by Sam S. Baskett

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice.
—“Of Modern Poetry,” Wallace Stevens

When Martin Eden says, ‘‘My desire to write is the most vital thing in me,”1 he is merely giving ‘‘impassioned voice” to what has been apparent from the first pages of his story. The combined effect of his thoughts, utterances, and actions is to emphasize that in this autobiographical characterization Jack London has intended nothing less than a kind of a portrait of the artist. Surprisingly enough, no one has yet offered an extensive reading of Martin Eden in these terms, as if neither the character nor the author is quite to be trusted with what he is rather obviously saying. Even sympathetic critics have tended to subordinate Martin’s struggle to become an artist to other aspects of his life. Earle Labor, after noting that the fiction is ‘‘drawn largely from London’s own formative ordeal as a writer,” offers a stimulating discussion of Martin not as a writer but as the universal youth seeking an education and condemned to pay for it, as an archetypal American male and as a projection of London’s youthful vitality.2 Franklin Walker does set out to solve the ‘‘puzzle” of the successful writer killing himself in despair. His analysis of ‘‘one of London’s best books,” a book that possesses ‘‘more vitality today than when it was first published,” is indeed perceptive, but it moves away from an examination of Martin as a strikingly successful writer who found that success “increasingly hollow” to a more general conclusion: Martin despairs because of “the discovery that he was going nowhere and the deadly realization that he had lost his interest in life.”3

It could be argued that these and other critics are only sensibly following Martin’s own eventual loss of interest in writing. More-over, London himself, in retrospect, explained his character not in relation to writing but to other themes: knowledge, success, and an idealized love. “These were the things he had found life worth living in order to fight for. When they failed him, being a consistent Individualist, being unaware of the collective human need, there remained nothing for which to live and fight. And so he died.”4 All these readings, including London’s, can be substantiated in the text, and yet they also can be subsumed under an interest more immediate to London in 1907 when he began the novel than knowledge, success, or an idealized love—his possibly subconscious but nonetheless searching appraisal of himself as artist. As Wallace Stevens was to ask in “The American Sublime,” now that it had come down to “The empty spirit / In vacant space,” how does one stand “To behold the sublime”? Martin Eden is London’s varying and finally inconclusive but apprehensive answer.

The qualification “subconscious” may be unnecessary. By the time London had set out on the projected several years’ voyage to the South Seas during which he wrote Martin Eden, he was at a crucial stage of his career. At thirty-one, nine years after he had committed himself to writing, he was eminently successful. He had made money and, clearly, was going to make much more. He had attracted a great deal of attention, critical as well as popular. The world of adventure opening before him on his $40,000 yacht was a sharp contrast to the difficult circumstances of his youth. And yet the artistic energy that had brought him these rewards had received a severe check. The best Alaskan stories, indeed the best of all his stories—and many have felt that London is most effective in this genre—had been written. Not only had the Alaskan vein been exhausted, but by now London had reached the third stage of what James McClintock describes as the recurring pattern of London’s life as an artist: “. . . he experienced an initial enthusiasm at having discovered a scientifically justifiable rationale for believing in humanly sustaining values; then a sober realization of human limitations coming from an awareness that death can be understood but not conquered; and, finally, a bitter sense of futility to which he submitted.”5 Despite whatever successes he had achieved, the London of 1907-08, like Martin Eden planning his voyage to the South Pacific, was trying to extract himself from the “pestiferous marsh” in which “the crash of his whole world” (p. 323) had landed him. For, as McClintock has painstakingly developed in his examination of the Alaskan stories, and as London himself corroborates in his retrospective John Barleycorn, his artistic and commercial success with this material had resulted not in the fulfillment of his artistic dream but in nightmare. London’s Alaskan protagonists aspire to master life, then to accommodate it, but in the end, as “In a Far Country,” the archetypal quest motif becomes parody. No code suffices in a meaningless universe. In “To Build a Fire,” nothing stands between man and “the horror,” or, rather, the blankness. London, at the time he was writing Martin Eden, as the later John Barleycorn strongly suggests, was indeed concerned about his “white logic,” his vision of the “primary truth” of human futility which he as a serious artist was attempting to present. Individualism had failed, and the successes of “the collective human need” as embodied in The Iron Heel, written in 1906, were placed centuries in the future. Like Martin Eden, London had decided not to be a sailor or Latin professor or lawyer or businessman or anything else but a writer, one of “the world’s giants” (p. 71). In this autobiographical characterization, he not only examines his motives and accomplishments and his various rationales for writing, but, more profoundly, he raises questions from his present depths about what he could now do as a serious modern artist. How could he continue to write as an interpreter of a “primary truth” too bleak to be steadily confronted?

How closely Martin’s experience as an artist corresponds to London’s own experience is finally impossible to know, of course. London did say, “I was Martin Eden,” referring to his character’s swift success; Martin’s other characteristics may have been equally autobiographical. Establishing the precise degree of connection between the author and character, however, is not as important as recognizing that external and well as internal evidence points to a somewhat different reading of Martin Eden than it has previously received. In this novel, London is primarily concerned with the quest of the writer to order experience. As I have suggested, London was unsure about the outcome, and consequently he gives several different portraits of the artist, rejecting each in turn.

When Martin, “manifestly out of place” (p. 1), lurches into the Morse middle-class home, he appears to be mainly an expression of raw, untutored life. An unformed, “uncouth sailor” (p. 175), his previous existence is suggested by his difficulties in talking with Ruth Morse, who studies English at the University, in eating properly with his hosts, and even in walking about their living room. He is accustomed, rather, to companions as careless and carefree as himself, and his greatest enjoyment has been dancing, fighting, and having fun with them (p. 331). Like Wolf Larsen, he enjoys “the effervescence of the ferment” because he is so good at the struggle: he is the smoothest dancer, wins all the fights, and gets the girls he wants. Apparently satisfied with his unexamined life, he seems unconscious of his loneliness. Well liked, he “led his gang in the old fighting days” and is considered “one of the bunch and a pretty good guy.” In truth, however, he has engaged no one in friendship. Without parents and away at sea for long periods, he has only casual affection for his sisters. His relation with his fellows is superficial bonhomie, and he has thought of all the women in his life as only so much “flesh” (p. 23). Consequently, “He had starved for love all his life,” although without knowing “that he needed love” (p. 13). Moreover, this loneliness is accentuated by his lack of belief in anything, natural or supernatural, outside of himself. “No word, no clew, no hint, of the divine had ever reached him . . .” (p. 23).

Unawakened, isolated, living a purposeless existence in a valueless world, Martin might well seem like a less stolid Apeneck Sweeney were it not for his much more intense responsiveness to “beauty” and the “outside world” generally, as if the “insect man” of the naturalists contained within him the germ of Whitman’s child going forth. “At the slightest impact of the outside world upon his consciousness, his thoughts, sympathies, and emotions leapt and played like lambent flame. He was extraordinarily receptive and responsive, while his imagination, pitched high, was ever at work establishing relations of likeness and difference” (p. 4). It is apparent, however, even dismissing the unlikely contradictions in this portrait, that Martin hardly possesses a grasp of his universe at this stage. The relations he perceives are tenuous, partial, temporary—ultimately unconnected. Like a more virile Prufrock, he uses the magic lantern of his imagination to throw “his nerves in patterns on a screen.”

It will be nearly a year before Martin will designate himself as a writer, a year during which he learns “much of himself” and achieves a “conviction of power (p. 70), but three clusters of experiences this first evening at the Morses reveal Martin as a potential artist and act as catalysts which “work the revolution in him, changing him from an uncouth sailor to a student and an artist . . .” (p. 175): his reaction to various forms of “art,” his response to an audience, and his discovery of Ruth. On first entering, he is attracted to the “beauty” of an oil painting. It holds him until he moves closer and the picture blurs into “a careless daub of paint.” Indigant “that so much beauty should be sacrificed to make a trick,” Martin moves away (pp. 2-5). He next picks up a volume of Swinburne. “Into his eyes leaped a wistfulness and a yearning as promptly as the yearning leaps into the eyes of a starving man at sight of food.” Admitting, “ ‘I ain’t up much on poetry,’ ” he reads a poem that “ ‘was the real goods. It was all lighted up an’ shining, an’ it shun right into me an’ lighted me up inside, like the sun or a searchlight’ ” (pp. 3, 9).6 Later, Ruth plays the piano for him. Used only to “dance-hall piano-banging and blatant brass bands,” he is yet “remarkably susceptible to music.” His imagination takes flight and he is “transfigured”:

He was a harp; all life that he had known and that was his consciousness was the strings; and the flood of music was a wind that poured against those strings and set them vibrating with memories and dreams. He did not merely feel. Sensation invested itself in form and color and radiance, and what his imagination dared, it objectified in some sublimated and magic way. Past, present, and future mingled; and he went on oscillating across the broad, warm world, through high adventure and noble deeds to Her—ay, and with her, his arm about her, and carrying her on in flight through the empery of his mind. (pp. 20-21)

These are significant encounters for Martin, not merely because they exhibit his initial naïveté which is outgrown, nor even because they stimulate his basic interest in art but because they instigate instinctive reactions which foreshadow his later theory of the relation between the real and the ideal which governs his writing from beginning to end: “While his imagination was fanciful, even fantastic at times, he had a basic love of reality that compelled him to write about the things he knew” (p. 73). Yet, entering the same union from the opposite pole, “His work was realism, though he had endeavored to fuse with it the fancies and beauties of imagination” (p. 212). “What is real?” is one of the questions Martin attempts to solve as an artist, in terms not too different from James’s “complete circuit’’ of the novel and the romance and Stevens’ “extraordinary actuality.”

Several other incidents show Martin’s unconscious concern with his isolation and his desire to write as a basis of communion not only with Ruth but with “a wider audience’’ (p. 70). This concern haunts Martin throughout his writing, throughout his life until his lonely suicide. “From this the poem springs,” Stevens contends in “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” “that we live in a place / That  is not our own and, much more, not ourselves / And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.” In his first appearance, Martin, walled in by several gradations of subjectivity, is almost mute. It is not that he has nothing to say, but that, fearful of the surroundings—as he is of all surroundings, one way or another—he is forced deeper into introspection: “. . . far down and yet always at the surface of his thought, was the problem of how he should comport himself toward these persons. What should his attitude be? He wrestled continually and anxiously with the problem” (p. 14). His relation to an audience is illustrated in several potential “short stories” in the first two chapters. When he first sees Ruth, he loses himself in a “flood of associations” and stands “in the midst of a portrait gallery” with Ruth at the center surrounded by the many women he has known, and he comes out of his swirling reverie to hear her asking about the scar on his neck. His story remains unuttered. In response to her question, again he has a “rich vision,” but “no hint [of it] had crept into his speech” as he says “badly,” “ ‘A Mexican with a knife, miss. . . . It was just a fight. After I got the knife away, he tried to bite off my nose.’ ” The “shock in her sensitive face” (pp. 4-7) makes him resolve to be more cautious, but at the dinner table her brother is successful in his efforts “to draw this wild man out”:

For the first time he became himself, consciously and deliberately at first, but soon lost in the joy of creating, in making life as he knew it appear before his listeners’ eyes. . . . He brought the pulsing sea before them. . . . He communicated his power of vision, till they saw with his eyes what he had seen. He selected from the vast mass of detail that glowed and burned with light and color, injecting movement so that his listeners surged along with him on the flood of rough eloquence, and power, (pp. 18-19; italics added)

These experiences, like those with “art,” are not important so much for showing either Martin’s ineptness or his incipient artistic ability as for prefiguring his desperate concern as an artist, even his desperate “romantic” concern, to relate to other minds in the fictional world he creates.7 “What is real,” Martin asks until his death, “in a place / That is not . . . ourselves”?

The third and most significant duster of experiences on this first evening are those defining Martin’s relation with Ruth. She is, next to Martin, the most important character in the book, and I think the most misunderstood. Her progress in Martin’s mind, more complex than a brief summary can define, is not unlike that of Gatsby’s Daisy—from a goddess “remote and inaccessible as a star” (p. 35), through incarnation, to identity with “a rotten crowd.” Martin first sees her, not as a person, but as “a spirit, a divinity, a goddess; such sublimated beauty was not of the earth. . . . She might well be sung by that chap Swinburne” (p. 4). He does not think of “her flesh as flesh” but as “an emanation of her spirit. . . . Her purity smote him like a blow . . . superlative of goodness and of cleanness, the sum of which constituted eternal life” (pp. 23-24). Martin, who has never before believed in other people, who has never before believed in “divinity,” now believes in both. He has a value, something to sing of as a poet. The song, as the rhapsodies above suggest, is liable to sentimentality. He sees his “goddess” in the form, however inaccessible, of a woman, a kind of blessed damozel: she is pale, ethereal, spiritual, sublimated, radiant, remote, with “a crown of golden hair” (pp. 4-35). Martin’s state of mind, or rather feeling, is not unlike that of Rossetti’s lover: “It was a soul-possession he dreamed, refined beyond any grossness, a free comradeship of spirit that he could not put into definite thought. He did not think it. For that matter, he did not think at all. Sensation usurped reason, and he was quivering and palpitant with emotions he had never known, drifting deliciously on a sea of sensibility where feeling itself was exalted and spiritualized and carried beyond the summits of life” (p. 24). Anticipating a night’s unrewarded vigil under a tree from which he can see her window, he imagines “Ruth’s clear, luminous eyes, like a saint’s, gazing at him out of unplumbed depths of purity.” Her eyes “offered books and painting, beauty and repose, and all the fine elegance of higher existence . . . [and more] mystery, and wonder unthinkable, and eternal life. He had caught glimpses of the soul in them, and glimpses of his own soul, too.” Martin’s first attempt to compose a poem, as one might expect from a not-too-widely-read youth in the 1890’s, is in the tradition of the attenuated romanticism of Pre-Raphaelite rapture.8 But no matter. Ruth’s eyes also tell him that Wolf Larsen’s ferment is replaced by a world of meaning and love.

This poem, fortunately, remains unwritten, although London may have drawn from Martin’s inspired state in the latter portion of The Sea-Wolf (1904), but the feelings Martin has experienced toward all that Ruth represents to him hasten his conscious decision to become a writer. For if Ruth functions as a goddess signalling value and as a person offering potential spiritual companionship, out of this combination she can also become the inspiration to sing of a suddenly coherent universe. On an eight-month voyage to the South Pacific, Martin

was tortured by the exquisite beauty of the world, and wished that Ruth were there to share it with him. He decided that he would describe to her many of the bits of South Sea beauty. The creative spirit in him flamed up at the thought and urged that he recreate this beauty for a wider audience than Ruth. And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears though which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write—everything, poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth. The men of literature were the world’s giants…. (pp. 70-71)

Enraptured by his aim, Martin has a “vision of a world without end of sunlit spaces and starry voids,” through which he drifts with Ruth, and a greater inspiration to capture that vision in words, as did “the great writers and master-poets” (pp. 82-83). Ruth is still central to his world, as in one guise or another she will be as long as he has one, but his creativity is no longer confined to the sentimental celebration of the Ideal she personifies: he writes of the “South Sea beauty” and for “a wider audience than Ruth.” He launches “a joy of creation that is supposed to belong to the gods.” “All the life about him . . . was a dream. The real world was in his mind, and the stories he wrote were so many pieces of reality out of his mind” (p. 85).

These efforts signal a change in Martin’s image as artist, a change accelerated by two discoveries. First, he is able to see that his goddess is “but a mere woman with lips a cherry could stain,” and “if so with her lips, then it was so with all of her. She was woman, all woman, just like any woman. . . . It was as if he had seen the sun fall out of the sky, or had seen worshipped purity polluted’’ (pp. 90- 91). No longer sentimentalizing Ruth, he “trembled at the audacity of his thought, but all his soul was singing, and reason, in a triumphant paean, assured him he was right.” A few days later, his “reason” receives reinforcement in his discovery of a new corroborating principle to take the place of the humanized goddess: the social philosophy of Herbert Spencer, Spencerian naturalism, “organizing all knowledge for him, reducing everything to unity, elaborating ultimate realities,” enables him to realize that “All was law” (p. 99). The substitution of Spencer for Ruth is made clear, for he reads First Principles throughout an entire night and day and remains “oblivious to everything,” including his regular afternoon with Ruth. Spencer’s “correlation of knowledge—of all knowledge” (p. 100)— gives him a new view of the universe with “his own life in the midst of it all.” With self-accusation and scorn, he dismisses his previous attempts to write out of “some childish notions, a few half-baked sentiments, a lot of undigested beauty, a great black mass of ignorance, a heart filled to bursting with love, and an ambition as big as your love and as futile as your ignorance. . . . You wanted to write about the world and the scheme of existence when the world was a Chinese puzzle to you and all that you could have written would have been about what you did not know of the scheme of existence” (p. 101). He now believes, however, that he knows, or can learn, “the scheme of existence” and that he is truly, and finally, prepared to write.

London has thus presented Martin as proceeding from a pre-artist stage of vivid and yet inchoate feelings about life through a sentimental celebration of the highest ideal he can envisage, followed by a more reasoned affirmation, albeit one expressed in “pieces of reality” that exist only in his own mind (p. 85). Martin now not only specifically rejects these past attempts as an artist, but offers to Ruth, in a Whitmanic verbal outpouring, his new image of himself as artist. They are in the Berkeley hills, Ruth seated “upon his coat, and he sprawling close to the warm earth.” The scent of the grass “entered his brain and set his thoughts whirling from the particular to the universal.” He recites for his listener its cycle of existence, finding the grass

“more beautiful . . . now that I know why it is grass, and all the hidden chemistry of sun and rain and earth that makes it become grass. . . . When I think of force and matter, and all the tremendous struggle of it, I feel as if I could write an epic on the grass. . . . See, I bury my face in the grass, and the breath I draw in through my nostrils sets me quivering with a thousand thoughts and fancies. It is a breath of the universe I have breathed. . . . I see visions that arise in my brain somehow out of the scent of the grass, and I would like to tell them to you, to the world. But how can I? My tongue is tied, I have tried . . . just now, to describe to you the effect on me of the scent of the grass. But I have not succeeded.” (pp. 111-112)

Martin’s tongue is not tied, however, and the works he will write henceforth will express his knowledge of “biology,” his new sense of beauty in a scientific but meaningful universe. But he is correct in saying that he has failed to communicate his vision to Ruth, who rejects it while looking at him with “such dreadfully practical eyes.” Martin has thus moved beyond Ruth in understanding, and she is no longer his “goddess.” Still, the love he feels for her is too central to his being to be expendable. Forming “a new conception of love,” he decides that it is “above reason” (p. 105). Having lived before without “divinity,” without value, he cannot let go of the anchor, the bridge that Whitman had envisaged as necessary in “A Noiseless, Patient Spider.” Accordingly, he comes to see her as

the female of his kind, who, out of the primordial ferment, creeping and crawling up the vast ladder of life for a thousand thousand centuries, had emerged on the topmost rung, having become one Ruth, pure and fair, and divine, and with power to make him know love, and to aspire toward purity, and to desire to taste divinity—him, Martin Eden, who, too, had come up in some amazing fashion out of the ruck and the mire and the countless mistakes and abortions of unending creation. There was the romance, and the wonder, and the glory. There was the stuff to write …. (p. 116)

The emphasis for Martin, however, is no longer on Ruth as a divinity, or as a person, but as an epiphany of the value of love. Whatever Ruth’s mental shortcomings, her sexually- or socially-induced frailties, Martin’s love is unaffected, not through a lover’s blindness, but out of his need for that love.

He could not belittle love. He worshipped it. Love lay on the mountaintops beyond the valley-land of reason. It was a sublimated condition of existence, the topmost peak of living, and it came rarely. Thanks to the school of scientific philosophers he favored, he knew the biological significance of love; but by a refined process of the same scientific reasoning he readied the conclusion that the human organism achieved its highest purpose in love, that love must not be questioned, but must be accepted as the highest guerdon of life. (p. 176; italics added)

The tripartite connection, for Martin, of Ruth, of love as a value, and of his writing is made explicit in the passage in which he confesses that his desire to write “is the most vital thing in me.” A few sentences earlier he has said, in reference to the hardships undergone in his apprenticeship, that “. . . were my need for you to understand not so desperate I should not tell you” (pp. 249-50).

Martin’s desperate commitment as a votary of love as the ultimate value is reflected in his near-murder of his new friend, the poet Brissenden, when the latter refers to Ruth with penetrating revelation as “that pale, shrivelled, female thing” (p. 264). Brissenden’s insouciance under the threat of death and Martin’s returning reason gloss over the incident. Martin is able to disregard his remark because he sees in Brissenden the image of the artist that he aspires to be and which he is, in fact, becoming. With love as his value, Martin has continued writing—for the faceless, always unappreciative and unknowing editors—better and better work, finding his voice to express the human condition. But it is Brissenden, dying of tuberculosis, apparently alone in the world, who writes the perfect poem, “the poem of the century,” that puts “passionate tears” in Martin’s eyes. Brissenden’s “Ephemera”—the title comes from Martin—“dealt with man and his soul-gropings in their ultimate terms, plumbing the abysses of space for the testimony of remotest suns and rainbow spectrums. It was a mad orgy of imagination. . . . and through it all, unceasing and faint . . . ran the frail, piping voice of man, a querulous chirp amid the screaming of planets and the crash of systems.” “ ‘It is truth gone mad,’ ’’ Martin concludes, “ ‘It is the truth of the sneer, stamped out from the black iron of the Cosmos and interwoven with mighty rhythms of sound into a fabric of splendor and beauty’ ” (pp. 279-81). Brissenden returns the compliment with high praise for Martin’s thirty-thousand-word essay, “The Shame of the Sun,” which contains “a deliberate attack on the mysticism of the Maeterlinck school—an attack from the citadel of positive science upon the wonder-dreamers, but an attack nevertheless that retained much of the beauty and wonder of the sort compatible with ascertained fact” (p. 225).

The circle tightens around Martin, however. Brissenden, whom he sees as the incomparable artist, is a cynic about everything else, as well as Ruth. He has absolute contempt for any audience, standing alone in the universe even apart from Martin to a degree. This ideal writer has created what Martin judges to be the greatest human expression—“ ‘There is nothing like it in literature’ ” (p. 280). “Ephemera” embodies all that Martin has to say about reality—but the highest artistic achievement will not suffice for Brissenden, a point driven home a few days later when Martin discovers that Brissenden has been a suicide for five days and has left no farewell to his fellow artist.

By the time Martin learns of Brissenden’s fate, so emphatically foreshadowing his own, he no longer cares about art or about life, because Ruth, who embodies all value, has failed him with utter finality. Seizing upon a defamatory newspaper story about Martin’s “socialism,” her family pressures her to reject him, and she writes a letter terminating their relation. Martin’s reply, “pleading passionately for love” (p. 311), is ignored. When he encounters her in the street, he implores, “ ‘Gossip! Newspaper misreports! Surely such things are not stronger than love!’” (p. 314). But Ruth is adamant in her propriety, and Martin is finished as an artist.

He returns to his room and mechanically completes the major manuscript in progress, one which, though unfinished, he compares to “the tales of the sea-writers, and he felt it to be immeasurably superior. ‘There’s only one man who could touch it,’ he murmured aloud, ‘and that’s Conrad. And it ought to make even him sit up and shake hands with me, and say, “Well done, Martin, my boy”’ ” (p. 293). He writes in a daze, “strangely detached from the world around him, feeling like a familiar ghost among these literary trappings of his former life,” adding twenty thousand words more than he had planned. “It was not that there was any vital need that the thing should be well done, but that his artistic canons compelled him to do it well” (p. 317).

It is apparent that Martin is now a mature artist in command of his vision and his craft. But he no longer cares to write. The result of the union between the real and the ideal is to see “truth gone mad” without the redeeming “splendor and beauty,” as in Brissenden’s “Ephemera,” as well as in his own writing. More isolated than ever, he rejects the popular applause for his work; the public is not interested in the “real Martin” that his writing intended to express. There is now an unbridgeable gulf between him and all other objects. Finally, and most devastatingly, his world is now without love, without value. Following her defection, he sees Ruth with Brissenden’s eyes, albeit sadly, as inferior even to the girls he had known previously, such as Lizzie Connolly. Ruth is no longer a manifestation of meaning to counter the white logic of his awareness of the primary truth of meaninglessness. Ruth’s actions and Spencer’s “biology” prove to Martin that love is no longer, in Joseph Wood Krutch’s phrase, “the ultimate self-justifying value which it once was.”9 And so Martin says, having completed the manuscript, quoting “an anonymous poem” Brissenden had recited to him, “ ‘I have done—/ Put by the lute’ ” (p. 318). Having lost his “most vital thing,” Martin drifts toward suicide, no longer the portrait of an artist. In the language of Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry,” having been unable to find a scene that is set and a script that has already been composed, Martin thinks momentarily of constructing “a new stage” in the South Seas, but he knows that he cannot do it without “the highest guerdon of life,” the love with which he had filled the void. Martin is not being querulous or even eccentric, for as Krutch wrote in “Love—or the Life and Death of a Value” a few years after both the character and the author were dead, there was a considerable company of their predecessors, contemporaries, and successors who felt the same way.

For the more skeptical of the Victorians, love performed some of the functions of the God whom they had lost. Faced with it, many of even the most hard-headed turned, for the moment, mystical. They found themselves in the presence of something which awoke in them that sense of reverence which nothing else claimed, and something to which they felt, even in the very depths of their being, that an unquestioning loyalty was due. For them love, like God, demanded all sacrifices; but like Him, also it rewarded the believer by investing all the phenomena of life with a meaning not yet analyzed away. We have grown used—more than they—to a Godless universe, but we are not yet accustomed to one which is loveless as well, and only when we have so become shall we realize what atheism really means.10

In Martin Eden, then, London has portrayed several stances of the artist, none of which finally suffices. Is no stand sufficient for London? The issue remains in doubt in this work. The narrator, the implied author in the novel, does not retain sufficient distance from his character—as Fitzgerald does from Gatsby, for example, partly through the device of Carraway as narrator—for the reader to be absolutely confident that the author’s own search will not cease, at least in any serious sense. But there is the fact of Martin Eden itself as a record —a “poem of the mind,” as it were—of the recognition that the act of finding is necessary, and, much more, that such an act is all there is, ultimately. London does not go as far as some early twentieth-century artists in entering what Miller called “a new reality,” possibly because London, like his character, seems not to begin with “the experience of nihilism or its concomitants,” “one of the possible consequences of romanticism,” but first desperately tries to repossess the romantic vision before reluctantly recognizing the modern wasteland. The enervations of an intellectual and artistic voyage from the unexamined life to an apparent romantic coherence, then a Spencerian “correlation” of all knowledge, followed by a recognition of the chaotic implications of such “laws,” may have indeed debilitated the desire and capacity of both character and author for further exploration. But, finally, London in Martin Eden does not “assert in desperation,” to use R. P. Blackmur’s opprobrious term; rather, he creates in considerable “honesty” a portrait of himself through the relation of the total novel to the characterization of Martin Eden, exploring some options that bid fair to be shattering.

London, in Martin Eden, has written a book of greater fundamental honesty than has generally been recognized. He may not find, but he does incur total risk. Eliot responded to the invidious comment that present writers always know more than those of the past with the observation that past writers are precisely what we do know. London’s portrayal of the satisfactions and perils of his artistic search is part of our knowledge.


1. Jack London, Martin Eden, ed. Sam S. Baskett (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1956), p. 250. Subsequent citations will appear in the text.

2. Earle Labor, Jack London (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974), pp. 116-123.

3. Franklin Walker, “Jack London: Martin Eden,” in The American Novel from James Fenimore Cooper to William Faulkner, ed. Wallace Stegner (New York: Basic Books, 1965), pp. 133 143.

4. Quoted in Labor, p. 116.

5. James I. McClintock, White Logic (Grand Rapids, MI: Wolf House Books, 1975), pp. xi-xii.

6. Roy L. Weitzel discusses the Swinburne allusions extensively and provocatively, although I think somewhat restrictedly, in relation to “the outcome of the plot and to two of the novel’s major motifs: the relationship between art and life, and the role of the artist in the society of the novel.” “Toward a ‘Bright White Light’: London’s Use of Swinburne in Martin Eden Jack London Newsletter, 7 (January-April 1974), 1-8.

7. J. Hillis Miller in Poets of Reality (Cambridge. MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965) discusses (p. 4) this aspect of nineteenth-century literature as follows: “The development of fiction from Jane Austen to Conrad and James is a gradual exploration of the fact that for modern man nothing exists except as it is seen by someone viewing the world from his own perspective. If romantic poetry most often shows the mind assimilating natural objects-urns, nightingales, daffodils, or windhovers—the novel turns its attention to the relations between several minds, but both poetry and fiction usually presuppose the isolation of each mind.”

8. T. S. Eliot claimed in “Dante” that his “development of taste” had been held up for several years by “The Blessed Damozel,” “first by my rapture and next by my revolt . . .” (Selected Essays [London: Faber and Faber, 1932], p. 223).

9. Joseph Wood Krutch. The Modem Temper (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929), p. 106.

10. Krutch, p. 114.

11. Miller, pp. 1-11.

Source: “MARTIN EDEN”: JACK LONDON’S POEM OF THE MIND, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, Jack London Number (Spring 1976), pp. 23-36 (14 pages); Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press