‘The Scarlet Plague’: Trump Prophesy, Jack London-style

The classic author’s 1912 apocalyptic novella, in which the American empire run by a billionaire collapses in a plague, is more relevant than ever.

Jack London
From “The Book of Jack London,” by Charmian London

“The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London. Translated into Hebrew by Nitza Peled. Nahar Publishing, 109 pages, 59 shekels.

Everyone is busy with Donald Trump. Even Jack London, who died a century ago, has something to say about Trump. His newest novella translated into Hebrew, “The Scarlet Plague,” deals with the collapse of America led by a billionaire who was appointed by the “Board of Magnates,” a council of elite capitalists. This is America of the early 21st century until a plague breaks out, dooming the American empire, decimating its military, economic and cultural power and eventually its population.

American president Donald Trump speaks at a rally Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey / AP

London basically begins where we find ourselves now, and one has to admit that he was spot-on in almost every detail. The plague breaks out in 2013 after the electoral victory of a tycoon, and the world population is eight billion. “We talked through the air in those days,” the protagonist recalls, presaging in 1912 the cellular and Internet era. He also foresaw the aeronautic era, describing how rich people tried in vain to flee the plague in their private “dirigibles.”

One of the things making this prophecy so accurate is the atavistic nature of the narrative and of London himself. Before he was a dystopian writer (publishing “The Iron Heel” in 1908), London actually sounded the ancient voice of nature, the wilderness and the sea, where he made his living for many years. Even in the final years of his short life he tried to establish an ideal, modern farm in California, and this connection between old and new is what enables such a successful forecast.

Most writers of science fiction and futurism tend to expect too much of progress. They consequently discount from the equation antiprogressive forces that have postponed more than once the appearance of technologies several decades after the means and scientific solutions that make them possible exist. And literature is always prophetic to a certain degree, because it is written in one time period about another.

Literature is always a glimpse from the end to the beginning. It always relies on some unfathomable land after an occurrence. Literature is this rafter, empty of all people, a raft of one mind; a song of the witness, of the survivor.

So is this book. Most of it takes place in the apocalypse of 2013, but its story is told 60 years later, in 2073, as a testimony by John Howard Smith, an English literature professor and last survivor of a glorious culture. He tells his wild grandsons the history of the country and mankind. His listeners, the grandsons, interrupt his story repeatedly and the “reader” with banal activities of the post-apocalyptic reality: searching for food, playing, hunting and hiding from predators in the wild woods.

That is how the narrative works. He tells, and they are astonished. They don’t believe him and they tease him. He cries, and they don’t stop laughing like monkeys. This is the raft or the message in a bottle, which he tries to pass on in the sea of barbarity.

But the book is not totally brilliant. It is an enormous curiosity because of London’s special status as a very handsome cultural hero, icon, genius, adventurer and philosopher. It is an attraction because of his predictions, which often came true. But it is at times very weak aesthetically, like the call of a man trying to broadcast final radio whisperings from a sinking barge.

Jack London

Indeed, London’s own raft was already beginning to sink in 1912. His dream house would burn down into ashes a year later, and he sunk into debt. Moreover, violent changes in the artistic field would render extinct the figure of the artist as a noble savage, and a new breed of anti-romantic, sober and educated writers would burst out of Europe’s fields of slaughter. The action author would be made redundant, and his adventures would belong to the past.

London’s indefatigable health would also start to founder after years of neglect and alcoholism, despite his determination to keep running on the land of the new continent and write tirelessly. He died in 1916 at the age of 40 due to a kidney disease and with much suffering. The circumstances of his death remain controversial.

Is this a personal prophecy before us? Is it the author’s message about his own knocking, approaching demise, or perhaps next-to-final words of warning and vigilance, and a prophecy about his human descendants in the not-so-distant future? There is probably no real differentiation when we speak about the great author, about the man who climbed the stairs of deity or a symbol like London, whose demise is always the demise of a certain image of man and an era.

At first this seems to be a work characterized by urgency with which, for better or worse, and despite its great value, it is didactic and very arbitrary in the repeating structure of the lecturing grandfather and his inarticulate grandsons who bother him. However, this is not all he has to say, for starting around page 50, when the old man’s uninterrupted monologue lasting several dozen pages begins, the novel takes off.

Suddenly, an exemplary action novella unfolds, very similar to the flood of recently released zombie movies, in which major cities collapse into smoldering fires and people flee for their lives from infection, while many of the sick ones mass around their refuge.

The original English version of Jack London's ‘The Scarlet Plague.'
Macmillan

The signs of this horror genre are present in these pages, and it is amazing to see how London corresponds with the genre, which has seemed in recent years to be the creative stream with the greatest allegorical potential. For example, are not Brexit, local Bibism and the rise of Trump not a kind of massive attack of zombies on the free city and its institutions?

It is as if London is telling us to look where we are headed, and understand that the Trump era is unavoidable because moral destruction is unavoidable. Just like Mike Tyson in his day, who did not represent only his rage but also the rage of black, oppressed and trampled history, Trump, the man who thwarted all predictions and defeated all who entered the ring with him, is a very scarlet medium of that white plague, the monster of white reactionism, which broke out and will now trample all that oppose its galloping.

Get off the road and watch. This is perhaps London’s legendary prophecy, which is being played out before us from the distance of a century.