The Iron Heel
Cover of the first edition
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Generally considered to be "the earliest of the modern dystopian" fiction, it chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. It is arguably the novel in which Jack London's socialist views are most explicitly on display. A forerunner of soft science fiction novels and stories of the 1960s and '70s, the book stresses future changes in society and politics while paying much less attention to technological changes.
The book is unusual among London's writings (and in the literature of the time in general) in being a first-person narrative of a woman protagonist written by a man. Much of the narrative is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, including events in San Francisco and Sonoma County.
The novel is based on the fictional "Everhard Manuscript" written by Avis Everhard which she hid and which was subsequently found centuries later. In addition, this novel has an introduction and series of (often lengthy) footnotes written from the perspective of scholar Anthony Meredith. Meredith writes from around 2600 AD or 419 B.O.M. (the Brotherhood of Man). Jack London writes at two levels, often having Meredith condescendingly correcting the errors of Everhard yet, at the same time, exposing the often incomplete understanding of this distant future perspective.
Meredith's introduction also acts as a deliberate "spoiler" (the term did not yet exist at the time of writing). Before ever getting a chance to get to know Avis and Ernest, how they fell in love or how Avis became politically involved, the reader is already told that all their struggles and hopes would end in total failure and repression, and that both of them would be summarily executed. This gives all that follows the air of a foreordained tragedy. There is still left the consolation that a happy end would come for humanity as a whole – though hundreds of years too late for Avis and Ernest as individuals; the cruel oligarchy would fall, and the two will be vindicated and respected by posterity as pioneers and martyrs. The book begins with the acquaintance of Avis Cunningham, a daughter of a renowned physicist with the socialist Ernest Evergard. At first, Avis does not agree with Ernest in that the whole contemporary social system is based on exploitation of labour. However, she proceeds to investigate the conditions the workers live in and those terrible conditions make her change her mind and accept Ernest's worldview. Similarly, Bishop Morehouse does not initially believe in the horrors described by Ernest but then becomes convinced in their truth and is confined to madhouse because of his new views.
The Manuscript itself covers the years 1912 through 1932 in which the Oligarchy (or "Iron Heel") arose in the United States. In Asia, Japan conquered East Asia and created its own empire, India gained independence, and Europe became socialist. Canada, Mexico, and Cuba formed their own Oligarchies and were aligned with the U.S. (London remains silent as to the fates of South America, Africa, and the Middle East.)
In North America, the Oligarchy maintains power for three centuries until the Revolution succeeds and ushers in the Brotherhood of Man. During the years of the novel, the First Revolt is described and preparations for the Second Revolt are discussed. From the perspective of Everhard, the imminent Second Revolt is sure to succeed but from Meredith's frame story, the reader knows that Ernest Everhard's hopes would go unfulfilled until centuries after his death.
The Oligarchy is the largest monopoly of trusts (or robber barons) who manage to squeeze out the middle class by bankrupting most small to mid-sized business as well as reducing all farmers to effective serfdom. This Oligarchy maintains power through a "labor caste" and the Mercenaries. Laborers in essential industries like steel and rail are elevated and given decent wages, housing, and education. Indeed, the tragic turn in the novel (and Jack London's core warning to his contemporaries) is the treachery of these favored unions which break with the other unions and side with the Oligarchy. Further, a second, military caste is formed: the Mercenaries. The Mercenaries are officially the army of the US but are in fact in the employ of the Oligarchs.
Asgard is the name of a fictional wonder-city, a city constructed by the Oligarchy to be admired and appreciated as well as lived in. Thousands of proletarians live in terrible poverty there, and are used whenever a public work needs to be completed, such as the building of a levee or a canal.
The Manuscript is Everhard's autobiography as she tells of: her privileged childhood as the daughter of an accomplished scientist; her marriage to the socialist revolutionary Ernest Everhard; the fall of the US republic; and her years in the underground resistance from the First Revolt through the years leading to the Second Revolt. By telling the story of Avis Everhard, the novel is essentially an adventurous tale heavily strewn with social commentary of an alternative future (from a 1907 perspective). However, the future perspective of the scholar Meredith deepens the tragic plight of Everhard and her revolutionary comrades.
Jack London ambitiously predicted a breakdown of the US republic starting a few years past 1908, but various events have caused his predicted future to diverge from actual history. Most crucially, though London placed quite accurately the time when international tensions will reach their peak (1913 in "The Iron Heel", 1914 in actual history), he (like many others at the time) predicted that when this moment came, labor solidarity would prevent a war that would include the US, Germany and other nations.
Further, London assumed that the Socialist Party would become a mass party in the United States, strong enough to have a realistic chance of winning national elections and gaining power, while remaining a revolutionary party still committed to the dismantling of capitalism. The whole book is based on Marx's view that capitalism is inherently unsustainable. This would precipitate a brutal counter-reaction, with capitalists preserving their power by discarding democracy and instituting a brutal repressive regime. Although this exact scenario never came to pass in the US, where the Socialist Party remained small and marginal, events closely followed London's script elsewhere; for example, in Chile in 1973, where the government of socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. This prompted later publishers of London's book to use a cover illustration depicting a poster of Allende being ground beneath the heel of a boot.
The idea of a strong and militant mass Socialist Party emerging in the US was linked by London with his prediction that the middle class would shrink as monopolistic trusts crushed labor and small- to mid-sized businesses. Instead the US Progressive Era led to a breakup of the trusts, notably the application of the Sherman Antitrust Act to Standard Oil in 1911. At the same time, reforms such as labor unions rights were passed during the Progressive Era, with further reforms during the New Deal of the 1930s. Further, economic prosperity led to dramatic growth of the middle class in the 1920s and after World War II.
Through the writing of Everhard and, particularly, the distant future perspective of Meredith, London demonstrated his belief in the historical materialism of Marxism, which some have interpreted as predicting an inevitable succession from feudalism through capitalism and then socialism, ending in a period without a state (also known as Dialectical materialism), based on Marx's maxim of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
Influences and effects
The Iron Heel is cited by George Orwell's biographer Michael Shelden as having influenced Orwell's most famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell himself described London as having made "a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of Fascism", in the book and believed that London's understanding of the primitive had made him a better prophet "than many better-informed and more logical thinkers."
Granville Hicks, reviewing Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, was reminded of The Iron Heel: "we are taken into the future and shown an America ruled by a tiny oligarchy, and here too there is a revolt that fails."
London's novella The Scarlet Plague (1912), and some of his short stories, are placed in a dystopian future setting that closely resembles that of The Iron Heel, although there is no actual continuity of situations or characters.
A stage adaptation by Edward Einhorn was produced in 2016 in New York. According to The New York Times, "it serves up food for thought with an appealing heart-on-sleeve warmth"
- Business Plot - an alleged 1933 political conspiracy by businessmen to overthrow the United States government in reaction to economic reforms.
- Stableford, Brian (1993). "Dystopias". In John Clute & Peter Nicholls (eds.). The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (2nd ed.). London: Orbit. pp. 360–362. ISBN 1-85723-124-4.
- Fromm, Erich: 1984 (Afterword), page 316. New American Library (a division of Penguin Group), 1977.
- Orwell: the Authorized Biography by Michael Shelden, HarperCollins ISBN 978-0-06-092161-3
- BBC broadcast March 5, 1943,Jack London:Landmarks in American Literature,5, reprinted in, Two Wasted Years, Secker & Warburg, 2001, p.5,7.
- "Harry Bridges", by Clancy Sigal; The New York Times, January 7, 1973, p. 388
- Hicks, Granville (August 17, 1952). "Player Piano". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-27.
- New York Times review of The Iron Heel stage adaptation
- Francis Shor: Power, Gender, and Ideological Discourse in 'The Iron Heel' . In: Leonard Cassuto, Jeanne Campbell Reesman: Rereading Jack London. Stanford University Press 1998, ISBN 0-8047-3516-6, pp. 75–91 (online copy, p. 75, at Google Books)
- Tony Barley: Prediction, Programme and Fantasy in Jack London's 'The Iron Heel' . In David Seed: Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors. Syracuse University Press 1995, ISBN 0-8156-2632-0, pp. 153–171 (online copy, p. 153, at Google Books)
- John Whalen-Bridge: Political Fiction and the American Self. University of Illinois Press 1998, ISBN 0-252-06688-X, pp. 73–100 (online copy, p. 73, at Google Books)
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