The Iron Heel
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Cover of the first edition
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Generally considered to be "the earliest of the modern Dystopian", it chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States. It is arguably the novel in which Jack London's socialist views are most explicitly on display. A forerunner of soft science fiction novels and stories of the 1960s and '70s, the book stresses future changes in society and politics while paying much less attention to technological changes.
The book is unusual among London's writings (and in the literature of the time in general) in being a first-person narrative of a woman protagonist written by a man. Much of the narrative is set in the San Francisco Bay Area, including events in San Francisco and Sonoma County.
The novel is based on the (fictional) "Everhard Manuscript" written by Avis Everhard which she hid and which was subsequently found centuries later. In addition, this novel has an introduction and series of (often lengthy) footnotes written from the perspective of scholar Anthony Meredith. Meredith writes from around 2600 AD or 419 B.O.M. (the Brotherhood of Man). Jack London writes at two levels, often having Meredith condescendingly correcting the errors of Everhard yet, at the same time, exposing the often incomplete understanding of this distant future perspective.
Meredith's introduction also acts as a deliberate "spoiler" (the term did not yet exist at the time of writing). Before ever getting a chance to get to know Avis and Ernest, how they fell in love or how Avis became politically involved, the reader is already told that all their struggles and hopes would end in total failure and repression, and that both of them would be summarily executed. This gives all that follows the air of a foreordained tragedy. There is still left the consolation that a happy end would come for humanity as a whole – though hundreds of years too late for Avis and Ernest as individuals; the cruel oligarchy would fall, and the two will be vindicated and respected by posterity as pioneers and martyrs.
The Manuscript itself covers the years 1912 through 1932 in which the Oligarchy (or "Iron Heel") arose in the United States. In Asia, Japan conquered East Asia and created its own empire, India gained independence, and Europe became socialist. Canada, Mexico, and Cuba formed their own Oligarchies and were aligned with the U.S. (London remains silent as to the fates of South America, Africa, and the Middle East.)
In North America, the Oligarchy maintains power for three centuries until the Revolution succeeds and ushers in the Brotherhood of Man. During the years of the novel, the First Revolt is described and preparations for the Second Revolt are discussed. From the perspective of Everhard, the imminent Second Revolt is sure to succeed but, from the distant future perspective of Meredith, we readers realize that Everhard's hopes were to be crushed for centuries to come.
The Oligarchy are the largest monopoly trusts (or robber barons) who manage to squeeze out the middle class by bankrupting most small to mid-sized business as well as reducing all farmers to effective serfdom. This Oligarchy maintains power through a "labor caste" and the Mercenaries. Labor in essential industries like steel and rail are elevated and given decent wages, housing, and education. Indeed, the tragic turn in the novel (and Jack London's core warning to his contemporaries) is the treachery of these favored unions which break with the other unions and side with the Oligarchy. Further, a second, military caste is formed: the Mercenaries. The Mercenaries are officially the army of the US but are in fact in the employ of the Oligarchs.
Asgard is the name of a fictional wonder-city, a city constructed by the Oligarchy to be admired and appreciated as well as lived in. Thousands of proletarians live in poverty there, and are used whenever a public work needs to be completed, such as the building of levee or a canal.
The Manuscript is Everhard's autobiography as she tells of: her privileged childhood as the daughter of an accomplished scientist; her marriage to the socialist revolutionary Ernest Everhard; the fall of the US republic; and her years in the underground resistance from the First Revolt through the years leading to the Second Revolt. By telling the story of Avis Everhard, the novel is essentially an adventurous tale heavily strewn with social commentary of an alternate future (from a 1907 perspective). However, the future perspective of the scholar Meredith deepens the tragic plight of Everhard and her revolutionary comrades.
Jack London ambitiously predicted a breakdown of the US republic starting a few years past 1908, but various events have caused his predicted future to diverge from actual history. Most crucially, though London placed quite accurately the time when international tensions will reach their peak (1913 in "The Iron Heel", 1914 in actual history), he (like many others at the time) predicted that when this moment came, labor solidarity would prevent a war that would include the US, Germany and other nations.
Further, London assumed that the Socialist Party would become a mass party in the United States, strong enough to have a realistic chance of winning national elections and gaining power, while remaining a revolutionary party still committed to the dismantling of capitalism. The whole book is based on Marx's view that capitalism was inherently unsustainable. This would precipitate a brutal counter-reaction, with capitalists preserving their power by discarding democracy and instituting a brutal repressive regime. Although this exact scenario never came to pass in the US, where the Socialist Party remained small and marginal, events closely followed London's script elsewhere; for example, in Chile in 1973, where the government of socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. This prompted later publishers of London's book to use a cover illustration depicting a poster of Allende being ground beneath the heel of a boot.
The idea of a strong and militant mass Socialist Party emerging in the US was linked by London with his prediction that the middle class would shrink as monopolistic trusts crushed labor and small- to mid-sized businesses. Instead the US Progressive Era led to a breakup of the trusts, notably the application of the Sherman Antitrust Act to Standard Oil in 1911. At the same time, reforms such as labor unions rights were passed during the Progressive Era, with further reforms during the New Deal of the 1930s. Further, economic prosperity led to dramatic growth of the middle class in the 1920s and after World War II.
Through the writing of Everhard and, particularly, the distant future perspective of Meredith, London demonstrated his belief in the historical materialism of Marxism, which some have interpreted as predicting an inevitable succession from feudalism through capitalism and to socialism, ending in a period without a state, based on Marx's maxim of 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.'
Influences and effects
The Iron Heel is cited by George Orwell's biographer Michael Shelden as having influenced Orwell's most famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell himself described London as having made "a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of Fascism", in the book and believed that London's understanding of the primitive had made him a better prophet "than many better-informed and more logical thinkers."
Granville Hicks, reviewing Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, was reminded of The Iron Heel: "we are taken into the future and shown an America ruled by a tiny oligarchy, and here too there is a revolt that fails."
London's novella The Scarlet Plague (1912), and some of his short stories, are placed in a dystopian future setting that closely resembles that of The Iron Heel, although there is no actual continuity of situations or characters.
Events of 1900–1908
These events take place before the time of writing and most of them actually happened in our history, though the interpretation and significance given to them by London is not always the same as seen from a present-time perspective.
- 1900 – Most recent U.S. census figures prior to writing of the novel; Ernest cites these as evidence of inequality in the United States
- 1902 – Socialist voting strength at 12,713
- 1902 – "Our Benevolent Feudalism," published by W. J. Ghent was later used by the Oligarchy for many of their ideas, despite being satirical 
- 1902 – President of the Coal Trust George F. Baer proclaims the 'Divine right of Capitalists',
- 1902 – The Board of Trade report declares that the railroad trusts control the legislature completely
- 1903 – The Militia Act or Dick Act is passed by Congress making it possible for the government to call up able bodied men to fight
- July 1903 – E. Untermann, a revolutionary, publishes a critical pamphlet on the "Militia Bill"
- 1904 – Socialist voting strength at 435,040
- 1905 – Theodore Roosevelt in the address at the Harvard commencement recounts how lawyers can help the rich evade the law
- May 21, 1905 – Socialists in Italy, Austria and Hungary prevent war by threatening a general strike
- 1905 – Socialists in Germany and France prevent war by threatening a general strike over the Morocco Affair
- 1905 – Law on Child Labour in Pennsylvania overruled by the courts, as being "unconstitutional" – i.e., "discriminating on the grounds of age". New York Law on limited opening hours for bakeries overruled by courts on the grounds of "interfering with liberty of business"
- April 18, 1906 – Great San Francisco earthquake
- 1906 – Robert Hunter publishes "Poverty", describing the 10 million Americans living in poverty
- 1906 – James Farley leads an Army of strike breakers from New York to San Francisco, to break a strike by street car men
- 1906 – Lord Avebury warns of a Socialist revolution if poverty among the proletariat is not alleviated
- Fall 1906 – Austin Lewis runs for Governor of California on a Socialist ticket
- 1908 – Socialist voting strength at 1,108,427
Events of 1908–1912
The following years are after the time of writing, and the events attributed to them are fictional and depart drastically from our history.
- 1910 – Socialist voting strength at 1,688,211. Census figures are not made public.
- February 1912 – Ernest Everhard first meets Avis Cunningham, her father John Cunningham, and Bishop Morehouse at dinner
- 1912 – Avis investigates the case of a disabled worker, Jackson, and becomes a committed socialist
- 1912 – Ernest and Avis decide to be married
- Tuesday 1912 – Ernest addresses the Philomath Club where he estimates the strength of the International Socialist Movement at about 25 million, and mentions 15 million Americans living in poverty, and three million children in work. The future Oligarch Wickson claims that they will use any means necessary to stop the Socialists taking power.
- 1912 – Bishop Morehouse delivers a sermon regarding the poor at the IPH and is considered 'over excited' and is afterwards committed to an insane asylum.
- Spring 1912 – Dinner of the 'Machine Breakers' at which Ernest Everhard first uses the term "Iron Heel",
- 1912 – John Cunningham, the father of Avis Everhard, publishes the controversial "Economics and Education" and is dismissed from his university post as a result
- 1912 – Socialist publishing houses are attacked by mobs of 'Black Hundreds'. 'Appeal to Reason' is destroyed in one of these attacks.
- 1912 – Harsh action taken against unions in San Francisco increases support for the Socialists
- Summer 1912 – Crash on Wall Street, trusts use this as an opportunity to squeeze out the middle classes and make enormous profits at the same time
- 1912 – Ernest Everhard, Avis Cunningham, and John Cunningham are forced out of their property and jobs by the Oligarchs. They move into slum accommodation on Pell Street
- Late Summer 1912 – Avis Everheart encounters Bishop Morehouse in the slums, who disappears shortly afterwards.
- Fall 1912 – William Randolph Hearst's businesses are destroyed by the Oligarchs, causing a loss of power within the Democratic Party.
- Fall 1912 – Socialist electoral breakthrough- fifty Socialist Congressmen elected and ally with the Grange Party which wins around a dozen governorships in rural states
- Winter 1912 – Germany and U.S.A prepare for war, which Ernest believes is a result of lobbying by war profiteers
- December 4, 1912 – Germany attacks Honolulu, HI. American and German Navies clash, leading to a declaration of war on the following day
- 1912 – Socialists in both countries launch a general strike leading to peace and an alliance between Germany and U.S.
- December 1912 – George Milford publishes "Ye Slaves" which is the earliest use of the term "Iron Heel" known before the discovery of the Everhard manuscript
- 1912 – Ernest writes his book "Philosophy and Revolution"
Events of 1913
- January 1913 – Ernest predicts the victory of the Oligarchs and defection of the unions
- 1913 – Germany, Italy, France, Australia, and New Zealand overthrow their governments and form cooperative commonwealths under Socialist governments following the end of the war between Germany and the United States.
- 1913 - O'Connor, leader of the Machinists Union, refuses to give Everhard assurances that they will agree to another general strike, leading to the beginning of the defection of the 'Big Unions'
- 1913 – Big Unions break leave international groups and affiliations and join the Iron Heel. Beginning of a favored "Labor Aristocracy" who live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods.
- 1913 – Rise of religious Adventists in the countryside, who go to the hills to await the Apocalypse. Most starve to death or are murdered by the Iron Heel
- Spring 1913 – Many of the Socialists and Grangers who attempt to take their political seats are prevented from doing so
- 1913 – The Iron Heel begins confiscating farmland from indebted farmers
- 1913 – Iron Heel send their secret agents to start a riot in Sacramento. Soldiers are sent in, who kill 11,000 residents
- 1913 – Militia Law of 1903 put into effect, Mr Kowalt and Mr Asmunsen court-martialled and executed for refusing to serve
- April 22, 1913 – Agents of the Iron Heel murder the officers of the Kansas Militia, resulting in open mutiny. All 6000 militiamen are quickly killed
- 1913 – The strike of 3/4 million coal miners is crushed
- 1913 – Alfred Pocock I's first experience of 'Slave Driving', the subjugation of striking workers. An internal passport system is introduced on the urging of Pocock to track and restrict the movement of citizens across the United States.
- 1913 – Formation of the 'fighting groups' by Ernest Everhard to combat Iron Heel influence
- 1913 – Destruction of Granger states during a farmer rebellion and their power as a party. Socialists become largest third party
- 1913 – Pervaise, a prison inmate, agrees to a deal from the Iron Heel to throw a bomb in Congress during Ernest Everhard's introduction of his bill on unemployment relief in return for freedom. The act is blamed on the Socialists prompting soldiers to storm Congress and arrest all Socialist congressmen.
- 1913 – All of the Socialist Congressmen, including Ernest Everhard, and other party members are convicted and sent to jails throughout the United States. Ernest is sent to Alcatraz Prison
- Autumn 1913 – Avis Everhard is released from prison and returns to San Francisco. She hides in the Glen Ellen Refuge, one of many hideouts for the revolutionaries.
- 1913 – Japan brutally suppresses its revolution and forms an Oligarchy. It goes on to conquer the rest of Asia, except for India.
- 1913 – Britain crushes its own revolution but loses most of its empire
- 1913 – Canada becomes independent but crushes its revolution with the help of the Iron Heel and establishes an Oligarchy
- 1913 – Mexico and Cuba crush their revolutions and create Oligarchies with the help of the Iron Heel
Events of 1914–1942
- 1914 – Avis Everhard creates her new identity of Mary Holmes and perfects her ability to infiltrate the ranks of the Iron Heel
- 1914 – Disappearance of John Cunningham
- September 1914 – Pervaise is struck with Heart Rheumatism and confesses to a priest on his death bed of the truth behind the Congress bomb plot
- Late summer, 1915 – Wholesale jail delivery takes place, in which 51 of the 52 imprisoned Congressmen and 300 other leaders were released by the revolutionaries. Arthur Simpson not released as he died in prison from torture.
- 1916? – The son of the Oligarch Mr. Wickson, Phillip Wickson, joins the cause and acts as an agent within the Iron Heel.
- January 1917 – Ernest and Avis Everhard infiltrate the Iron-Heel as one of their many agents-provocateurs
- October 27, 1917 – The premature beginning of Chicago Commune, instigated by the Iron Heel in order to crush it early, results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of mercenaries and rebels including Hartman and Bishop Morehouse; Garthwaite is injured and taken to hospital. The south side Chicago ghetto is destroyed and repopulated with workers from other cities.
- Early Spring, 1918 – Planned date for the first revolt, which is crushed by the Iron Heel due to its poor coordination and planning
- 1918 – Avis Everhard attends a meeting of the violent revolutionary group the 'Frisco Reds, where she meets again Peter Donnelly (whom she had first met during her inquiries over the Jackson affair). Peter Donnelly's son, Timothy, is said to be lost but is later discovered to have joined the Mercenaries.
- 1920 – At the Benton Harbor refuge in Michigan, Ernest and Avis Everhard see an example of the revolutionary tribunals who convict enemies and traitors to the movement.
- 1920 – Garthwaite returns to the revolutionaries
- 1923 – Ernest Everhard calculates life expectancy after joining a fighting group to be just five years
- 1927 – Philip Wickson dies as a result of pneumonia contracted in 'The Great Storm' while attending a meeting of revolutionary leaders
- 1928 – Execution of the revolutionary writer Rudolph Medenhall, known as "The Flame"
- 1931 – Nashville Massacre, where Timothy Donnelly commanded the mercenaries to kill 800 striking weavers
- 1931 – Anna Roylston captures and hands over Timothy Donnelly to the 'Frisco Reds, becoming a legendary revolutionary and gaining the nickname of "The Red Virgin"
- 1932 – Beginning of the construction of wonder city of Asgard
- Spring 1932 – The secret execution of Ernest Everhard
- Summer 1932 – Avis flees to Wake Robin Lodge in California and writes the Everhard Manuscript
- 1932 – Avis hides the Everhard manuscript in an oak tree before being captured by the mercenaries, and is presumably killed.
- 1932 – The Second Revolt takes place in the United States with support from Italy, France, Germany, and Australia but ultimately fails. Its failure leads to the fall of the Socialist governments of Italy, France, Germany, and Australia which are replaced with oligarchies. The Red 'Friscos become active again
- 1942 – Completion of the wonder-city of Ardis
Events of 1984 A.D.– 2632 A.D.
From here on, the continuous historical narrative ceases, with the end of the Everhard Manuscript and the events immediately following its completion, and only isolated events separated by decades or centuries are provided by the footnotes in the book.
- 1984 – Completion of the wonder-city of Asgard
- 2002 – Total destruction of the 'Frisco Reds after an Iron Heel agent infiltrates their ranks and exposes them
- 2073 – Death of Pocock V in an explosion of a pump-house during a miner revolt in the Indian Territory (which in this history never became the State of Oklahoma). The Pocock line ends.
- 2138 – Trial and execution of the infamous Mercenary General Lampton after numerous attempts by the Fighting Groups to capture him. He is finally captured by Madeline Provence, who infiltrated his palace as a seamstress. He is executed by crucifixion. Madeline Provence is imprisoned by the Iron Heel and dies in prison.
- 2237 – The Iron Heel is finally overthrown after many attempted revolutions at some point during this time. The Socialist Brotherhood of Man is established. Approximate start of the then new dating system.
- 2368 – The Great earthquake strikes California
- November 27 419 B.O.M. (November 27, 2632 A.D.) – Anthony Meredith of Ardis writes the introduction and notes to the newly discovered Everhard Manuscript
- Arabic Translation: العقب الحديدية (by Munir Baalbaki)
- Armenian Translation: Երկաթե կրունկ
- Azerbaijan Translation: Dəmir daban
- Bengali Translation: আয়রন হীল (by Abul Kalam Chowdhury)
- Bulgarian Translation: Желязната пета (by Сидер Флорин)
- Croatian Translation: Željezna peta (by Paulina Tomić)
- Czech Translation: Železná pata
- Danish Translation: Jernhælen
- Esperanto Translation: La Fera Kalkanumo (by George Saville; SAT, 1930)
- Estonian Translation: Raudne kand
- Finnish Translation: Rautakorko
- French Translation: Le Talon de Fer
- German Translation: Die eiserne Ferse
- Greek Translation: Η σιδερένια φτέρνα, Το σιδερένιο τακούνι
- Hebrew Translation: עקב הברזל
- Hungarian Translation: A vaspata
- Italian Translation: Il tallone di ferro
- Korean Translation: 강철군화 (= The Steel Combat Boot)
- Latvian Translation: Dzelzs Papēdis
- Lithuanian Translation: Geležinis Kulnas
- Macedonian Translation: Железната петица
- Norwegian Translation: Jernhælen
- Persian Translation: پاشنه آهنین (by Mohammad Jafar Mahjoub)
- Polish Translation: Żelazna stopa
- Portuguese Translation: O Tacão de Ferro
- Romanian Translation: Călcâiul de fier (by D. Mazilu)
- Russian Translation: Железная пята
- Serbian Translation: Гвоздена пета
- Slovak Translation: Železná päta
- Spanish Translation: El Talón de Hierro
- Swedish Translation: Järnhälen
- Thai Translation: ท๊อปบู้ตทมิฬ
- Turkish Translation: Demir Ökçe
- Business Plot - an alleged 1933 political conspiracy by businessmen to overthrow the United States government in reaction to economic reforms.
- Stableford, Brian (1993). "Dystopias". In John Clute & Peter Nicholls (eds.). The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (2nd ed.). London: Orbit. pp. 360–362. ISBN 1-85723-124-4.
- Fromm, Erich: 1984 (Afterword), page 316. New American Library (a division of Penguin Group), 1977.
- Orwell: the Authorized Biography by Michael Shelden, HarperCollins ISBN 978-0-06-092161-3
- BBC broadcast March 5, 1943,Jack London:Landmarks in American Literature,5, reprinted in, Two Wasted Years, Secker & Warburg, 2001, p.5,7.
- "Harry Bridges", by Clancy Sigal; The New York Times, January 7, 1973, p. 388
- Hicks, Granville (August 17, 1952). "Player Piano". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-27.
- New York Times review of The Iron Heel stage adaptation
- Richard P. Benton. "The Iron Heel." Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition. Salem Press, 2000. eNotes.com. 2006. Apr 17, 2011 <http://www.enotes.com/iron-heel-salem/ iron-heel>
References & further reading
- Francis Shor: Power, Gender, and Ideological Discourse in 'The Iron Heel' . In: Leonard Cassuto, Jeanne Campbell Reesman: Rereading Jack London. Stanford University Press 1998, ISBN 0-8047-3516-6, pp. 75–91 (online copy, p. 75, at Google Books)
- Tony Barley: Prediction, Programme and Fantasy in Jack London's 'The Iron Heel' . In David Seed: Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors. Syracuse University Press 1995, ISBN 0-8156-2632-0, pp. 153–171 (online copy, p. 153, at Google Books)
- John Whalen-Bridge: Political Fiction and the American Self. University of Illinois Press 1998, ISBN 0-252-06688-X, pp. 73–100 (online copy, p. 73, at Google Books)
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