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South of the Slot–Jack London

When we think of Jack London, the mind goes most quickly to Alaska. Apparently, the author spent only a brief time in the Alaska Territory, but while there he provided himself with sufficient material to animate several of his best known works. ”South of the Slot,” however, takes us not to the great wilds of the north but to the city of San Francisco. In the tale, Freddie Drummond, a sociology professor at Berkeley, begins to explore the life of the laboring classes about whom he has written without a great deal of insight. As he ventures from the refined and respectable climes north of the slot–or north of Market Street and its slot containing the cable car line–he first impersonates a working person in order to gain understanding. Over time, though, Drummond establishes an alter ego, Big Bill Totts, who becomes more and more ensconced in the working life and labor organizing of the less reputable but immensely more interesting land south of the slot.

Eventually, Freddie/Bill realizes that he cannot maintain this dual life and hope to achieve the happy and respectable marriage to the eminently desirable Catherine Van Vorst. Throughout the story, Catherine is typically referred to by both given and family names, suggesting that Freddie intended to marry not just the individual but the family.

The story’s climax comes as Freddie and Catherine, quite coincidentally it seems, run into a strike action in the middle of Market Street. In other words, Freddie’s moment of decision takes place precisely on the boundary between his two worlds. When recognized as Big Bill Totts, Freddie quickly morphs into Big Bill and joins with the labor unrest, forever severing himself from the incredulous Catherine Van Vorst. In the end, Freddie/Bill had been correct. He could not maintain this dual existence. What he did not realize was which side of his personality would eventually win out and which would be discarded.

As a Naturalist, Jack London believed in an ambivalent Nature, a lack of free will, a deterministic existence, and the presence of a repressed “savage within.” With all of this stacked up by the author, can we be surprised that Big Bill wins out of Freddie. What London does not address or explain is how, in the face of an apparently entropy-driven cosmos, the area north of the slot has come into being at all. What keeps Catherine Van Vorst and the rest of the Van Vorsts north of Market? What, in fact, has permitted something as decided unsavage as the Van Vorst family from remaining.

It is typically those who live north of the slot that can romanticize life south of the slot. In order to do so, one must view morality as arbitrary, progress as decadence, and culture as meaningless. The irony of London’s story is that it was written for a decidedly bourgeois audience in the Saturday Evening Post, people who might read this story from the safety of their north-of-Market flats and then set their minds to climbing further in their middling social world. They might enjoy the idea of dabbling in the lower realms, but they do not proceed there themselves. Similarly, London, while living among working people his entire life, did not resign himself to simply living their life.

 

Posted in American Literature.

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