Call of the Whites

The skeleton in environmentalism's closet is nature.


For a century, Jack London has been everyman's guide to the Yukon, and to a wilderness within. His best-known work, above all The Call of the Wild (1903), used the Canadian North to evoke a nature so primeval that it stripped away the superficial, the domesticated, and the merely social, and awakened the authentic man trapped inside. Recently, the modern Yukon sought to return London's tribute by honoring him. Now it has changed its mind.

Why? Well, that howl piercing the northern night may sound like a wolf, but it is really the scream of environmentalism confronting one of the skeletons in its closet.

Here's what happened. The Yukon city of Whitehorse announced plans last year to rename one of its main streets Jack London Road. London was in the Yukon during its 1890s gold rush, leaving with only scurvy and his literary inspiration. Before Whitehorse could put up its new street signs, however, a local Indian tribe called the Kwanlin Dun objected. Some of London's personal letters, they charged, contained racist views. According to an account in The Washington Post, these "appeared to advocate white superiority." His defenders tried to save the day, arguing, in the Post's words, that London "was relatively progressive for his era." But an embarrassed Whitehorse decided to drop London.

Actually, both of these characterizations–that London "appeared to advocate" racism, and that he was "relatively progressive"–are not only true, they are real understatements.

The nexus of these apparently inconsistent views is London's frequent subject: his idea of man's place in nature. Nor is London alone at the crossroads of politics, race, and nature. He is joined there by a number of other writers, most spectacularly by Knut Hamsun, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist of the soil who was a favorite of both Bolsheviks and Hitlerites, as well as by some of the nature activists of America's Progressive Era.

No literature has had so complex a political history in our century as that which addresses man amid nature, because no literature reveals so forcefully the rifts of industrialism at their hidden foundations. London's work is an instructive case in point. We may think of him as the author of White Fang and The Sea Wolf; Nietzsche fit for boys (and with women now running with the wolves, for girls, too). But the Whitehorse incident caps a century of political turmoil around London; indeed, it is in some ways an inevitable climax to his literary adventure.

He actually invited much of this turmoil. Far from being just "relatively progressive," he was an admirer of The Communist Manifesto: the original aw-shucks revolutionary in flannel. John Reed, still the poster boy of left-wing romantics, is a variation on the persona London pioneered. Even the now-notorious valediction, "Yours for the Revolution," was first popularized by London. He was a marcher, a speech maker, and a propagandist for the overthrow of capitalism, and claimed his work had brought that event at least "ten minutes closer."

He also created a body of revolutionary fiction. The best-known of these works is The Iron Heel (1907), described by H. Bruce Franklin (the noted science-fiction authority and anthologizer of Stalin) as "the epic struggle of the enslaved proletariat" against a predicted "20th-century fascist oligarchy." London's now-obscure socialistic stories are a fascinating combination of revolution and pulp luridness. "A Curious Fragment," for example, is built around the discovery of a 28th-century worker-slave's severed arm, still clutching a proletarian petition.

All this was very pleasing to, among others, Lenin, who regarded London as more useful culturally than such less-thrilling writers as the constructivist poets, and who helped establish him as one of the few Americans to be a staple of popular Soviet reading.

But he was a lot less pleasing to his fellow American leftists. For one thing, there is some question about London's Marxist sincerity. Unlike Upton Sinclair, who squandered his wealth in utopian schemes, London spent his money on himself. He was also a critic of American socialists, resigning from the party in 1916 because it lacked "fire and fight." He thought World War I was a great opportunity, "a Pentecostal cleansing that can only result in good for humankind."

In the end, London's revolutionary hopes were really about undermining trade and technology. These alienated man from nature, turned him effete, and prevented him from realizing his destiny. That destiny was racial: A return to nature would free the blond Nordic beast. Critic Franklin notes that this theme runs through much of London's now- ignored science fiction, from "The Strength of the Strong" to "When the World Was Young," which are filled with yellow-haired savages and atavistic modern characters.

This sort of thing was to catch Germany's eye. German scholar Peter S. Fisher has noted the influence of London's fantasies on some of Weimar Germany's pulp racists, specifically his "The Scarlet Plague" (1907), which was read as "an accurate prophecy of the white race's demise." (It is noteworthy as well that The Sea Wolf, which Soviets regarded as a tale of class injustice, was popular in Germany as a fable of the Will to Power.) The Nazis' preferred writer was the far more talented Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian who supported National Socialism because he believed trade and technology to be dehumanizing, and embraced its blood-and-soil nature mysticism.

But one needn't go overseas to connect London to nature-racism; it was rampant here. Americans in the 1890s were confronting the end of their frontier, and were pondering its meaning. One voice raised was that of John Muir, who thought the wilderness was beautiful, and that it should not all be laid waste; most modern environmentalists will prefer to trace themselves to his aesthetic views.

But that's not where the populist action was. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, supported wilderness preservation because he believed that men needed a place they could hunt; without such essentially manly activity Americans would become soft, decadent, deracinated. Historian Roderick Nash has traced the veritable cult of "savageness" that arose, celebrating the presumed nobility–and spiritual superiority–of men in the wild. A popular literature sprang up around such ideas, though only two of its practitioners still have readers: London and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Among those calling early for saving the redwoods and establishing wilderness preserves were such men as Madison Grant, the country's leading racial theoretician and a friend of TR's. Author of the notorious book, The Passing of the Great Race, Grant believed Nordics were being overwhelmed by inferior, merchant "races." Nordics couldn't compete with them because they, Nordics, were simply too magnificent for such mean competition. For Grant, the purpose of a saved wilderness was as a racial and spiritual redoubt.

This brand of nature mysticism was an international phenomenon, mirrored in the German Wandervoegel movement and wherever industrialism developed or threatened. Slavophilism, part of Russia's great, three-way 19th-century debate (with revolution and classical liberalism) features it as a central line of thought. Dostoyevsky's meditations on Russian peasantry as the world's salvation praises them for their simple Orthodoxy; they are people close to the earth, unspoiled by vulgar trade. He too lashes out at alien merchant races, meaning Jews. Indeed, however tangled these intellectual paths through the woods became, many of them arrived at the same xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Marx may have equated rural life with idiocy, but he also equated trade with Judaism, and condemned the whole religion as embodying "actual contempt for and practical degradation of nature." (Norway's Hamsun hated the British; the worst insult he thought to hurl at them was that they were "Protestant Jews.")

Nature, whether in Jack London's Klondike, Germany's Black Forest, or Russia's steppes, can be a source of beauty and renewal. Reasonable persons can take part in quotidian environmentalism, which is about recycling, pollution, and spotted owls, and not about racism or revolution. Why, then, have so many attuned themselves to murmuring pines and hemlocks, only to hear lessons in race hatred and blood letting?

The answer lies in finding not merely beauty in nature, but absolutes. What nature-utopians of the left and right share is the belief that, whether in the peaceful rhythms of its seasons, in the unspoiled ruggedness of its landscapes, or in the tooth-and-claw struggle for survival, nature is a source both of wisdom and morality. From aesthetic to absolute is a short bridge to cross–some would argue it is an inevitable one–and even so moderate a figure as Muir went over it, ultimately preaching that the forests were God's true and sacrosanct cathedral. That's Dostoyevsky's neck of the woods.

But spiritual cathedral or racial redoubt, once one perceives nature as good in the absolute, the alternatives to its purity become not just mistaken, but immoral. Thus commerce and machinery are not just distractions; because they alienate us from nature, they are evil, as are their users, defenders, and beneficiaries.

Concepts of evil derived from the absolutist contemplation of nature flourished earlier in this century; scholar Anna Bramwell traces that remarkable history in Ecology in the 20th Century (1989). Environmentalism's rise has, by the logic of ideas, buoyed many such notions back into view: from the mystical antipathy to machinery to goddess worship; from Unabomber terrorism to the Gaia thesis of a sentient Earth. Left-wing activist and journalist Michael Novick has written of the xenophobes who have attached themselves to environmentalism under the guise of population control, and reports a number of small-time revivals of racist blood-and-soil movements in Europe. American racist Tom Metzger has attempted to combine the Aryan movement here with ecologism; the fascist gathering in the Northwest is an attempt to realize Nordland, their racist nature utopia.

That German nature-mysticism got wrapped up in National Socialism does not mean that such ideas have an inevitable trajectory. But as it happens, London himself imaginatively preceded the Nazis along their racist path all the way to genocide. In his awful story, "The Unparalleled Invasion," the world's white nations unite to wage germ warfare against the Chinese, killing them all, and inaugurating a golden age.

Whitehorse cancelled its Jack London Road. But in a sense there is one anyway, and it is worth pondering where it leads, and where, at any given time, we might be along it.

Charles Paul Freund (cpf@his.com) is a senior editor of REASON.