Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 148: Jack London, South of the Slot (#191)

Jack London, "South of the Slot" (1909) from Jack London: Novels & Stories:

The LoA page on this Jack London story connects it to Stephen Crane's "Experiment in Misery," where a guy goes into the seedy underbelly of his city to see what it's like. But that really doesn't get at what London is doing here: yes, there's a guy who goes to the working-class ghetto--an area south of the Slot in San Francisco--but the story is less a portrait of the poorer areas and the people you find there (as in Crane) than it is about the guy who goes there and how he gets pulled in two directions.

Freddie Drummond is a very conservative professor of sociology: a repressed, orthodox thinker, who tends to think of the poor in terms of laziness and other character flaws. Yet, over time, he comes to see in his alter ego--"Big" Bill Totts--a sort of life that he can really enjoy: a life of labor with and for one's fellows, a life where he can give in to his animalistic urges instead of repressing them.

Now, reading this over a hundred years later, there's lots of issues we could pick at. For instance, London plays with the idea that the poor are some sort of noble savages, that their poverty gives them an authenticity that is denied the rich professional/professoriate classes. That's some deeply troubling moves right there. On the flip side, there's also--if you choose to read it this way--a sort of anti-intellectualism at work here, with the sociology professor being a standard egg-head.

Yet London balances most of these issues against each other: sure, Drummond is a cold-fish and egghead--but that's what all his colleagues think too, because not all professors are as cold as he is. And as for the poor being better off in their simple lives, London punctures that with the applied intellectual activities of the strike organizers.

The one real problem I have with this Jekyll-and-Hyde class story is that the ending seems a little arbitrary: Drummond and his high-class and inhibited fiancee get caught in the middle of a workers' strike--after several months of Drummond abandoning the Totts persona and not being lured back by any strikes. And in the middle of this stress, the Totts persona comes out and he runs off, never to be Drummond again. Which is a fine ending and one that I consider pretty happy. (It's clear that Tott helps people a lot more than Drummond would.) But what's the motivation for it to happen now? It seems like London sort of wrote himself into a corner, with Tott being repressed; and then, pretty arbitrarily, let him spring out. In a story that's very interested in people and their environments, this change could use a more environmental explanation.

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