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Jack London’s plague of 2013

A century ago, an American writer imagined the troubles to come.

Illustrations from 1915 Macmillan edition of "The Red Plague" by Jack London

Gordon Grant/Project Gutenberg

Illustrations from 1915 Macmillan edition of "The Red Plague" by Jack London

Here’s what will happen in 2013: The new disease will emerge over the summer, with reports first coming from New York City. A day later, word will come from other cities—Chicago, London—of similar cases. The symptoms: increased heart rate and fever, a fast-moving red rash, and a creeping numbness, beginning at the feet and gradually overtaking the heart. Once the symptoms appear, death comes in a matter of hours, even minutes.

In the cities, order will break down along class lines, the working class turning on the rich. The escape of the wealthy, by car and by air, will merely spread the disease faster. By the end of the year, civilization will have collapsed. The few survivors—one out of every million people, if that—will flee into rural areas, to eke out a primitive existence.

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That’s what Jack London predicted, anyway, in his novella “The Scarlet Plague,” written in 1910 and first published two years later. London, best known for his tales of wilderness adventure, here told a science-fiction story: Sixty years after the plague, James Howard Smith, once a Berkeley professor of literature, recounts the events of 2013 to a group of teenage tribal hunter-gatherers in a newly primitive California.

Gordon Grant/Project Gutenberg

Nothing puts society under a harsher interrogative light than a good apocalypse. “The Scarlet Plague” carries many of the customary features of later pandemic-themed dystopian tales: fear, then panic; the swift disintegration of civilization’s veneer; the ruthless darkness of human nature loosed from societal restraints. And like all such fantasies, the novella is really less about the futuristic, post-industrial wilds than about the world the author lived in.

This week, as we imagine what 2013 might hold, London’s choice of date invites comparison with the world we live in. His choice may have been arbitrary—an even century, maybe, from 1913, which London had diagnosed as a fulcrum of worldwide crisis. (He was off by a year.) It’s easy to see what London may have gotten wrong about 2013. Yet it’s revealing to observe what, by instinct or chance, he got right.

The most obvious subject of “The Scarlet Plague” is class: The quick, indiscriminate spread of the disease exposes the paper-thin line between the learned, leisured class and the proletariat that works to support its lifestyle. London himself was a committed socialist—his previous novel “The Iron Heel” imagined waves of revolt against a future robber-baron oligarchy, culminating, in the year 2237, with a Socialist Brotherhood of Man. For London, a 2013 near-identical to the late Gilded Age of 1913 was both a pointed convenience and, perhaps, an assertion of the cyclical persistence of inequality.

Gordon Grant/Project Gutenberg

But the divisions in “The Scarlet Plague” are equivocal. The working class, embodied in the tribal leader Bill the Chauffeur, is portrayed as excessively brutish and cruel. Then again, the portrayal is offered by Smith, a classic unreliable narrator, who, 60 years on, remains in the thrall of class prejudice. “[Chauffeur] was spared,” he laments, “while hundreds of millions, yea, billions, of better men were destroyed.” Yet Chauffeur ensures his tribe’s survival (“he did things, and he made things go,” says one of the teenagers), while Smith seeds a new civilization, having stashed a library of books in a cave on Telegraph Hill.

London’s real target in “The Scarlet Plague” might have been social Darwinism, the then common application of evolutionary theory (the “survival of the fittest”) to justify inequality and prejudice among humans. Those who the would-be social engineers would have ranked highest—the white, educated, and wealthy—prove, post-plague, ineffectual compared with their former servants. Smith wonders at finding himself among those he regards as savages: “All the world is topsy-turvy.” Bill the Chauffeur, from the opposite vantage, puts it plainly. “It’s rich, ain’t it?” he muses. “We’re all equals here, and I’m the biggest toad in the splash.”

Much of “The Scarlet Plague” is of its own time, like the dirigibles the affluent use to try to flee the pandemic. But if London got some of the specifics wrong, other features of his 2013 look more than a little familiar. Think of the main crises in London’s pre-World War I America: labor strife, an untenable gulf between the rich and the poor, a tide of immigrants triggering anxieties ranging from uneasiness to outright racism. London didn’t so much predict the future as pinpoint the problems that would remain intractable a hundred years on. And these weren’t just social difficulties: A familiar thread of technological skepticism runs through “The Scarlet Plague” as well, whether toward complacent overconfidence in scientific solutions (“We were sure that the bacteriologists would find a way to overcome this new germ”), or substitution of information for knowledge (“No more newspapers were being printed, so I had no knowledge of what was taking place outside”).

Near the end of the tale, Smith, envisioning the restart of civilization’s engine, mentions another feature that, inevitably, will be rediscovered: “The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over,” he proclaims. “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?” London looked at the world and saw, in 1913 and still now a century later, plagues beyond disease.

Matthew Guerrieri writes on music for The Boston Globe and NewMusicBox.
His book, “The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human
Imgination,” was published by Alfred A. Knopf in November.
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