Jack London: Martin Eden – by Franklin Walker

Fifty books remain—the product of Jack London's fevered spirit and tremendous energy. Of them, none is better than Martin Eden. Like all his books, it is uneven in structure, sometimes clumsy in expression, at times mawkish in tone. Yet it possesses great lasting power, having more vitality today than it did the day it issued from the press.

by Franklin Walker

Martin Eden is not only one of Jack London’s best books; it is also one of his most puzzling ones. It was published in 1909, when London was thirty-three years old and had phenomenally won a world audience with such novels as The Call of the Wild, The Sea Wolf, and The Iron Heel, and it appeared at what was to prove to be the very peak of his career. The curious thing is that Martin Eden tells the exciting story of how a writer made good, overcoming in a spirited way all sorts of odds, but it also tells of how that writer, having reached heights beyond his fondest hopes, kills himself in despair. Therein lies the puzzle that has baffled readers and critics ever since the book appeared.

Jack London was the sort of writer who constantly turned to his own experiences for the material for his fiction. Even the dog Buck in The Call of the Wild is a thinly disguised portrait of London, in conflict with civilization and fleeing to a happier life in the cold North, which London knew so well from his Klondike experiences. Buck finally finds himself alone under the stars, to which London had always aspired. As a matter of fact, “Star-Dust” was London’s second choice as a title for the book that became Martin Eden; “Success” was his first choice, and “Martin Eden,” which proved most satisfactory to his publishers, only the third.

“Star-Dust” may actually have been the best title, for it catches the mood of the young writer during most of the novel, when he is so full of energy and enthusiasm that his story holds the reader spellbound. At the opening, Martin Eden is a twenty-year-old sailor who suddenly grows enthusiastic about learning to write. Though he has little formal education—only six years of elementary school—he becomes convinced that he has a keen mind and a creative talent, being given to translating all ideas and experiences into vivid pictures, “visions” which seem more real than reality. He decides that he needs an education to give meaning and coherence to the pictures.

Aided somewhat by Ruth Morse, the university student with whom he has fallen in love, he sets out to gain an education on a “do-it-yourself” plan, like the jack-of-all-trades son of the frontier which London felt himself to be. With four lending cards constantly in use at the public library, systematic lists of new words to learn and of ungrammatical constructions to avoid, and energy enough to apply himself during most of the minutes of his nineteen-hour day—for he found that he could get by on five hours of sleep—he moves rapidly ahead, discovering that in a surprisingly short time he can discuss Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer intelligently with soapbox orators and even university professors.

All this would sound a bit preposterous were not Martin Eden’s experiences in the reading and writing processes essentially those of Jack London. As he pointed out in John Barleycorn:

Critics have complained about the swift education one of my characters, Martin Eden, achieved. In three years, from a sailor with a common-school education, I made a successful writer of him. The critics say this is impossible. Yet I was Martin Eden.

This is indeed good going for a young ‘writer, although by no means unique. The point about it with London is that he found the experience so very exciting and so extraordinarily surprising. The very naivete of his approach appeals to almost every young person who has secretly hoped to learn to write but has believed that such success belongs only in a Cinderella story. Jack London, like Martin Eden, set out to become an author as though he were beginning a game or, to suggest a better figure, were taking part in a battle. Each rejection slip was another challenge, and the manuscripts continued on their rounds, provided that there were enough pennies left to buy stamps. Finally, according to legend, the pile of Jack’s rejection slips, impaled on a spindle, became five feet high—and then came a flood of acceptances. In the meantime, Martin Eden, like Jack London, tried his hand at every type of writing he could think of, from triolets to a tragedy in ponderous blank verse, from drawing-room sketches to adventure novels. Every new experience was raw material for a story, every encounter with an acquaintance an opportunity to exchange ideas about writing. It did not matter that his credit at the grocery ran out after reaching the vast sum of $3.85, that he had to pawn his overcoat and watch and bicycle, that he had to live on beans and go for forty-eight hours without any food at all. It was all part of the game. Martin Eden had willed to succeed, just as London had, and succeed he did.

Jack London helps to dramatize Martin Eden’s quest for knowledge and writing success by creating a number of excellent minor figures who serve as either enemies or supporters in his intellectual battle. Ruth Morse’s parents are skeptical and spur him on; their business acquaintances, like the successful Alger boy, Mr. Butler, furnish examples of the kind of prominence which the young writer abhors. His two brothers-in-law, blind in their petty mercantilism, alternately bore and infuriate him. One sister, chained to her washtub, can give him only soapy kisses and an occasional meal, but she has some faith in him, which helps. The other sister agrees that he is a dreamer and a loafer for failing to get a regular job. On the other hand, there is his illiterate, warmhearted landlady, Marcia Silva, who admires him blindly. And, above all, there is Russ Brissenden, the only fellow- writer he meets, who heartens him greatly with his support and, incidentally, turns out to be one of the most vivid characters in the book.

When Martin met Brissenden at the Morse home, he thought at first that this new acquaintance—with his fine, aquiline nose; long, aristocratic face; and drooping shoulders—was both a featherbrain and a boor. However, over a Scotch and soda at a bar after the party, he discovered that Brissenden was full of fire and had the flashing insight and perception of a true genius. He was a tubercular who was never without his quart of whiskey; he was a cynic, but at the same time a true lover of life, a frank voluptuary who enjoyed good food and intellectual company. Above all, he was a poet whose poetry was “a mad orgy of the imagination.” Martin Eden and Russ Brissenden talked for hours in Mar­tin’s squalid room, mixing toddies to stimulate their thoughts. Brissenden took Martin to meet a group of poverty-ridden intellectuals in San Francisco, and there Martin spent one of his most exciting nights discussing idealism, materialism, realism. It was far more stimulating than anything that could be heard in college or at the Morse dinner table. But Brissenden was succumbing rapidly to the ravages of tu­berculosis and soon, after leaving with Martin the manuscript of his magnum opus, entitled Ephemera, shot himself in the head. Martin succeeded in getting the marvelous poem published in a popular magazine, only to be sickened by the tawdry publicity and platitudinous reactions -which resulted.

On two subjects Martin and Brissenden had differed deeply. One was socialism, for Brissenden considered this creed the only hope for the future and felt that Martin’s Nietzschean faith in the superman would soon play him false. Also, Brissenden did not approve of Martin’s great love, Ruth Morse, whom he called ‘‘ ‘that pale, shrivelled female thing!’ ” ‘‘ ‘What under heaven do you want with a daughter of the bourgeoisie?’ ”

Martin’s first impulse was to throttle Brissenden at this attack on his sweetheart, but he was, underneath, coming to many of the conclusions that Brissenden had reached. Ruth was getting more and more discouraged with his insistence on writing and his refusal to get a job; because she loved him, she was willing to resist her family for his sake if only he would show sense and follow some course which would make marriage feasible. Ruth Morse had appeared to Martin as a lovely, refined princess when her brother, grateful that Martin had rescued him from an attack by some hoodlums, introduced the young sailor for the first time into the home of her middle-class family. Before this, Martin had known little but grinding work and cheap living. His parents were dead, and he had earned his living by working in canneries, breaking horses on a ranch, sailing before the mast. Ruth had sensed that he had a powerful mind—and certainly a powerful body —and had been fascinated by his thirst to read books, learn to speak grammatically, and acquire good manners. She went about making him over, even persuading him to give up smoking.

Jack London had conceived of his novel as a portrayal of a member of the proletariat who was attracted to the life of the bourgeoisie, only to find that most of the values of the middle class were false. At first Martin is all eagerness. He soon learns to cope with forks, to walk on the curb side of the sidewalk when he squires his lady, and even to wear a stiff collar and a well-pressed suit. One of the most memorable scenes is the opening one, in which the young sailor with his rolling gait and awkward shoulders makes his way through the furniture of the well-stocked Morse living room. He seems in peril at every moment, yet he is so fascinated by the cultivated life of the family that he is willing to take correction humbly in order to move in those admired circles.

Part of the appeal in this strain of the book lies in Lon­don’s skill in capturing the awkwardness felt by many adolescents in the face of an adult society. Even more of it lies in London’s use of his own experiences in pulling himself up from a loveless, poverty-stricken home life to a world which glittered as surely as it does for the characters in Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. But there is more passion in Martin Eden—more comprehension of the outsider who craves to join the party—than in any of Fitzgerald’s novels. This is because Jack London had been a really hungry child, had panhandled for food to feed his belly, had ridden the rods below freight cars and the blind baggage on fast express trains, and had even spent a month in the Erie County Penitentiary after being picked up for vagrancy.

Yet Jack London never craved to return to the proletarian world, as did Martin Eden, who, as he finds bourgeois life more and more artificial, thinks of going back to his “own people.” The hopelessness of such a course is vividly presented in an episode of the novel in which Martin takes a job working in a laundry, planning once more to use “his brawn instead of his brains.” There he works alongside a marvelous character named Joe, who toils so hard during the week to keep up with his employer’s demands that he gets drunk every weekend to be able to keep going. The two are truly work-beasts, without a chance for happiness in life. Martin cannot write, he cannot even read, he is so constantly tired. Finally, both men throw up their jobs, Joe to take to the road as a tramp and Martin to return to Ruth and his writing desk. Martin has clearly become declassed—lost between the workman’s world, to London always the world of the unskilled laborer, and that of the bourgeoisie. His one remaining hope is to create a new world of his own—to rise above both classes through his writing and then to tell everyone of his independence.

The last quarter of the novel which was to be titled “Success” is quite changed in tone from the first three-quarters, which dealt with a fighting adventure. Brissenden’s death crystallizes in Martin an awareness of the false values of literary adulation. Ruth Morse breaks their engagement, and he sees her at last in her true light. And then, quite without reason, Martin sells all his manuscripts and becomes a sensational success overnight. All the people who have snubbed him earlier now crave his attention and receive his contempt. Why had they not helped him when he needed helping, he cries out? Even Ruth comes to him and offers to be his mistress if he will only forgive her for breaking their engagement. But there is no love of life left in Martin; his enthusiasms are all burned out. He no longer enjoys living. Finally he leaves on the steamship “Mariposa” for the South Seas, which seem to beckon him. He never gets there, however. One night, far from land, Martin Eden climbs through the porthole, and, by one final act of will, swims downward until he drowns. The novel ends with the words:

And somewhere at the bottom he fell into the darkness. That much he knew. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.

Many readers of Martin Eden have felt that suicide was not by any means the logical conclusion of a story dealing with the hero’s success against odds. The unexpected nature of the denouement was fully indicated by the fact that the Pacific Monthly, when it began serial publication of the story in 1908, offered $500 to the reader who would most accurately guess the ultimate fate of Martin Eden. Even Jack London, who wrote the book while cruising on his ketch, “The Snark,” in the South Seas, seemed uncertain as to how he would complete his story until he actually neared its end. In the previous November, he had written home that “Success” was to be his longest novel and that he was exceedingly happy while writing it, not even caring if “The Snark” was off course. As he approached the completion of his story, he wrote his publishers that the best part would come when Martin got to the South Seas, a destination which he was never to reach. Even while Jack London sailed from Tahiti to San Francisco on the “Mariposa” on a quick trip to straighten out his tangled finances, he was still without an ending to his book. What was he to do with Martin Eden? Doubtless sometime during that voyage the novel was given its unexpected end. London always insisted that Martin’s suicide was the logical outcome of his experiences, and perhaps he was right.

Yet the reason that London gave for that suicide, when a controversy over the matter arose, is not very persuasive. Repeatedly he maintained that Martin killed himself because he discovered that his creed of individualism had failed. In a copy of the book given to a friend, he wrote:

And not one blessed reviewer has discovered that this book is an attack on individualism, that Martin Eden died because he was so utter an individualist that he was unaware of the needs of others, and that, therefore, when his illusions vanished, there was nothing for him for which to live.

According to London, Martin’s mistake was that he did not become a socialist; socialism would have given him a purpose in life. London even offered to debate a minister in his pulpit, planning to convince the congregation that Martin Eden had failed because he did not take up the socialist cause.

It is true that, at one point in the novel, Russ Brissenden, who is a socialist largely because he cannot stomach capitalism, tells Martin that socialism would remake his life.

You see, I’d like to see you a socialist before I am gone. It will give you a sanction for your existence. It is the one thing that will save you in the time of disappointment that is coming to you.

Yet there is nothing in the book describing Brissenden’s socialistic activities, and his desire to help his fellow man does not keep him from putting a bullet into his brain. Nor is Martin even mildly tempted by socialism; rather, he stoutly defends his Nietzschean position during the one occasion when he visits a local socialist meeting. On the other hand, he does not need socialism to be fully aware of the suffering among his poor friends—his washtub sister, his fertile landlady, his desperate mate from the laundry days—and, when his stories begin to sell, he gives his money lavishly to make them happy, clearing mortgages, buying shoes and ranches, and even purchasing a laundry for Joe. Nor does London write as an advocate of socialism. Never in the novel is the reader in doubt of London’s admiration for Martin as an individualist. The spirit of the book lies in Martin’s success in “going it alone.” He is the Alger boy in just one more guise, and the fun of the reading lies in seeing him win his battle— a battle with ignorance, poverty, and, above all, The Establishment, as we would put it today. Never once is the reader concerned with Martin’s attitude toward socialism; it plays so small a part in the book that it goes unnoticed.

Doubtless part of the reason that London made so much of Martin’s failure to become a socialist is that he himself was still widely known as a prominent socialist, an avowed Marxist who signed most of his letters with a rubber stamp reading “Yours for the Revolution, Jack London”; who had been first president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, lecturing across the country on the inevitable fall of capitalism; who had run for the school board and the mayorship of Oakland as a socialist candidate and was even considered as a socialist candidate for governor of California. Just the year before Martin Eden appeared, he had published The Iron Heel, a novel which presents in vivid terms the disintegration of capitalism. It is pertinent that it ends before the proletarian utopia is achieved, with society still in the grip of ruthless dictators, men who would be called Fascists and Nazis in another generation. Perhaps London’s failure to make a convincing case for socialism as the hope for Martin Eden lay in London’s diminishing faith in the socialist revolution. He was not to resign from the party for seven years, but at the time of writing Martin Eden he was sailing on “The Snark,” no longer active in the cause nor for that matter much concerned with its underlying ideas.

His own “natural” philosophy had always more nearly resembled that of the predatory Wolf Larsen, strong-handed captain of The Sea Wolf, than it did that of Ernest Everhard, hopeful leader of the socialists in The Iron Heel. Perhaps Joan London, in her biography of her father, comes fairly close to the point when she insists that, in Martin Eden, London wrote his obituary.1 Not only had he lost his active interest in socialism, but he had found success as a writer increasingly hollow. There was something wrong, and he was searching for the answer.

In the light of Jack London’s temperament, it is not difficult to understand the suicide of Martin Eden. The foreshadowing of his final act is, in fact, to be found throughout the entire book, even though London may not have known that it was there. It lies in the very intensity of Martin’s battle despite the uncertainty of his goals. The process of succeeding drives him on with exhilaration; he gains intense pleasure in cutting down on his sleep, husbanding every moment, searching for new ideas, savoring the taste of an effective phrase. The battle is everything; the result, nothing. It is not Brissenden’s death, nor the breakup with Ruth Morse, nor the discovery that much of cultural life is shallow that does him in. It is, rather, the discovery that he was going nowhere and the deadly realization that he had lost his interest in life. The frenetic activity was followed, dramatically, by an overpowering inertia. He found that he was interested in nothing; that he had difficulty moving from his chair; that neither food, drink, nor companionship would any longer stimulate him. One is tempted to conclude that he had reached the depressive stage of a manic-depressive existence.

His friend Lizzie Connolly, a working girl who would give him anything to bring him back to himself, had it right when she said: “It ain’t your body. It’s your head. Something’s wrong with your think machine.” And Martin recognized his trouble when he said to Ruth Morse: “I am sick, very sick. How sick I did not know till now. Something has gone out of me. I have always been unafraid of life. Life has so filled me that I am empty of any desire for anything.”

There is some evidence that, at the time he wrote Martin Eden, Jack London was more than usually worried that he would lose his mind. These fits of depression following elation had plagued him frequently during his short life, but now they were growing more intense. How could he, who savored life so much, find all so dull and drab? He was to tell about his problem soon in his John Barleycorn, an autobiographical story that vividly portrays the “long sickness” of alcoholism which came upon him only too frequently. At least once before writing Martin Eden, he had attempted suicide as a way out—curiously, by attempting to drown himself in the Carquinez Straits, near San Francisco. Only the timely arrival of a fishing boat had saved him from death. Now, perhaps that urge became almost unbearable as he looked out his porthole on die “Mariposa.” Death—the “Noseless One,” as he called him—would finally be welcomed at his ranch in Glen Ellen, when he was just forty years old.

Fifty books remain—the product of his fevered spirit and tremendous energy. Of them, none is better than Martin Eden. Like all his books, it is uneven in structure, sometimes clumsy in expression, at times mawkish in tone. Yet it possesses great lasting power, having more vitality today than it did the day it issued from the press. It gives a trustworthy picture of urban life in California at the turn of the century. It portrays effectively the feelings of an untrained boy coping with the baffling behavior of an adult society. It presents minor and major characters vividly. It says much about the clash in values between the proletariat and the middle class. It anticipates even more of what our own generation is saying about the faults of The Establishment. It tells more than London realized of the joys and depressions of a neurotic temperament, thus sounding remarkably modern in a world accustomed to the trials of the psychologically troubled. And, above everything else, it breathes energy and creates excitement as Martin Eden discovers the world of intellect and wins the battle to express himself.

1. Joan London, Jack London and His Times (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1939), pp. 330-331.

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


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