The first sentence of Jack London’s essay is “I was born in the working-class.” Not born in a city, or born into a happy family, or born into a patriotic family, or born into a miserable situation, but born into the working class. What life means to London has a lot to do with working. It is not unusual for the young to go through a socialist stage. It is the natural outcome of youthful ambition, ideals, and innocence. It is a good and proper stage, for it places us in the best possible light — it is optimistic.
Reading London’s essay prompts us to revisit questions such as What is work? and Why do we work? London’s answer to why he wants to work is that he wants to “climb the ladder.” He becomes disillusioned with work, however, both as an employer and as an employee. He vows never to work again. It is at this point he sees the “naked simplicities of the complicated civilization” in which he lives. “Life was a matter of food and shelter.” True enough. One can imagine life tens of thousands of years ago to reach a purer understanding of it. There were no fax machines or giant mega-employers or “keen intellectual living.” You had to find a cave or you would die from hypothermia and you had to kill that mammoth or you would starve. Using the fax machine is really just a complicated way of killing mammoths.
It is soon after London stops working that he discovers he is a socialist. He 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.” But, going back thousands of years ago, someone has to work to make the arrow that will kill the mammoth that will feed the people. In other words, you can’t exalt the flesh over dollars and cents. They are two sides of the same coin.
In the final paragraph London looks “forward to a time when man shall progress upon something worthier and higher than his stomach.” And it it here that we see a different message than the one manifested in much of his work, illustrating London’s gift of advocating for a particular message by lulling the reader into the impression he is advocating for its alternative.