Sunday, August 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 117: Jack London, The Apostate (#88)

Jack London, "The Apostate" (1906) from Jack London: Novels and Stories:

From an economics, worker-consciousness aspect, Jack London is a fascinating guy, especially as an example of an intellectual worker who saw his work as work. Sure, he understood the worse sort of work in the factories--repetitive and body-deforming; but he was also always interested in getting his due for his stories.

And in "The Apostate," we see some of the roots of his attitudes towards work, in this fictionalization of a hard-scrabble childhood. (The LoA page notes that London worked in a factory as a teen, which is slightly older than the child-worker in this story, who starts in factory-work while still in the single digits. What the LoA page doesn't tell you is that London borrowed money from his black caretaker/foster mother to help get out of the factory life. Virginia Prentiss, what's your story?)

So here, we get a story that includes some dramatized scenes and a lot of summary covering Johnny's life as a child-worker: his fatigue and irritability; his sole illusion that the slop he's drinking is real coffee; his promotions; his hunger and dream of what he might eat; his anger over his younger children being fed from his earnings while he goes hungry; etc. It's a very long set-up for the major climax of the piece, when Johnny gets sick and realizes that he can't go on like this. Even though it's largely told in summary, the accumulation of topics and scenes helps London move the story along.

What's interesting, from a paper-writing POV, is how London uses the idea of the machine, as we hear that Johnny was born in the factory and "From the perfect worker he had evolved into the perfect machine." On one hand, the transformation of the human into machine is good. Like the perfectly Taylorized worker, Johnny:
"had attained machine-like perfection. All waste movements were eliminated."
So that's good, right? But on the other hand, while Johnny's muscles are trained (trained so well that he's even twitching in his sleep), his mind is emptied:
The rest of the time he worked, and his consciousness was machine consciousness.
And this is really the crux of the factory system, which reduces the human body to a series of moves that both deform the body (so many reminders of how Johnny's body is narrowed and twisted) and give nothing to the mind.

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