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Jack London

The Iron Heel

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The Iron Heel, written 1907 and published 1908, is one of the great dystopian novels of the 20th century, on a par with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The Iron Heel stands out among them in several ways: it is the earliest, it is the least known, it is the most violent, and it is the most explicitly political, its story (except for the frame narrative) being set in the immediate future and directly based upon the political and economic issues of the present — the present being the time in which the book was written and published, but, more than we may care to think, particularly when taking a global view, those of our own present, too. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, which borrowed its literary device of the “found manuscript from the dark ages,” The Iron Heel also has a utopian element — envisioning a society of the distant future that will be appalled by the violence and injustice of the main story’s, and our own, world.

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About the Author

Jack London was born in San Francisco in 1876; the family later moved to Oakland, where London completed grade school. By 1889 he worked 12 to 18 hours a day in a cannery, until he was able to buy a boat to live as an “oyster pirate,” a poacher of oysters. When his boat was wrecked he hired on as a sailor on a ship bound to Japan, returned to join Coxey’s Army in 1894, a protest march by unemployed workers, lived as a tramp, spent 30 days in jail, and finally returned to Oakland to attend high school, where he began writing articles for the high school’s magazine. He was determined to attend university and pursue a career as a writer, and in 1896 was admitted to the University of California, Berkeley; the next year, though, his financial circumstances forced him to quit. In 1897 he joined the Klondike Gold Rush, suffered health problems, returned to California the following year, where he become a socialist activist and began to pursue a career as a writer — it was the time when new printing technologies lowered the costs of printing, and new magazines provided a booming market for short fiction. By 1900 London was able to earn good money as a writer.

After a failed marriage that lasted from 1900 to 1904, London enjoyed a happy marriage with writer Charmian London. He was a prolific and successful writer (his works are too well know to need to be listed here), undertook extended travels, but increasingly suffered from a number of ailments, including tropical diseases and a kidney condition from which he died in 1916, at the age of 40, in his sleep, at his home on his ranch.

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