Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, October 23, 2014

End of the World News, Part I

Regular visitors to this site know that I've done a lot of research and publishing about both Jack London (1876-1916) and Mary Shelley (1797-1851). And in these days of our Ebola-frenzy, I think about two novels written by these two writers--Jack London's The Scarlet Plague and Mary Shelley's The Last Man. Neither novel is nearly so well known as these two writers' other works (The Call of the Wild, Frankenstein), but it interests me that both of them wrote tales about a disease that threatens to wipe out all of humanity.

In the next couple of posts, I'm going to tell you a bit about these two books, beginning with The Scarlet Plague, 1912. (Here's a link to the electronic text of his short novel.)

It first appeared in June 1912, published in full in (coincidentally!) London Magazine. At that time, London and his wife, Charmian, were aboard the Dirigo on a sail around Cape Horn from Baltimore to Seattle. From Charmian's diary--and from letters and other writing--we know more than a bit about that voyage--about her hives, his writing (he's at work on his novel The Valley of the Moon and a variety of short stories), their activity (they liked to box--spar!), the weather (gales), the ship's difficulties rounding the Horn, the captain's serious illness (not good news), their arrival in Seattle, where they learn the captain has stomach cancer and has only days remaining in his life.

The Scarlet Plague appeared in book form (Macmillan) in May 1915. I see in my notes that I read the novel in November 1986, a year I was on sabbatical leave from Harmon Middle School. Among my sabbatical projects? Read all of Jack London--which I did (all fifty of his books). Here--word for word--is the summary I wrote when I finished the book:

Futuristic, short novel in which a great plague, in 2013 [!!!], destroys nearly all of humankind. Sixty years later the story begins as three savage boys (Edwin, Hoo Hoo, and Hare-Lip) accompany an old man they now call "Granser," who had been Professor James Howard Smith, professor of English Literature at Berkeley.

The boys, who frequently taunt Granser and show him little respect and who speak like savages and have no learning at all ("What's education?" one asks; "What's money?" from another), convince Granser to tell them the story of the Plague--which he does, consuming most of the rest of the book.

The Scarlet Plague, caused by microorganisms, killed quickly (from 15 minutes to 2 hours), symptoms being the scarlet color and progressive numbness from toes to heart. Millions died all over the world, and the world quickly became brutal and wild as groups called Prowlers (from the slums) shot, plundered, and burned.

Granser was immune and wandered for years alone before he encountered a brute, Bill the Chauffeur, who was keeping and terrorizing Vesta Van Warden, the billionaire's wife Bill had once worked for. Granser can't defeat him, so he leaves and discovers other survivors near ... Glen Ellen [where London lived his last years]. He joins them, sires children, etc. Keeps books in a dry cave in case they're needed. Edwin, perhaps the most gentle, may one day want them.

Here is one of the final paragraphs of the novel; Granser is speaking to the boys:

“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. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types—the priest, the soldier, and the king. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. Some will fight, some will rule, some will pray; and all the rest will toil and suffer sore while on their bleeding carcasses is reared again, and yet again, without end, the amazing beauty and surpassing wonder of the civilized state. It were just as well that I destroyed those cave-stored books—whether they remain or perish, all their old truths will be discovered, their old lies lived and handed down. What is the profit—” 

Rather dark, eh?

The Scarlet Plague is not one of London's better novels--and, in general, his novels are not as good as his stories--but it is an eerie commentary on our worries now--and published almost exactly 100 years ago.

Next time: Mary Shelley's The Last Man

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