Sunday, October 15, 2023


Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels & Stories

Japanese soldiers near the location of the Battle of the Yalu in 1904. Photograph by Jack London. (California State Parks Collection)
“I entered upon this campaign with the most gorgeous conceptions of what a war correspondent's work in the world must be,” a frustrated Jack London concluded his final dispatch from the Manchurian city of Antung on June 2, 1904. “I remembered Stephen Crane's descriptions of being under fire in Cuba. I had heard—God wot, was there aught I had not heard?—of all sorts and conditions of correspondents in all sorts of battles and skirmishes, right in the thick of it, where life was keen and immortal moments were being lived. In brief, I came to war expecting to get thrills. My only thrills have been those of indignation and irritation.”

The newly famous author of The Call of the Wild had been commissioned by William Randolph Hearst to cover the Russo-Japanese War for his flagship newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner. London left for Japan on January 7, but fell sick with influenza four days later on his 28th birthday and recovered only to sprain his ankle severely while horsing around on deck. “I hope war isn’t declared for at least a month after I arrive in Japan,” he wrote his future wife, Charmian Kittredge, as it “will give my ankle a chance to strengthen.”

Instead, before that month was up, London had ensnared himself in trouble. Western journalists expected Japanese authorities to arrange for passage to the front in Korea, but their hosts were having none of it. The reporters booked themselves into comfortable Tokyo hotels and waited for permissions that never came. Frustrated, London took a train to the western shore, where he planned to catch a steamer across the Sea of Japan to Korea. While awaiting transport in the town of Moji, near a heavily fortified naval base, he began taking photographs of the local attractions and residents—and was quickly arrested for spying. London had a telegram sent to Richard Harding Davis, a veteran war correspondent who was in Tokyo with the rest of the reporters. A decade earlier Davis had had his hands full dealing with Stephen Crane’s recklessness during the Spanish-American War, and once again he found himself coming to the rescue of the world’s newest literary celebrity. He requested the help of the American minister, who intervened, and London was released.

Undeterred, London nevertheless made his way to the Korean peninsula. He met up with Collier’s magazine photographer Robert L. Dunn, and they traveled by horseback 180 miles from Seoul to Pyongyang, where the commanding general prohibited the two journalists from going any further. While ensconced in a hotel, London got his first scoop: a Japanese lieutenant told him that, outside the walls of Pyongyang a week earlier, twenty Cossack scouts had encountered five Japanese soldiers, who were soon backed up by reinforcements. Shots were fired and, although nobody was injured, the fight proved to be the first ground skirmish of the war and London reported it as such in the Examiner. Dunn returned to Seoul, but London bluffed his way out of town and made it as far as Sunan, 25 miles to the north. Once again, he was detained by Japanese troops; he spent a week in custody while, as he wrote Charmian, “the wires are working hot between here and Ping Yang and Seoul.” He was eventually returned to Seoul and released.

By the end of April, London had filed nearly twenty stories: portraits of Japanese soldiers, accounts of military preparations in Korea, sympathetic depictions of refugees and peasants, descriptions of Japanese and Korean culture and customs, and comic reports of his encounters with the authorities and of the travails of other journalists. Yet, after three months in Japan and Korea, he had yet to achieve his goal of experiencing war in person. Finally, Japanese military leaders permitted a small contingent of reporters to witness what would be the Battle of Yalu River. Despite his frequent defiance of Japanese strictures (or perhaps because of it), London was allowed to be one of the reporters.

It proved to be a complete charade. The reporters were allowed to view the battleground from a high point overlooking the valley—but more than two miles away. Under the headline “Japanese in Invisible War,” London reported:
This was the battle—a river bed, a continuous and irregular sound of rifle firing over a front of miles, a few black moving specks. That was all. No Russians were to be seen. With all the hubbub of shooting no smoke arose. No shot was seen to be fired. The black specks disappeared in the willows. The hubbub of firing continued. Smoke filtered through the air, but the enemies who hurled death at each other were not visible.

It might be a war of ghosts for all that eye or field-glass could discern. . . .
London had had enough and decided to return to San Francisco. “I am . . . profoundly irritated by the futility of my position in this Army and sheer inability (caused by the position) to do decent work,” he wrote to Charmian. “What ever I have done I am ashamed of. The only compensation for these months of irritation is a better comprehension of Asiatic geography and Asiatic character. Only in another war, with a whiteman’s army, may I hope to redeem myself.” London was undervaluing his reporting; as Jeanne Campbell Reesman writes in Jack London’s Racial Lives, his two dozen dispatches and hundreds of photographs show “his keen eye for detail and moreover his ability to place the immediate human scene within historical and cultural frameworks.” Reesman adds, however, that “the false note is sounded when he tries to analyze ‘the Japanese character’ or ‘the Asiatic.’” His subsequent reputation has ever since been stained by the racist comments that pepper his dispatches, letters, and subsequent writings, often written in anger at the supposed inability of Japanese leaders to understand “the mental processes of a correspondent, which are a white man’s mental processes.” Later that year, when he was attacked for his views and arrogance at a political meeting in San Francisco, he angrily shouted, “I am first of all a white man and only then a socialist!”

Before the month of May was over, he got in trouble with the Japanese military one last time. His Korean valet, Manyoungi, complained that a neighboring groom was stealing horsefeed. A confrontation ensued and London laid flat the accused thief with a punch. London was arrested and threatened with a court martial. Still stranded in Tokyo, Davis learned of the news, stepped in one more time, and cabled President Theodore Roosevelt. London was released, he booked passage on a ship home, and took with him both Belle, the horse he had purchased for his travels in Korea, and Manyoungi, who lived with the Londons as a servant for three years.

London stopped in Tokyo on his way to California and took the chance to thank Davis. “I liked him very much,” Davis wrote to his mother at the time. “He is very bitter against the wonderful little people and says he carries away with him only a feeling of irritation. But I told him that probably would soon wear off and he would remember only the pleasant things. I did envy him so, going home after having seen a fight and I not yet started.” In fact, Davis would wait until the end of August until he was allowed to travel to Manchuria. When he was informed that the Russians had retreated fifty miles north from Liaoyang to Mukden (Shenyang) and he wouldn’t be allowed to join in the pursuit, he returned to Tokyo—only to discover that he had been deliberately misinformed and had missed the Battle of Liaoyang.

In 1911, when Jack London sat down to write what would be his only short story about war,* he lacked the background of the “keen and immortal moments” and firsthand “thrills” he had hoped to endure in Korea. Featuring unnamed combatants during an unspecified conflict in an unidentified land, “War” is a masterpiece of brevity, but—like some of the best stories about war—it is a tale based ultimately on imagination rather than experience.

* London’s early story, “An Old Soldier’s Story” (1899), is often categorized as a war story, although it’s more of a comic Civil War anecdote, apparently told to him by his stepfather, featuring a provost marshal who hunts down and arrests for desertion young soldiers overstaying their furloughs to help with farm chores.

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He was a young man, not more than twenty-four or five, and he might have sat his horse with the careless grace of his youth had he not been so catlike and tense. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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