The Road by Jack London

October 15, 2011 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. October 15, 2011 at 7:44 am

    London has written one of the best books on alcoholism (apart from A.L. Kennedy’s “Paradise” and Fallada’s “Der Trinker”) -his alcoholism. I’m suprised he wasn’t addicted yet at the time but it is possible. I always liked London and I think I might like this as well.
    It sounds very different from On the Road. This is alomost a trilogy of reviews. The Road, On the Road, and On the Holloway Road.

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    • October 15, 2011 at 8:23 am

      He wasn’t addicted at the time, he didn’t have extra money to spend on alcohol.
      It’s very different from On the Road. It occurred to me there was a trilogy of reviews. Do you think I should ask a paragraph in the review?
      In this trilogy, the more words in the book title, the less freedom for the characters.

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  2. October 15, 2011 at 9:06 am

    True – about the number of words and freedom . What do you man, ask a paragraph? Is is a typo?

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    • October 15, 2011 at 9:09 am

      Yes. Typo I meant ADD a paragraph

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  3. October 15, 2011 at 9:45 am

    You should certainly add the links to your other reviews at the bottom of the page. It might be interesting for readders. And a paragraph too, why not. Or a post comparing them.

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    • October 15, 2011 at 6:55 pm

      Not, a post, I don’t have the time to write it.
      I’ll add the links, although usually nobody clicks on them.

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  4. October 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    A note on “bulls” – it is not current English slang, and I think it is actually a “hobo” word. It applied not just to police but to hired guards like security guards at train yards.

    I have never seen “bulls” used in a non-hobo context. Hobos used it all the time.

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    • October 15, 2011 at 6:54 pm

      Thanks Tom. Good for me I had no intention to use this newly learnt word in a review. 🙂
      It explains why the translator used “taureau” instead of “poulet”, which would have been common slang here.

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  5. October 15, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I haven’t read this, Emma, and I’ll be honest, I’ve been put off of it because of the Kerouac connection. Your review, however, makes me think I’d like it.

    I’ve wanted to read London’s The Assassination Bureau for some time (enjoyed the film version)

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    • October 15, 2011 at 9:16 pm

      I think you’d like it. It’s more like Down and Out in Paris and London than On The Road.
      I don’t know The Assassination Bureau.
      I want to read White Fang to know at what age my children can try it.

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  6. October 16, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Kerouac was my constant companion when I was about 20 – with Desolation Angles being my favorite. Yes, Jack London spawned a whole generation of imitators didn’t he – but few shared his bravery. Perhaps George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris was in the same genre? By the way, diabominable is a wonderful new word!

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    • October 16, 2011 at 9:19 am

      I don’t know if The Road inspired Orwell. But Down and Out in Paris and London has the same tone something between journalism and storytelling.
      You might like On the Hollowed Road, in a sense it’s about the impact of Kerouac and the American myth on Europeans.

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  7. October 16, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    I enjoyed White Fang and The Call of the Wild quite early in reading career, probably pre-teens. I am thinking of getting them for my daughter for Christmas, (and not only because I want to re-read!)

    On the other hand I now want to read The Road too, which sounds like a remarkable book. As I was reading your review I was thinking ‘these men sound like wolves’ and then you quote that very thing. I find it fascinating that he considered himself in those terms.

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    • October 17, 2011 at 8:52 am

      Although he relates his years as a hobo in a positive tone, he doesn’t hide the truth and the violence inherent in this kind of life. When he describes the beating of a woman, it’s almost unbearable and yes, in that moment too, he compares men to animals. He says human are worse than animals as it’s the only species where males beat their females.

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  8. October 19, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    There was a lot of hobo specific vocabulary. There’s a very interesting book called You Can’t Win, by Jack Black (no relation to the actor) which among other things explains a lot of it. That book was an influence on Burroughs, so it might be worth looking at as part of your exploration of this family tree of literature.

    Which incidentally I’ve really enjoyed. It’s been fascinating to see how this feeds into On the Road and that into the Blackman novel (which I now plan to look more closely at). An idea manifesting through different books over time. Very interesting.

    My grandfather once told me, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, that he travelled the rails in the US for a while. It would have been the late 30s (since by the 40s he was married and having children). He talked of shivering in unheated railroad cars, and sharing blankets. Powerful stuff.

    A whole world now gone from us, as Andrew Blackman makes clear in his book.

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    • October 19, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation I’ll look for it.
      Fascinating story about your grand-father. And it was during the Great Depression.

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  1. April 27, 2014 at 6:38 am

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