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 thus 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 huge and 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. (George Orwell would forty years later specifically and explicitly deny that consolation to his Winston Smith, and so would other later distopian writers.)
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 Proletariat 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, really, 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 1908 perspective). However, the future perspective of the scholar Meredith deepens the tragic plight of Everhard and her revolutionary comrades.
Given that The Iron Heel is now a century old, this novel has a somewhat alternate history feel because, as with Orwell's 1984, the dating of these novels are now in our past. 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. Actual history records that nationalism overwhelmed the international solidarity of labor and socialists.
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 fully committed to the dismantling of Capitalism. This would precipitate a brutal counter-reaction, with capitalists preserving their power by discarding democracy and instituting a brutal repressive regime. This never came to pass in the US, where the Socialist Party remained tiny and marginal. However, the actual acts of Franco in 1936 Spain and Pinochet in 1973 Chile, where radical Socialists did gain power through democratic elections, bear considerable similarity to those of London's fictional Oligarchs (prompting later publishers of London's book to place Salvador Allende's picture on its cover, as seen in the illustration above).
The assumption of a powerful strong and militant mass Socialist Party emerging in the US was linked with London predicting 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 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, finally, ending with socialism.
More information on Wikipedia.The Iron Heel. In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved October 11, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Iron_Heel
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