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The Road by Jack London

October 15, 2011 17 comments

The Road by Jack London. 1907.

In The Road, Jack London relates his years as a hobo in America and Canada in the years 1894-1895. The book comes more than 10 years after the journey and there is a good chance that it is constructed for readers and written to be appealing. London had notebooks during those years, we can expect they helped him with the details. I really enjoyed reading this book, it’s full of buoyant life and a precious testimony on the USA in that time. Each chapter deals with a particular theme and I was surprised several times. For example, I thought it was easier to relay on begging than today. People would give him food when he begs, sometimes even inviting him in their homes. However, when he tells his life with other tramps, charity could become more a question of good sense than of good heart:

We [85 tramps] took up a collection and sent a telegram to the authorities of that town. The text of the message was that eighty-five healthy, hungry hoboes would arrive about noon and that it would be a good idea to have dinner ready for them. The authorities of Grand Island had two courses open to them. They could feed us, or they could throw us in jail. In the latter event they’d have to feed us anyway, and they decided wisely that one meal would be the cheaper way.

I will always marvel at the organization of these hobos on one side and at the decision-making process based on profitability on the other side. This is how I see America: able to forget about principles when it’s cheaper to surrender. I was also astonished by the tale of the two thousand tramp army led by General Kelly and its odyssey on the Des Moines River or the violence he encounters sometimes.

The chapter about how to “hold her down” i.e. travel on trains without a ticket is incredible. He relates how hobos are chased by train drivers and employees. He explains all the strategies he used to go on and off the trains and not get caught. All this was extremely dangerous and he traveled in awful conditions soaked up by rain or frozen by a fierce cold.

His description of his stay in a Canadian prison is appalling. He pictures very well the balance of power between the prisoners, the fishy business among the prisoners and with the guards, the corruption, the violence. Eat before you are eaten. Oh, we were wolves, believe me—just like the fellows who do business in Wall Street. You can’t keep the Socialist out of London for long!

The last chapter is about the “bulls”, the cops. The French translator chose to translate the word literally (les taureaux), probably to keep the impressive image of the English. In French, the two animals used to call the cops are vache (cow) or, the most used, poulet (chicken). I know, I know, for an American, calling a policeman a bull or a chicken doesn’t convey the same image at all. From what I see now that I’m looking for the original text of the quotes I’ve chosen, the French translation is exceptional. It manages to keep the originality and the freshness of London’s tone and adapt it to the French. For example, when London says the bulls is horstile, it’s translated by « les taureaux sont diabominables », diabominable being a portmanteau word made of “diable” (devil) and “abominable” (awful).

The Road fascinated Jack Kerouac. On the Road comes from that fascination but it’s already tainted. Although Kerouac’s book is the image of freedom for generation of readers, the book of pure freedom is The Road. London doesn’t search for anything, he just can’t stay long at the same place and wants to be free.

Every once in a while, in newspapers, magazines, and biographical dictionaries, I run upon sketches of my life, wherein, delicately phrased, I learn that it was in order to study sociology that I became a tramp. This is very nice and thoughtful of the biographers, but it is inaccurate. I became a tramp—well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward, in the same manner that a wet skin follows a ducking. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was so made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift”; because—well, just because it was easier to than not to.

THAT is why the book oozes freedom and a lot more than Kerouac’s On the Road. In London, there aren’t any drugs or alcohol or sex, no artificial paradises. He doesn’t need anything, he just wants to live from hand to mouth like a real hobo. There’s no spiritual quest and thus no expectation and no disappointment. Any book walking in the same shoes can only be a pale copy. Nothing compares to London’s appetite for a no-string life. When I was reading, I had in mind the beautiful images of the film I’m not there by Todd Haynes, the bits with the little black hobo.

PS: If you’re interested, you can have a look at my review of On The Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman, based upon On the Road by Jack Kerouac, itself based on The Road by Jack London. La boucle est bouclée, that’s what we say in French in such cases.

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