Since I’ve been reading the works of Jack London and Rudyard Kipling, I’ve wondered whether they knew each other and what they may have thought of each other’s work. As they lived and wrote during approximately the same time period (turn of the twentieth century), I’d be curious as to whether they would have anything to say to each other. After reading London’s short story, “The Strength of the Strong”, I have an inkling of what might have taken place if they had met.
The anthology I’ve been using to read London’s short stories has been Jack London: Short Stories edited by Earle Labor; Robert C. Leitz III; I. Milo Shepard. The notes for this short story indicate that London wrote this as a reply to a short story that Kipling wrote called “The Adventures of Melissa” (originally published as “The Mother Hive”) in which Kipling attacked Socialism. According to these notes, London also told a fellow writer that “No one was in the slightest way aware of the point of my story”.
“The Strength of the Strong” is told by a prehistoric grandfather to his prehistoric grandsons. The grandfather explains that people used to live in trees by themselves and they only had the strength of “one”. When they realized that together, they might have the strength of “ten”, people moved from the trees to caves. Then they discovered that some of them could hunt, some could protect, some could cook. After a while, some of the people became stronger than others and took all the land. Some of the people learned how to hunt better and took all the food. Eventually, the majority worked very hard for very little, while a select few didn’t work at all and had tons of food and land. At one point, someone decides they need “money”, so they string sea shells together and call it “money”. For some, all they did all day was (literally) make “money”. After reading the story, I had to agree with London’s own assessment. I’m not really sure what point he was trying to make. It was difficult to figure out which political and economic ideals he was satirizing and which ones he was embracing.
However, London brilliantly satirizes Kipling’s writing style and story-telling methods. All the characters in London’s story have Kipling style names with a slight twist that pokes fun of them. The grandfather’s name is Long-Beard while his grandsons are Deer-Runner, Yellow-Head, and Afraid-of-the-Dark. Other characters had names like Strong-Arm, Three-Clams, One-Eye, Little-Belly, Dog-Tooth, Pig-Jaw, Big-Fat, Twisted-Lip. My favorite was The Bug. He went around making up songs and stories about bees to calm people down whenever anyone got too riled up and distraught over their circumstances. I have a hunch that The Bug was supposed to be Kipling.
In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that, while both London and Kipling extensively used animals in their stories, London’s animals were more like animals whereas Kipling’s animals were more like humans (anthropomorphic – there’s that word again). London seems to make a very clear point in what he thinks of this aspect of Kipling’s writing when, in the last line of “The Strength of the Strong”, he states “all that will come to pass in the time when the fools are dead, and when there will be no more singers to stand still and sing the ‘Song of the Bees.’ Bees are not men.”
Tune in next week when I’ll let you know what this story of Kipling’s, “The Mother Hive”, is all about.