By: Jack London
April 17, 2018

This year marks the 110th anniversary of the publication of The Iron Heel, a dystopian Radium Age science-fiction novel by Jack London. In it, a far-future historian recounts how — in the early 20th century — a cabal of robber barons bankrupted the middle class, reduced farmers to serfdom, and used mercenaries to keep laborers in check. George Orwell described London as having made “a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of Fascism”; let’s hope London’s prophecy isn’t applicable to our own era. HiLoBooks will serialize The Iron Heel at HILOBROW through 2018.




It was about this time that the warnings of coming events began to fall about us thick and fast. Ernest had already questioned father’s policy of having socialists and labor leaders at his house, and of openly attending socialist meetings; and father had only laughed at him for his pains. As for myself, I was learning much from this contact with the working-class leaders and thinkers. I was seeing the other side of the shield. I was delighted with the unselfishness and high idealism I encountered, though I was appalled by the vast philosophic and scientific literature of socialism that was opened up to me. I was learning fast, but I learned not fast enough to realize then the peril of our position.

There were warnings, but I did not heed them. For instance, Mrs. Pertonwaithe and Mrs. Wickson exercised tremendous social power in the university town, and from them emanated the sentiment that I was a too-forward and self-assertive young woman with a mischievous penchant for officiousness and interference in other persons’ affairs. This I thought no more than natural, considering the part I had played in investigating the case of Jackson’s arm. But the effect of such a sentiment, enunciated by two such powerful social arbiters, I underestimated.

True, I noticed a certain aloofness on the part of my general friends, but this I ascribed to the disapproval that was prevalent in my circles of my intended marriage with Ernest. It was not till some time afterward that Ernest pointed out to me clearly that this general attitude of my class was something more than spontaneous, that behind it were the hidden springs of an organized conduct. “You have given shelter to an enemy of your class,” he said. “And not alone shelter, for you have given your love, yourself. This is treason to your class. Think not that you will escape being penalized.”

But it was before this that father returned one afternoon. Ernest was with me, and we could see that father was angry — philosophically angry. He was rarely really angry; but a certain measure of controlled anger he allowed himself. He called it a tonic. And we could see that he was tonic-angry when he entered the room.

“What do you think?” he demanded. “I had luncheon with Wilcox.”

Wilcox was the superannuated president of the university, whose withered mind was stored with generalizations that were young in 1870, and which he had since failed to revise.

“I was invited,” father announced. “I was sent for.”

He paused, and we waited.

“Oh, it was done very nicely, I’ll allow; but I was reprimanded. I! And by that old fossil!”

“I’ll wager I know what you were reprimanded for,” Ernest said.

“Not in three guesses,” father laughed.

“One guess will do,” Ernest retorted. “And it won’t be a guess. It will be a deduction. You were reprimanded for your private life.”

“The very thing!” father cried. “How did you guess?”

“I knew it was coming. I warned you before about it.”

“Yes, you did,” father meditated. “But I couldn’t believe it. At any rate, it is only so much more clinching evidence for my book.”

“It is nothing to what will come,” Ernest went on, “if you persist in your policy of having these socialists and radicals of all sorts at your house, myself included.”

“Just what old Wilcox said. And of all unwarranted things! He said it was in poor taste, utterly profitless, anyway, and not in harmony with university traditions and policy. He said much more of the same vague sort, and I couldn’t pin him down to anything specific. I made it pretty awkward for him, and he could only go on repeating himself and telling me how much he honored me, and all the world honored me, as a scientist. It wasn’t an agreeable task for him. I could see he didn’t like it.”

“He was not a free agent,” Ernest said. “The leg-bar* is not always worn graciously.”

* LEG-BAR — the African slaves were so manacled; also criminals. It was not until the coming of the Brotherhood of Man that the leg-bar passed out of use.

“Yes. I got that much out of him. He said the university needed ever so much more money this year than the state was willing to furnish; and that it must come from wealthy personages who could not but be offended by the swerving of the university from its high ideal of the passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence. When I tried to pin him down to what my home life had to do with swerving the university from its high ideal, he offered me a two years’ vacation, on full pay, in Europe, for recreation and research. Of course I couldn’t accept it under the circumstances.”

“It would have been far better if you had,” Ernest said gravely.

“It was a bribe,” father protested; and Ernest nodded.

“Also, the beggar said that there was talk, tea-table gossip and so forth, about my daughter being seen in public with so notorious a character as you, and that it was not in keeping with university tone and dignity. Not that he personally objected — oh, no; but that there was talk and that I would understand.”

Ernest considered this announcement for a moment, and then said, and his face was very grave, withal there was a sombre wrath in it:

“There is more behind this than a mere university ideal. Somebody has put pressure on President Wilcox.”

“Do you think so?” father asked, and his face showed that he was interested rather than frightened.

“I wish I could convey to you the conception that is dimly forming in my own mind,” Ernest said. “Never in the history of the world was society in so terrific flux as it is right now. The swift changes in our industrial system are causing equally swift changes in our religious, political, and social structures. An unseen and fearful revolution is taking place in the fibre and structure of society. One can only dimly feel these things. But they are in the air, now, to-day. One can feel the loom of them — things vast, vague, and terrible. My mind recoils from contemplation of what they may crystallize into. You heard Wickson talk the other night. Behind what he said were the same nameless, formless things that I feel. He spoke out of a superconscious apprehension of them.”

“You mean… ?” father began, then paused.

“I mean that there is a shadow of something colossal and menacing that even now is beginning to fall across the land. Call it the shadow of an oligarchy, if you will; it is the nearest I dare approximate it. What its nature may be I refuse to imagine.* But what I wanted to say was this: You are in a perilous position — a peril that my own fear enhances because I am not able even to measure it. Take my advice and accept the vacation.”

* Though, like Everhard, they did not dream of the nature of it, there were men, even before his time, who caught glimpses of the shadow. John C. Calhoun said: “A power has risen up in the government greater than the people themselves, consisting of many and various and powerful interests, combined into one mass, and held together by the cohesive power of the vast surplus in the banks.” And that great humanist, Abraham Lincoln, said, just before his assassination: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country…. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money-power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

“But it would be cowardly,” was the protest.

“Not at all. You are an old man. You have done your work in the world, and a great work. Leave the present battle to youth and strength. We young fellows have our work yet to do. Avis will stand by my side in what is to come. She will be your representative in the battle-front.”

“But they can’t hurt me,” father objected. “Thank God I am independent. Oh, I assure you, I know the frightful persecution they can wage on a professor who is economically dependent on his university. But I am independent. I have not been a professor for the sake of my salary. I can get along very comfortably on my own income, and the salary is all they can take away from me.”

“But you do not realize,” Ernest answered. “If all that I fear be so, your private income, your principal itself, can be taken from you just as easily as your salary.”

Father was silent for a few minutes. He was thinking deeply, and I could see the lines of decision forming in his face. At last he spoke.
“I shall not take the vacation.” He paused again. “I shall go on with my book.* You may be wrong, but whether you are wrong or right, I shall stand by my guns.”

* This book, Economics and Education, was published in that year. Three copies of it are extant; two at Ardis, and one at Asgard. It dealt, in elaborate detail, with one factor in the persistence of the established, namely, the capitalistic bias of the universities and common schools. It was a logical and crushing indictment of the whole system of education that developed in the minds of the students only such ideas as were favorable to the capitalistic regime, to the exclusion of all ideas that were inimical and subversive. The book created a furor, and was promptly suppressed by the Oligarchy.

“All right,” Ernest said. “You are travelling the same path that Bishop Morehouse is, and toward a similar smash-up. You’ll both be proletarians before you’re done with it.”

The conversation turned upon the Bishop, and we got Ernest to explain what he had been doing with him.

“He is soul-sick from the journey through hell I have given him. I took him through the homes of a few of our factory workers. I showed him the human wrecks cast aside by the industrial machine, and he listened to their life stories. I took him through the slums of San Francisco, and in drunkenness, prostitution, and criminality he learned a deeper cause than innate depravity. He is very sick, and, worse than that, he has got out of hand. He is too ethical. He has been too severely touched. And, as usual, he is unpractical. He is up in the air with all kinds of ethical delusions and plans for mission work among the cultured. He feels it is his bounden duty to resurrect the ancient spirit of the Church and to deliver its message to the masters. He is overwrought. Sooner or later he is going to break out, and then there’s going to be a smash-up. What form it will take I can’t even guess. He is a pure, exalted soul, but he is so unpractical. He’s beyond me. I can’t keep his feet on the earth. And through the air he is rushing on to his Gethsemane. And after this his crucifixion. Such high souls are made for crucifixion.”

“And you?” I asked; and beneath my smile was the seriousness of the anxiety of love.

“Not I,” he laughed back. “I may be executed, or assassinated, but I shall never be crucified. I am planted too solidly and stolidly upon the earth.”

“But why should you bring about the crucifixion of the Bishop?” I asked. “You will not deny that you are the cause of it.”

“Why should I leave one comfortable soul in comfort when there are millions in travail and misery?” he demanded back.

“Then why did you advise father to accept the vacation?”

“Because I am not a pure, exalted soul,” was the answer. “Because I am solid and stolid and selfish. Because I love you and, like Ruth of old, thy people are my people. As for the Bishop, he has no daughter. Besides, no matter how small the good, nevertheless his little inadequate wail will be productive of some good in the revolution, and every little bit counts.”

I could not agree with Ernest. I knew well the noble nature of Bishop Morehouse, and I could not conceive that his voice raised for righteousness would be no more than a little inadequate wail. But I did not yet have the harsh facts of life at my fingers’ ends as Ernest had. He saw clearly the futility of the Bishop’s great soul, as coming events were soon to show as clearly to me.

It was shortly after this day that Ernest told me, as a good story, the offer he had received from the government, namely, an appointment as United States Commissioner of Labor. I was overjoyed. The salary was comparatively large, and would make safe our marriage. And then it surely was congenial work for Ernest, and, furthermore, my jealous pride in him made me hail the proffered appointment as a recognition of his abilities.

Then I noticed the twinkle in his eyes. He was laughing at me.

“You are not going to… to decline?” I quavered.

“It is a bribe,” he said. “Behind it is the fine hand of Wickson, and behind him the hands of greater men than he. It is an old trick, old as the class struggle is old — stealing the captains from the army of labor. Poor betrayed labor! If you but knew how many of its leaders have been bought out in similar ways in the past. It is cheaper, so much cheaper, to buy a general than to fight him and his whole army. There was — but I’ll not call any names. I’m bitter enough over it as it is. Dear heart, I am a captain of labor. I could not sell out. If for no other reason, the memory of my poor old father and the way he was worked to death would prevent.”

The tears were in his eyes, this great, strong hero of mine. He never could forgive the way his father had been malformed — the sordid lies and the petty thefts he had been compelled to, in order to put food in his children’s mouths.

“My father was a good man,” Ernest once said to me. “The soul of him was good, and yet it was twisted, and maimed, and blunted by the savagery of his life. He was made into a broken-down beast by his masters, the arch-beasts. He should be alive to-day, like your father. He had a strong constitution. But he was caught in the machine and worked to death — for profit. Think of it. For profit — his life blood transmuted into a wine-supper, or a jewelled gewgaw, or some similar sense-orgy of the parasitic and idle rich, his masters, the arch-beasts.”



SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire.”

RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.


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