WHAT LIFE MEANS TO ME
I was born in the working-class. Early I discovered enthusiasm, ambition,
and ideals; and to satisfy these became the problem of my child- life.
My environment was crude and rough and raw. I had no outlook, but
an uplook rather. My place in society was at the bottom. Here life
offered nothing but sordidness and wretchedness, both of the flesh
and the spirit; for here flesh and spirit were alike starved and tormented.
Above me towered the colossal edifice of society, and to my mind the
only way out was up. Into this edifice I early resolved to climb.
Up above, men wore black clothes and boiled shirts, and women dressed
in beautiful gowns. Also, there were good things to eat, and there
was plenty to eat. This much for the flesh. Then there were the things
of the spirit. Up above me, I knew, were unselfishnesses of the spirit,
clean and noble thinking, keen intellectual living. I knew all this
because I read "Seaside Library" novels, in which, with
the exception of the villains and adventuresses, all men and women
thought beautiful thoughts, spoke a beautiful tongue, and performed
glorious deeds. In short, as I accepted the rising of the sun, I accepted
that up above me was all that was fine and noble and gracious, all
that gave decency and dignity to life, all that made life worth living
and that remunerated one for his travail and misery.
But it is not particularly easy for one to climb up out of the working-
class especially if he is handicapped by the possession of
ideals and illusions. I lived on a ranch in California, and I was
hard put to find the ladder whereby to climb. I early inquired the
rate of interest on invested money, and worried my child's brain into
an understanding of the virtues and excellencies of that remarkable
invention of man, compound interest. Further, I ascertained the current
rates of wages for workers of all ages, and the cost of living. From
all this data I concluded that if I began immediately and worked and
saved until I was fifty years of age, I could then stop working and
enter into participation in a fair portion of the delights and goodnesses
that would then be open to me higher up in society. Of course, I resolutely
determined not to marry, while I quite forgot to consider at all that
great rock of disaster in the working-class world sickness.
But the life that was in me demanded more than. a meagre existence
of scraping and scrimping. Also, at ten years of age, I became a newsboy
on the streets of a city, and found myself with a changed uplook.
All about me were still the same sordidness and wretchedness, and
up above me was still the same paradise waiting to be gained; but
the ladder whereby to climb was a different one. It was now the ladder
of business. Why save my earnings and invest in government bonds,
when, by buying two newspapers for five cents, with a turn of the
wrist I could sell them for ten cents and double my capital ? The
business ladder was the ladder for me, and I had a vision of myself
becoming a baldheaded and successful merchant prince.
Alas for visions! When I was sixteen I had already earned the title
of "prince." But this title was given me by a gang of cut-throats
and thieves, by whom I was called "The Prince of the Oyster Pirates."
And at that time I had climbed the first rung of the business ladder.
I was a capitalist. I owned a boat and a complete oyster-pirating
outfit. I had begun to exploit my fellow-creatures. I had a crew of
one man. As captain and owner I took two-thirds of the spoils, and
gave the crew one-third, though the crew worked just as hard as I
did and risked just as much his life and liberty.
This one rung was the height I climbed up the business ladder. One
night I went on a raid amongst the Chinese fishermen. Ropes and nets
were worth dollars and cents. It was robbery, I grant, but it was
precisely the spirit of capitalism. The capitalist takes away the
possessions of his fellow-creatures by means of a rebate, or of a
betrayal of trust, or by the purchase of senators and supreme-court
judges. I was merely crude. That was the only difference. I used a
But my crew that night was one of those inefficients against whom
the capitalist is wont to fulminate, because, forsooth, such inefficients
increase expenses and reduce dividends. My crew did both. What of
his carelessness he set fire to the big mainsail and totally destroyed
it. There weren't any dividends that night, and the Chinese fishermen
were richer by the nets and ropes we did' not get. I was bankrupt,
unable just then to pay sixty-five dollars for a new mainsail. I left
my boat at anchor and went off on a bay-pirate boat on a raid up the
Sacramento River. While away on this trip, another gang of bay pirates
raided my boat. They stole everything, even the anchors; and later
on, when I recovered the drifting hulk, I sold it for twenty dollars.
I had slipped back the one rung I had climbed, and never again did
I attempt the business ladder.
From then on I was mercilessly exploited by other capitalists. I had
the muscle, and they made money out of it while I made but a very
indifferent living out of it. I was a sailor before the mast, a longshoreman,
a roustabout; I worked in canneries, and factories, and laundries;
I mowed lawns, and cleaned carpets, and washed windows. And I never
got the full product of my toil. I looked at the daughter of the cannery
owner, in her carriage, and knew that it was my muscle, in part, that
helped drag along that carriage on its rubber tires. I looked at the
son of the factory owner, going to college, and knew that it was my
muscle that helped, in part, to pay for the wine and good fellowship
But I did not resent this. It was all in the game. They were the strong.
Very well, I was strong. I would carve my way to a place amongst them
and make money out of the muscles of other men. I was not afraid of
work. I loved hard- work. I would pitch in and work harder than ever
and eventually become a pillar of society.
And just then, as luck would have it, I found an employer that was
of the same mind. I was willing to work, and he was more than willing
that I should work. I thought I was learning a trade. In reality,
I had displaced two men. I thought he was making an electrician out
of me; as a matter of fact, he was making fifty dollars per month
out of me. The two men I had displaced had received forty dollars
each per month; I was doing the work of both for thirty dollars per
This employer worked me nearly to death. A man may love oysters, but
too many oysters will disincline him toward that particular diet.
And so with me. Too much work sickened me. I did not wish ever to
see work again. I fled from work. I became a tramp, begging my way
from door to door, wandering over the United States and sweating bloody
sweats in slums and prisons.
I had been born in the working-class, and I was now, at the age of
eighteen, beneath the point at which I had started. I was down in
the cellar of society, down in the subterranean depths of misery about
which it is neither nice nor proper to speak. I was in the pit, the
abyss, the human cesspool, the shambles and the charnel-house of our
civilization. This is the part of the edifice of society that society
chooses to ignore. Lack of space compels me here to ignore it, and
I shall say only that the things I there saw gave me a terrible scare.
I was scared into thinking. I saw the naked simplicities of the complicated
civilization in which I lived. Life was a matter of food and shelter.
In order to get food and shelter men sold things. The merchant sold
shoes, the politician sold his manhood, and the representative of
the people, with exceptions, of course, sold his trust; while nearly
all sold their honor. Women, too, whether on the street or in the
holy bond of wedlock, were prone to sell their flesh. All things were
commodities, all people bought and sold. The one commodity that labor
had to sell was muscle. The honor of labor had no price in the market-place.
Labor had muscle, and muscle alone, to sell.
But there was a difference, a vital difference. Shoes and trust and
honor had a way of renewing themselves. They were imperishable stocks.
Muscle, on the other hand, did not renew. As the shoe merchant sold
shoes, he continued to replenish his stock. But there was no way of
replenishing the laborer's stock of muscle. The more he sold of his
muscle, the less of it remained to him. It was his one commodity,
and each day his stock of it diminished. In the end, if he did not
die before, he sold out and put up his shutters. He was a muscle bankrupt,
and nothing remained to him but to go down into the cellar of society
and perish miserably.
I learned, further, that brain was likewise a commodity. It, too,
was different from muscle. A brain seller was only at his prime when
he was fifty or sixty years old, and his wares were fetching higher
prices than ever. But a laborer was worked out or broken down at forty-five
or fifty. I had been in the cellar of society, and I did not like
the place as a habitation. The pipes and drains were unsanitary, and
the air was bad to breathe. If I could not live on the parlor floor
of society, I could, at any rate, have a try at the attic. It was
true, the diet there was slim, but the air at least was pure. So I
resolved to sell no more muscle, and to become a vender of brains.
Then began a frantic pursuit of knowledge. I returned to California
and opened the books. While thus equipping, myself to become a brain
merchant, it was inevitable that I should delve into sociology. There
I found, in a certain class of books, scientifically formulated, the
simple sociological concepts I had already worked out for myself.
Other and greater minds, before I was born, had worked out all that
I had thought and a vast deal more. I discovered that I was a socialist.
The socialists were revolutionists, inasmuch as they struggled to
overthrow the society of the present, and out of the material to build
the society of the future. I, too, was a socialist and a revolutionist.
I joined the groups of working-class and intellectual revolutionists,
and for the first time came into intellectual living. Here I found
keen-flashing intellects and brilliant wits; for here I met strong
and alert-brained, withal horny- handed, members of the working-class;
unfrocked preachers too wide in their Christianity for any congregation
of Mammon-worshippers; professors broken on the wheel of university
subservience to the ruling class and flung out because they were quick
with knowledge which they strove to apply to the affairs of mankind.
Here I found, also, warm faith in the human, glowing idealism, sweetnesses
of unselfishness, renunciation, and martyrdom all the splendid,
stinging things of the spirit. Here life was clean, noble, and alive.
Here life rehabilitated itself, became wonderful and glorious; and
I was glad to be alive. I was in touch with great souls who exalted
flesh and spirit over dollars and cents, and to whom the thin wail
of the starved slum child meant more than all the pomp and circumstance
of commercial expansion and world empire. All about me were nobleness
of purpose and heroism of effort, and my days and nights were sunshine
and starshine, all fire and dew, with before my eyes, ever burning
and blazing, the Holy Grail, Christ's own Grail, the warm human, long-suffering
and maltreated, but to be rescued and saved at the last.
And I, poor foolish I, deemed all this to be a mere foretaste of the
delights of living I should find higher above me in society. I had
lost many illusions since the day I read "Seaside Library"
novels on the California ranch. I was destined to lose many of the
illusions I still retained.
As a brain merchant I was a success. Society opened its portals to
me. I entered right in on the parlor floor, and my disillusionment
proceeded rapidly. I sat down to dinner with the masters of society,
and with the wives and daughters of the masters of society. The women
were gowned beautifully, I admit; but to my naive surprise I discovered
that they were of the same clay as all the rest of the women I had
known down below in the cellar. "The colonel's lady and Judy
O'Grady were sisters under their skins" and gowns.
It was not this, however, so much as their materialism, that shocked
me. It is true, these beautifully gowned, beautiful women prattled
sweet little ideals and dear little moralities; but in spite of their
prattle the dominant key of the life they lived was materialistic.
And they were so sentimentally selfish ! They assisted in all kinds
of sweet little charities, and informed one of the fact, while all
the time the food they ate and the beautiful clothes they wore were
bought out of dividends stained with the blood of child labor, and
sweated labor, and of prostitution itself. When I mentioned such facts,
expecting in my innocence that these sisters of Judy O'Grady would
at once strip off their blood-dyed silks and jewels, they became excited
and angry, and read me preachments about the lack of thrift, the drink,
and the innate depravity that caused all the misery in society's cellar.
When I mentioned that I couldn't quite see that it was the lack of
thrift, the intemperance, and the depravity of a half-starved child
of six that made it work twelve hours every night in a Southern cotton
mill, these sisters of Judy O'Grady attacked my private life and called
me an "agitator" as though that, forsooth, settled
Nor did I fare better with the masters themselves. I had expected
to find men who were clean, noble, and alive, whose ideals were clean,
noble, and alive. I went about amongst the men who sat in the high
places the preachers, the politicians, the business men, the
professors, and the editors. I ate meat with them, drank wine with
them, automobiled with them, and studied them. It is true, I found
many that were clean and noble; but with rare exceptions, they were
not alive. I do verily believe I could count the exceptions on the
fingers of my two hands. Where they were not alive with rottenness,
quick with unclean life, they were merely the unburied dead
clean and. noble, like well- preserved mummies, but not alive. In
this connection I may especially mention the professors I met, the
men who live up to that decadent university ideal, "the passionless
pursuit of passionless intelligence."
I met men who invoked the name of the Prince of Peace in their diatribes
against war, and who put rifles in the hands of Pinkertons with which
to shoot down strikers in their own factories. I met men incoherent
with indignation at the brutality of prize-fighting, and who, at the
same time, were parties to the adulteration of food that killed each
year more babies than even red-handed Herod had killed.
I talked in hotels and clubs and homes and Pullmans and steamer- chairs
with captains of industry, and marvelled at how little travelled they
were in the realm of intellect. On the other hand, I discovered that
their intellect, in the business sense, was abnormally developed.
Also, I discovered that their morality, where business was concerned,
This delicate, aristocratic-featured gentleman, was a dummy director
and a tool of corporations that secretly robbed widows and orphans.
This gentleman, who collected fine editions and was an especial patron
of literature, paid blackmail to a heavy-jowled, black-browed boss
of a municipal machine. This editor, who published patent medicine
advertisements and did not dare print the truth in his paper about
said patent medicines for fear of losing the advertising, called me
a scoundrelly demagogue because I told him that his political economy
was antiquated and that his biology was contemporaneous with Pliny.
This senator was the tool and the slave, the little puppet of a gross,
uneducated machine boss; so was this governor and this supreme court
judge; and all three rode on railroad passes. This man, talking soberly
and earnestly about the beauties of idealism and the goodness of God,
had just betrayed his comrades in a business deal. This man, a pillar
of the church and heavy contributor to foreign missions, worked his
shop girls ten hours a day on a starvation wage and thereby directly
encouraged prostitution. This man, who endowed chairs in universities,
perjured himself in courts of law over a matter of dollars and cents.
And this railroad magnate broke his word as a gentleman and a Christian
when he granted a secret rebate to one of two captains of industry
locked together in a struggle to the death.
It was the same everywhere, crime and betrayal, betrayal and crime
men who were alive, but who were neither clean nor noble, men
who were clean and noble but who were not alive. Then there was a
great, hopeless mass, neither noble nor alive, but merely clean. It
did not sin positively nor deliberately; but it did sin passively
and ignorantly by acquiescing in the current immorality and profiting
by it. Had it been noble and alive it would not have been ignorant,
and it would have refused to share in the profits of betrayal and
I discovered that I did not like to live on the parlor floor of society.
Intellectually I was bored. Morally and spiritually I was sickened.
I remembered my intellectuals and idealists, my unfrocked preachers,
broken professors, and clean-minded, class-conscious workingmen. I
remembered my days and nights of sunshine and starshine, where life
was all a wild sweet wonder, a spiritual paradise of unselfish adventure
and ethical romance. And I saw before me, ever blazing and burning,
the Holy Grail.
So I went back to the working-class, in which I had been born and
where I belonged. I care no longer to climb. The imposing edifice
of society above my head holds no delights for me. It is the foundation
of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar
in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious
workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole
edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars
to work, we'll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and
unburied dead, its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then
we'll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind, in
which there will be no parlor floor, in which all the rooms will be
bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean,
noble, and alive.
Such is my outlook. I look forward to a time when man shall progress
upon something worthier and higher than his stomach, when there will
be a finer incentive to impel men to action than the incentive of
to-day, which is the incentive of the stomach. I retain my belief
in the nobility and excellence of the human. I believe that spiritual
sweetness and unselfishness will conquer the gross gluttony of to-day.
And last of all, my faith is in the working-class. As some Frenchman
has said, "The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden
shoe going up, the polished boot descending."
Taken from: Jack London / Revolution and Other Essays (1909).
Jack London (1876-1916):
The Minions Of Midas
In a far Country
The Dignity of Dollars
What Life Means to Me
Jack London Ranch Album
The Jack London Collection
Jack London International