Jack London’s Apocalypse: The Scarlet Plague

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Civilization ended this past summer.

The old man manifested an accustomed chagrin as he brought the coin back again close to his own eyes.

“2012,” he shrilled, and then fell to cackling grotesquely. “That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times….”

In Jack London’s post-apocalyptic novella, The Scarlet Plague (1912), humankind is almost completely wiped out by a virulent, ebola-like disease in the summer of 2013. James Howard Smith, an English literature professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is the last man alive who still remembers that summer. The story is told in flashback, to Smith’s grandsons.

It’s always interesting to compare how writers imagine their future to how our present actually turned out. Of course, London is way off on the technology — airships and dirigibles filled the air in the pre-plague days, going a whopping 200 miles/hour (the cruising speed of a Boeing 747 is more like 570 miles/hr). Aerospace engineers were busy trying to break the 300 mph barrier.

He did make a pretty good projection of the world population — 8 billion people by his fictional 2010 census, compared to 7.1 billion in real-life 2013. His demographics were far more concentrated — 4 million people in the city of San Francisco (about 825,000 in reality; 8.4 million in the greater Bay Area); 17 million in New York City (8.3 million in reality), 7 million in San Leandro (San Leandro? In reality it’s a modest sized city of about 87,000). But in London’s world (unlike ours), the population fell off drastically once you got east of the Oakland Hills — his Livermore is isolated farmland. I guess London didn’t anticipate modern suburban sprawl.

And it’s this growing, ever-more-dense population that brings about civilization’s downfall. The World Wars didn’t happen in London’s world, but a lot of pandemics did.

In spite of all these diseases, and of all the new ones that continued to arise, there were more and more men in the world. This was because it was easy to get food. The easier it was to get food, the more men there were; the more men there were, the more thickly were they packed together on the earth; and the more thickly they were packed, the more new kinds of germs became diseases.

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The final pandemic was the Scarlet Plague — once you got the red rash, it was too late. Victims died within hours, conscious the entire time, and when they died, their bodies decomposed rapidly — spreading the disease with the dust… .

London’s projections of our social situation were interesting, too. Did you notice that President Morgan the Fifth was appointed President by the Board of Magnates?

“As I have told you, in those days food-getting was easy. We were very wise. A few men got the food for many men. The other men did other things…”

“Our food-getters were called freemen. This was a joke. We of the ruling classes owned all the land, all the machines, everything. These food-getters were our slaves. We took almost all the food they got, and left them a little so that they might eat, and work, and get us more food—”

And then there’s this:

John Van Warden, her husband, worth one billion, eight hundred millions and President of the Board of Industrial Magnates, had been the ruler of America. Also, sitting on the International Board of Control, he had been one of the seven men who ruled the world. And she herself had come of equally noble stock. Her father, Philip Saxon, had been President of the Board of Industrial Magnates up to the time of his death. This office was in process of becoming hereditary, and had Philip Saxon had a son that son would have succeeded him.

The 1%, anyone?

Of course any novel of a dystopian future is really a reflection of the writer’s own times, and London was a socialist, so this is all by way of being a cautionary statement against unfettered capital. Which makes some of the incredibly classist things that he writes all the more shocking — by and large, the working class folk in his tale are drunkards, murderers, wife-beaters. Though to be fair, some of his upper-class people aren’t gems either — when a group of Berkeley professors and their families attempt to escape to the country, one of Smith’s colleagues steals their one vehicle and most of the canned provisions. I suppose part of the reason the working class people are portrayed the way they are is because of Smith’s class prejudices — the unreliable narrator.

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Or, perhaps, it’s like the words that Kurosawa gave to Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) in Seven Samurai:

What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all! But then who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?

The world is what you make it.

Civilization collapses, humanity is a millionth what it was (at best) but the world survives, and doesn’t seem to miss people too much. Bears and mountain lions, once nearly extinct, now roam along Ocean Beach and below the ruins of the Cliff House. Dogs revert to wolves, horses and cows run wild, cats don’t even notice that anything has changed. The humans that are left seem to be reverting, too. The English language, we are told, has completely degenerated — “more guttural and explosive and economical of qualifying phrases…. an English that had gone through a bath of corrupt usage.” Luckily, London doesn’t try to write that way, though we do get his grandsons constantly complaining of their Granser’s “fancy lingo.” The boys are brutal and cruel; London evidently doesn’t believe in the Noble Savage, unpoisoned by civilization. In his view, violence and brutality are inevitable.

The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved.

In the end, is it worth reading? It was fun for me, since I live and have lived in the places that London writes about; I went to UC Berkeley, too. But it’s not his best work. The Call of the Wild is a better story about the thin line between civilization and the wildness (albeit, from a dog’s point of view). The short story “South of the Slot” is a better story of the labor-capital relationships of the time. The Sea Wolf is a better story about an educated, civilized (perhaps over-civilized) man trying to cope with a brutal and non-intellectual environment.

Still, as I said, it is interesting to compare what he dreamed up with the way thing are — and to wonder how close his projections might come to true.

The Scarlet Plague is available on Project Gutenberg. The illustrations in this post are by Gordon Grant, from Project Gutenberg’s scan of the 1915 edition.

9 thoughts on “Jack London’s Apocalypse: The Scarlet Plague

  1. Another great post! Thanks! It brought to mind Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” as well as the “robber barons” of London’s time, people like Frick. It is quite an experience to go to the Frick Collection in New York City the art museum that his gigantic mansion has now become, and look at the great works of beauty purchased and eventually displayed by a man who treated working men as “Untermenschen,” and destroyed many lives in the name of profit.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Dr. S! I’m sure that Frick and Carnegie and Mellon among others were on London’s mind when he wrote this. I’ve never been to see the Frick Collection, but I did live in Pittsburgh for many years, and I’ve been to the old Frick residence there — the one they left because they didn’t like living in the city that they helped turn into a sooty polluted site (well, yes, and a cultural backwater at the time, too). Beautiful house (wired for electricity by Westinghouse himself!) I’ve heard the stories of Frick’s union busting, etc. He was definitely not a nice man.

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