Monday, June 15, 2015

The Iron Heel and 1984-Part One

This is a story of two families, two writers, and two books.

John Griffith Chaney was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. The man who is believed to have been his father, William Chaney, was an attorney and a journalist. Chaney was also an astrologer. For some time in the 1870s William Chaney lived with a woman named Flora Wellman. Whether the two were married or not is a question that may never be answered. Like the supposed father of her child, Flora Wellman had skills both practical and whack-tical. In addition to teaching music, she conducted seances during which she is supposed to have channeled the spirit of Black Hawk.

Chaney the astrologer and Wellman the spiritualist were a pair, but not for long. She became pregnant and announced publicly that Chaney had demanded that she have an abortion. He disclaimed parentage. She shot herself. Temporarily deranged at around the time of her son's birth, she gave him into the care of a former slave named Virginia Prentiss. Late in 1876, Flora Wellman married John London, a disabled Civil War veteran. Having earlier gained a new surname, Flora Wellman's son, the adolescent John London, began calling himself Jack. Jack London went on to become an extraordinarily prolific, active, and successful author of short stories, novels, and non-fiction. Like a fast-burning candle, he soon exhausted himself and died on November 22, 1916, at his ranch near Glen Ellen, California. He was just forty years old.

Like an apple, Jack London didn't fall far from his parents' tree. Son of an astrologer who repudiated him and a once deranged spiritualist who was unable to give him everything that a fatherless boy might need, Jack London became an atheist and a socialist. In other words, he subscribed, like them, to beliefs with little purchase on reality. That's a simplistic assessment to be sure. I prefer what Clarice Stasz wrote in her online biography: "[The] contradictory themes in his life and writing make him a difficult figure to reduce to simple terms." I am reminded of our current president, who was also repudiated by his father and more or less rejected by his mother, both of whom also subscribed to whacky beliefs. Like London, he was a drug-user and is more or less leftist in orientation. Moreover, his beliefs have seemingly arrived on the fringes of reality. My belief is that he will never be able to forgive the world for what his parents did to him and that he will forever wish to punish us all for their inadequacies. One difference between these two orphans is that Jack London was a man of action and accomplishment. (1)

Jack London moved in socialist circles, an apt image for a belief system that--like the worm Ouroboros--has aspects of inversion, solipsism, and infantilism. American socialists of his time included Victor L. Berger (1860-1929), Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), William James Ghent (1866-1942), George D. Herron (1862-1925), Morris Hillquit (1869-1933), and London's fellow author Edward Bellamy (1850-1898). As a Hoosier, I find it interesting that Debs, Ghent, and Herron were all from Indiana. Ghent was also a member of a Bellamy Club, also called Nationalist Clubs for their desire to nationalize industry. The Bellamy Clubs were named for the author of Looking Backward: 2000-1887, published in early 1888. On December 1, 1888, the Boston Nationalist Club met for the first time. According to a source on Wikipedia,
Boston club members were overwhelmingly of the middle class and included no small number of Theosophists. . . . Indeed, fully half of the members of the first Nationalist Club were members of the Theosophical Society, including key leaders [Cyrus Field] Willard and [Sylvester] Baxter. (2)
I have included the reference to the middle class to point out that revolutionaries are often, if not exclusively, drawn from the middle class. And I have included the reference to Theosophy because of its place, along with socialism and countless other related beliefs, in the ever-expanding web of crackpot ideas spun from the nineteenth century. I am reminded once again of the quote from "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" by G.K. Chesterton (1924):
You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief--of belief in almost anything.
Put another way, once people stop believing in God, they are likely to believe in anything, no matter how preposterous. Or, as John Cougar Mellencamp sang, you've got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything.

Those early American Socialists and Bellamyites tended to come from religious backgrounds. Their number included George D. Herron, a Congregationalist minister and a teacher at Ripon College in Wisconsin and Grinnell College in Iowa, two schools with ties to Congregationalism and/or Presbyterianism. Herron was married three times. His first wife was Mary Vennette Everhard (1861-1935), daughter of Dr. Aaron Everhard (1824-1892) and granddaughter of John Jacob Everhard (1792-1867), a founder of Emmanuel Church in Wayne County, Ohio, and described as "rigid and uncompromising in his religious belief." (3) Mary Vennette Everhard's mother was Ann Vennette Marsh Everhard (1834-1922). The name Vennette cropped up in at least three generations of Everhard women. The youngest to bear that name was Ann's granddaughter, Margaret Vennette Herron (1885-1973), daughter of George D. Herron and Mary Vennette Everhard. Margaret, better known by her pen name Vennette Herron, wrote a couple of collections of stories. She also contributed to Weird Tales magazine.

In 1908 Macmillan published The Iron Heel, Jack London's supposedly dystopian novel involving early twentieth-century American socialists and the opposing Oligarchy or Plutocracy of wealthy capitalists, The Iron Heel of the title. I say "supposedly" because the book is actually a combination dystopia/utopia, with two narratives running simultaneously. The main narrative, told in the first person by the wife of a revolutionary, is dystopian and describes The Iron Heel in its formative years, 1912-1932. The sub-narrative, if you want to call it that, is indirect and takes the form of footnotes to the main narrative, which has been discovered many centuries later, after the establishment of a socialist utopia. The Iron Heel is an overtly political novel, a combination of fiction, journalistic exposé, and Jeremiad. It's also something of a hagiography of the narrator's husband, a Christ-like figure who knows all and foresees all. The socialist William James Ghent is mentioned in the book (Bantam, 1971, p. 146), as are many other real people, places, and events. They include the author's own Wake Robin Lodge near Glen Ellen, California, and probably also the author himself, who romantically prophesied his own death:
Once a writer friend of mine had owned the ranch [a hiding place for revolutionaries]; but he, too, had become a revolutionist, though more disastrously than I, for he was already dead and gone, and none knew where or how. (p. 179)
The narrator by the way is named Avis Cunningham Everhard. Her husband, the subject of The Iron Heel, is Ernest Everhard. The temptation is to interpret that name as having some psychosexual meaning. (4) I have a better explanation. Avis' father, like Vennette Herron's father, is a college professor. Ernest Everhard also has something in common with Vennette Herron, for her mother and he share the surname Everhard. I don't think that's any coincidence at all.

To be continued . . .

(1) My reason for bringing up the president isn't just as a critique. I'll have more to say later in this series.
(2) The source is Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement by Arthur Lipow (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982), p. 226. Cyrus Field Willard (1858-1942) was an American socialist, Bellamyite, Theosophist, and--incongruously--inventor. Sylvester Baxter (1850-1927) was also an American, an urban planner, Bellamyite, Theosophist, and newspaperman.
(3) From History of the Eberharts in Germany and the United States from A. D 1265 to A. D. 1890--625 Years by Uriah Eberhart (Donohue and Henneberry, 1891), p. 70.
(4) Rather than being sexual in its overtones, the name Everhard could just be symbolic of Ernest Everhard's great strength: what better man to resist the relentless Iron Heel than a man who is ever-hard. Likewise, the given name Ernest is obviously an evocation of the adjective earnest, from my dictionary, "serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous."

The Iron Heel in the Bantam paperback edition of 1971, with an introduction by the socialist, anarchist, and propagandist Howard Zinn (1922-2010).

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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