Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels and Stories
Jack London worked a number of odd jobs during his childhood years in West Oakland, California: delivering newspapers, sweeping salon floors, and setting up pins in a bowling alley. After he completed grammar school in 1890 at the age of fourteen, he found employment at the nearby Hickmott’s cannery, where he spent twelve to eighteen hours a day stuffing pickles into jars—at ten cents an hour. The work was strenuous, tedious, and robotic, and the long hours kept the teenager from his favorite pastime: reading in the local library. As Alex Kershaw notes in his biography of London, “There had been no attempt to outlaw child labor in California, nor was there health and safety regulation, nor any limits on hours worked.” Toward the end of the century, some states began passing laws prohibiting factory and quarry work for children under fourteen, but evasion was widespread and enforcement was spotty.
Seeking to escape the grueling monotony, London became an “oyster pirate,” one of a covert gang of nighttime thieves who stole from privately owned oyster beds and sold their booty in the Bay Area fish markets—receiving up to $25 for an evening’s catch. When his sloop became damaged and no longer seaworthy, he switched to “the other side” and was hired by the California Fish Patrol. At the age of seventeen, he signed on as a seaman for a seven-month voyage. But by the end of 1893, London was back working ten hours a day, at ten cents an hour, in a jute textile mill. In four arduous years as a teenager, his life had come full circle: “Despite my increase in strength and general efficiency, I was receiving no more than when I worked in the cannery several years before.”
At the age of eighteen, he abandoned the ranks of the working poor, adopted the mien of a hobo, and joined Kelly’s Army, the western branch of Coxey’s Army—a national movement of so-called “tramps” who marched to Washington in protest. (See our introduction to Stephen Crane’s “An Experiment in Misery,” a previous Story of the Week, for more on Coxey’s Army.) London made it only as far as Hannibal, Missouri; he was eventually arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to thirty days in a New York penitentiary.
Twelve years later, in 1906, his life had turned around spectacularly and he used his nightmarish adolescent adventures as the basis for “The Apostate,” which originally carried the subtitle “A Child Labor Parable.” He had become one of the highest paid writers in the world; Woman’s Home Companion paid him $767.30 for this 7,673-word story. As The World of Jack London website points out, the boy who once toiled for ten cents an hour was now a young man earning ten cents a word.
“If you don't git up, Johnny, I won't give you a bite to eat!”
The threat had no effect on the boy. He clung stubbornly to sleep, fighting for its oblivion as the dreamer fights for his dream. The boy’s hands loosely clenched themselves, and he made feeble, spasmodic blows at the air. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!