash, spreading like wildfire over the face of the body …. Usually they had convulsions at the time of the appearance of the rash … if one lived through them, he became perfectly quiet, and only did he feel a numbness swiftly creeping up his body from the feet … They did not rave or sleep. Their minds always remained cool and calm up to the moment their heart numbed and stopped.[7]

People drop dead in the fields, at work, and in the streets. The bodies also decompose quite quickly, with the skin seeming to melt away soon after death. London paints a truly horrific picture.

Amid the usual scenes of social and political chaos common to pandemic novels (and in our day movies) is London’s focus upon issues of class, which stem from his own socialist beliefs. Prior to the pandemic old Grandseer was a a snob. As a professor of English literature and member of the bourgeois class who owned the instruments of livelihood, he acknowledges that American society before the plague was not brilliant for the working classes. When his simple-minded grandchildren ask him who hunted for food before the pandemic, Grandseer explains:

Our food getters were called freemen. This was a joke. We of the ruling classes owned all the land, all the machines, everything. The food-getters were our slaves. We took almost all the food they got, and left them a little so that they might eat, and work, and get us more food … any food getter who would not get food for us, him we punished or compelled to starve to death. And very few did that. They preferred to get food for us, and make clothes for us, and prepare and administer to us … a thousand satisfactions and delights.[8]

There were winners and losers in the pre-pandemic industrial capitalist society in which Grandseer enjoyed a pre-eminent social position. People in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America certainly were indeed, in real life, punished if they refused to work. The United States, much like Britain at the time, had strict vagrancy laws, the terms of which were quite broad. As early as 1866 the Commonwealth of Virginia had passed the Act Providing for the Punishment of Vagrants under which homeless or unemployed people could be sentenced to hard labour—Virginia was not atypical in this respect; many other American states passed similar acts after the American Civil War with aim of ‘controlling’ unemployed former slaves.

London also remarked that those who refused to work were compelled to starve to death. Many people were forced to toil night and day for a pittance. While London chronicled the struggles of the British working class in People of the Abyss, other philanthropists were doing the same in major American cities. Helen Campbell in Darkness and Daylight; or, Lights and Shadows of New York Life (1899) which shined a light on the great city’s social problems. Yet the rise of a bourgeoisie—a class of people who owned the means of production—as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels stated back in 1848, had called into being an army of people, the proletariat, who were ‘enslaved’ by machines:

Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.[9]

Yet when society breaks down in 2013 due to the onset of the Scarlet Plague, it is the labourers—the rough strong men, with practical skills, and who are adept at surviving in bad, disease-ridden conditions—who enjoy a rise in social status. At first Grandseer holes up at his university with members of his fellow faculty, but the bookish skills of English professors in the post-apocalyptic world are useless and now they are the prey of the former working classes; it is a fact of which old Grandseer is acutely aware. He notes that

In the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettos, we had bred a race of barbarians, of savages; and now, in the time of our calamity, they turned upon us like the wild beasts they were and destroyed us.[10]

From The Scarlet Plague

The ‘destruction’ of the bourgeoisie takes several forms. While the pandemic is raging, for example, ruffians rob and kill a poet—a fellow member of Grandseer’s English faculty—in the street. Soon there is the emergence of bands of murderous ‘prowlers’ who prey on people who, like Grandseer, tried as much as possible in the early days of the pandemic to retain some semblance of their humanity and moral code.

From The Scarlet Plague

But most galling of all for Grandseer is the fact that he had to submit to the iron rule of ‘the Chauffeur’. The Chauffeur knows how to farm, to hunt food, and can even build rudimentary machines which help the small community of survivors to live. But he is not the nicest of people. He gloats at the fact that he is now more powerful than those who employed him:

The Chauffeur was a brute, a perfect brute—the most abhorrent man I have ever known. His name was…strange, how I have forgotten his name. Everybody called him Chauffeur—it was the name of his occupation and it stuck. That is how, to this day, the tribe he founded is called the Chauffeur tribe … He was a violent, unjust man … an iniquitous moral monster, a blot on the face of nature, a cruel, relentless, bestial cheat as well. All he could talk about was motor cars, machinery, gasoline, and garages—and especially, and with huge delight, of his mean pilferings and sordid swindlings of the persons who had employed him in the days before the coming of the plague.[11]

From The Scarlet Plague

One woman named Vesta, who belonged to American high society, has also submitted to the rule of Chauffeur. She ‘[was] born to the purple of the greatest baronage of wealth the world had ever known’. Her family’s net worth was $1,800,000,000 but has been forced to become the Chauffeur’s wife. When Grandseer meets her, she is cooking a meal for her husband and Grandseer remarks: ‘And there she was, boiling fish-chowder in a soot-covered pot, her glorious eyes inflamed by the acrid smoke of the open fire’:[12]

It was she who had to gather the firewood, build the fires, cook, and do all the degrading camp-labor—she, who had never performed a menial act in her life … you cannot understand the awfulness of that situation. [Before the pandemic] the Chauffeur was a servant, understand, a servant. And he cringed, with bowed head, to such as she … the slightest contact with such as he would have been pollution.[13]

Grandseer’s grandchildren think that the turning of the tables in favour of the workers is a good thing. The Chauffeur enjoys his position as master the post-apocalyptic world too, as he remarks to Grandseer:

You had your day before the plague … but this is my day, and a damned good day it is. I wouldn’t trade back to the old times for anything.[14]

It is in his vision of a barbarous post-pandemic world, which has truly been ‘turned upside down’, that London’s socialist ideology and his advocacy of eugenics converge. When Grandseer speaks of how the common people were treated prior to the pandemic the reader is asked to feel sympathy with them, and no doubt London would have wanted this to be the reaction. Yet when the tables turn after the pandemic, the formerly downtrodden realise their own power and importance. The working classes are not saints, of course; in London’s novel they are unrefined and uncultured brutes who are ‘wholly devoid of the finer instincts’.[15] That the working classes exist in a semi-barbarous state is the fault of the bourgeoisie—we recall the words of Grandseer, cited above, who said that his own privileged class,

In the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettos, we had bred a race of barbarians.

From The Scarlet Plague

Philanthropists and social workers in the mid-to-late nineteenth century used a variety of terms to describe the proletariat as a semi-civilised ‘race’. Henry Mayhew in London Labour and the London Poor (1851), for instance, referred to the destitute youngsters of the great metropolis as ‘street Arabs’, a term also employed by the American Harper’s Weekly in 1868 to describe the homeless adults of New York.[16] In the age of imperialism—when racist stereotypes of Asian and Middle Eastern people as an ‘uncivilised’ race flourished—descriptions like ‘Street Arabs’ to describe the working classes in the west would have immediately signalled that they were, like some of the people of the empire, supposedly uncivilised.

In The Scarlet Plague the working classes have had to remain tough to survive under industrial capitalism. The bourgeoisie, and the likes of the professor and Ms Vesta have become ‘soft’ due to their membership of a decadent class used to fine food and an easy life.

London was a socialist. He truly believed that socialism would overthrow capitalism. He was firmly on the side of the working classes, which is why, in Grandseer’s and Vesta’s diminished social status in the post-pandemic era a reader might feel that such a result is poetic justice. But here comes the eugenics: London adhered to a peculiar ‘brand’ of socialism. In his view socialism could only overthrow capitalism once the people of the Anglo-Saxon ‘race’ had managed to outbreed all of those other races which, in his view, were ‘inferior’ to those of Anglo-Saxon descent. Given the experiences of the twentieth century, the undertones of eugenicist ideology in London’s novel are distasteful for modern readers. London was not the only early twentieth-century socialist who advocated eugenic. To take one example: George Bernard Shaw, a member of the ‘gradualist socialist’ Fabian Society, remarked that

The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man.

That was not Shaw’s only remark on the subject; he later stated that

The overthrow of the aristocrat has created the necessity for the Superman.[17]

London’s pandemic apocalypse, however, is hardly the socialist revolution for which he and many others hoped. The novel instead serves as a warning to the bourgeoisie and London’s fellow eugenicist-socialists. The warning can be summarised in the following manner: if no steps are taken to ‘improve’ the ‘race’ of Anglo-Saxon workers then, should the tables ever turn as a result of a catastrophic event, a race of brutes would emerge as rulers.

An early 20th-century pro-eugenics advert

London’s novel is available from publishers and on online version can be accessed at Project Gutenberg.

[1] Jack London [online], War of the Classes: How I became a socialist (1903), accessed 7 March 2021. Available at: london.sonoma.edu.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Earle Labor, ed., The Portable Jack London (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 54.

[4] Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (London: MacMillan, 1915), p. 22.

[5] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 20.

[6] Eva Barbara Luczak, Breeding and Eugenics in the American Literary Imagination: Heredity Rules in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015), p. 67.

[7] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 58.

[8] London, The Scarlet Plague, pp. 40–41.

[9] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [online], The Communist Manifesto, ch. 1, accessed 9 March 2021. Available at: http://www.marxists.org.

[10] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 85.

[11] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 119.

[12] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 121.

[13] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 125.

[14] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 128.

[15] London, The Scarlet Plague, p. 126.

[16] ‘Street Arabs’, Harper’s Weekly, 19 September 1868, 604.

[17] Jonathan Freedland [online], ‘Eugenics and the master race of the left – archive, 1997’, Guardian, 1 May 2019. Available at: http://www.guardian.com

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