Jack London’s Martin Eden – Introduction and Notes by Sam S. Baskett

by Sam S. Baskett

In April, 1907, Jack London sailed out the Golden Gate aboard his $30,000 yacht, bound on what was planned as a seven-year cruise around the world. Within a few months London, already a popular writer and a famous public figure at thirty-one, had put aside the hack work he was grinding out to pay for the expensive voyage and had turned from his previous concern with social polemics and brutal life in elemental surroundings to write his most considerable work, Martin Eden. In this novel, London draws heavily on his own experiences as he describes the efforts of a young writer to achieve success. “I was Martin Eden,” he bluntly asserted several years later. Yet Martin Eden is not sim­ply a fictionalized autobiography; London emphasizes that he was here concerned with more than the immediate and personal by his description of the protagonist’s theory of writing: “For that matter, it was always the great, universal motif that sug­gested plots to him. After having found such a motif, he cast about for the particular persons and particular location in time and space wherewith and wherein to utter the universal thing.” Actually, in writing Martin Eden London reversed the practice of his literary alter ego, beginning with his own life as the “plot,” then attempting to examine the wider significance of the experi­ence in which he was enmeshed; and the relation between the “particular” and “universal” in Martin Eden points up the pur­pose, achievement, and weakness of the novel.

After an adolescence and young manhood of enduring poverty, working in jute mills and canneries, sailing before the mast on a sealing vessel, and tramping, first around the San Francisco Bay area and then across the country, London had succeeded in pub­lishing his first story, based on his experiences in the Klondike gold rush, in January, 1899. “To the Man on Trail” was followed in the next four years by some thirty other tales of elemental struggle in the Far North. Although often attacked by the con­ventional, London attracted both critical and popular attention with these works; in 1903 The Call of the Wild made him the most widely known of the “red-blooded” writers, a popularity in­creased by the success of The Sea-Wolf the following year. In addition, by now London was contributing to several magazines a constant stream of hastily written articles and stories in an un­abashed effort to make writing pay. But not only his writing publicized London’s name. He had abruptly left his wife and two children in 1903, and a year later, upon his return from Yoko­hama, where he had been sent by the Hearst papers to report the Russo-Japanese War, his wife began divorce proceedings. In 1905 he was elected president of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society and began a four-month speaking tour, upsetting socialists as well as conservatives with fiery attacks on the status quo, particularly in his “Revolution” lecture. In the midst of this tour the divorce became final, and London immediately remarried. Many consid­ered this dual assault on contemporary moral and political codes to be too much; and since every detail of London’s private and public life was by now carried in the papers, his fame began to acquire the tinge of notoriety. Consequently, sales of his books dropped, and some libraries withdrew their copies from circula­tion. Even so, London continued to speak out for the Socialist party and spent half of 1906, when he was not turning out more marketable material, composing his famous indictment of the capitalist system, The Iron Heel. Yet another situation made London good newspaper copy at this time. The press was de­lighted at the irony of the socialist author sailing around the world on his specially built, private yacht. When London, with his accustomed energy, assertiveness, and self-confidence, per­sisted in completing his yacht, the Snark, in the months following the San Francisco earthquake, despite shortages and inflated prices which multiplied the estimated cost four times and delayed the sailing six months, the press reported with unconcealed amusement the resultant altercations. With such experiences behind him, London began to write Success, the ironic title he first gave Martin Eden.

The identity of Jack London and Martin Eden is largely a matter of states of mind. London’s description in John Barleycorn of his “long sickness” closely resembles Martin Eden’s intellectual pessimism and personal despondency. At approximately the time that London must have been writing of Martin’s plan to escape from himself to a bay in the Marquesas, Charmian, London’s sec­ond wife, described an identical bay in her “log” entry for De­cember 15, 1907. When he was writing the final pages of the novel describing Martin’s death trip aboard the Mariposa, Lon­don and his wife were aboard that ship, returning to the Snark after a hurried business trip to San Francisco. The portholes of the Mariposa, Mrs. London remarks with rather imperceptive matter-of-factness, “were the model for the means of ‘Martin Eden’s’ suicide”—imperceptive because she seems unaware that the death of the character was quite likely a reflection of a con­scious suicidal impulse of the author, an impulse which London described fully in John Barleycorn in 1913 and which probably led to his death by an overdose of morphine in 1916.

Although both the incidents and the mood of Martin Eden are often unmistakably autobiographical, its themes obviously have a much wider scope. London wrote a friend in February, 1908, that the just finished Martin Eden was “an attack upon the bour­geoisie and all that the bourgeoisie stand for. It will not make me any friends.” This somewhat rancorous statement points both to the early animosities of the young London who had worked for a few cents an hour in a laundry and to one of the “motifs” of the book—class relationships in the late nineteenth century. Without money, education, or parents, Martin had apparently always lived at the bottom of society, working with his back, his fists, and his wits. Some of the most powerful scenes describe his life among the working class—the fight with Cheese Face, the backbreaking laundry job, the Bricklayers’ picnic at Shellmound Park. When Ruth and Arthur Morse come to visit Martin, who is recovering from an attack of the grippe, they surprise his land­lady in the midst of her chores:

Sleeves rolled up from soap-flecked arms and a wet gunny-sack around her waist told of the task at which she had been caught. So flustered was she by two such grand young people asking for her lodger, that she forgot to invite them to sit down in the little parlor. To enter Martin’s room, they passed through the kitchen, warm and moist and steamy from the big washing in progress. Maria, in her excitement, jammed the bedroom and bedroom-closet doors together, and for five minutes, through the partly open door, clouds of steam, smelling of soapsuds and dirt, poured into the sick chamber.

Contrasted with these are scenes from middle-class life—the rela­tive luxury of the Morse home, picnics in the Berkeley hills, moonlight cruises on Lake Merritt, the party which Mrs. Morse arranges hoping to show Martin at a disadvantage. At first, the squalor of his old life is no match for the glamorous appeal of this new one—the issue is vividly presented in the first two chap­ters—and so Martin abandons his old ways and comrades, deter­mining to improve himself. Later, however, he discovers that the gentility and graciousness of the Morse family are a mask for their essential hypocrisy and coldness. But even as Martin vents his scorn on this group and the rest of their class, he realizes that the simplicity and coarseness of his former companions now bore and offend him. Although Martin is repelled by the moral timidity of Ruth, he has become too sensitive to be satisfied with the simple, earthy love of Lizzie Connolly. He has thus unclassed himself. Possessed of a tolerant contempt for the workers and a harsher antipathy to the bourgeoisie, many of whose values he has unknowingly absorbed, Martin has succeeded in isolating him­self from the human companionship (usually expressed in terms of class alignments) which can give his life meaning.

London’s thesis goes beyond the restricted consideration of Martin Eden and Ruth Morse as representatives of different classes, however. In April, 1910, London wrote that the book had been “accepted as an indictment of socialism” whereas he had intended it as an attack on individualism: “Had Marlin Eden been a socialist he would not have died.” Although the resolution of the conflict between two social philosophies was anything but clear to the reviewers, who generally misinterpreted London’s thesis, clearly this opposition of socialism and individualism is one of the principal themes of the novel. Martin, of course, stands as the unmitigated individualist. His physical strength and mental alertness are reinforced by the intensity of his determination to get ahead, by his unshakable belief, as he gains more self-confi­dence, that he, Martin Eden, has quickly gotten the number of a sorry world. At the end of the book he stands aloof from the crowd, contemptuous of their sycophancy and weakness. The rationale of this temperamental individualism he explains as the Nietzschean philosophy of the man on horseback. At a meeting of Oakland socialists, Martin expounds his version of this philoso­phy: “In the struggle for existence . . . the strong and the progeny of the strong tend to survive, while the weak and the progeny of the weak are crushed and tend to perish.” Socialism must fail, he argues, because it is a society of slaves which at­tempts to annul biological laws. Contradicting this philosophy, the socialists answer him with lines of thought he has not considered and give him “insights not into new biological laws, but into new applications of the old laws.” Brissenden, Martin’s closest friend, also attempts to convert him from his “antediluvian” be­liefs, saying that socialism will give him a reason for living. On a less theoretical level, the toil of Martin and Joe Dawson in the laundry presents economic individualism in a rather harsh light, and Martin himself belies his attack on the “slave society” by propping up such weaklings as his sisters, Maria Silva, Joe Daw­son, and others.

It is not strange, however, that some reviewers took the book as an attack on socialism. The socialists are given only a few sentences to answer Martin’s several paragraphs of Nietzschean philosophy. Brissenden’s affirmation of socialism loses effective­ness inasmuch as he is a physical weakling who cynically observes life from the sidelines, eventually killing himself to escape his infirmity. Most members of the working class, who stand to bene­fit from socialism, are pictured as pathetically incompetent and uninteresting. These all provide poor competition for the strong, attractive, sincere young man who by sheer force and ability is overcoming his disadvantages of birth and circumstance. There is an additional confusing complication in the development of this theme. Martin’s immediate antagonists are not socialists, but editors and businessmen, the Fords, the Butlers, the Morses, even his grocer brother-in-law—petty individualists all. Temperamen­tally and philosophically Martin is far more individualistic than they; he tells Judge Blount that actually such bourgeoisie are “unconscious henchmen” of the “masters of society.” More indi­vidualistic are the “masters,” the shrewd and spidery traders and moneylenders who are against any curtailment by the state. Martin also heatedly assails these financial titans: “The world belongs to the strong—to the strong who are noble as well and who do not wallow in the swine-trough of trade and exchange.” In the light of such statements, the book does seem to support a well-reasoned individualism. Certainly there is no equivalent pres­entation of the case for socialism, and only in the final pages of the book does London clearly undercut Martin’s half-digested Nietzscheanism. Martin eventually becomes a philosophical as well as a cultural alien, and London seems to say that the logical extreme of even nonpredatory individualism, once the individual­ist has succeeded in destroying all the avenues of human com­munication, is suicide.

Martin Eden remains interesting fifty years later, however, not so much for what it has to say about turn-of-the-century society and thought, but for what it has to say about a human being attempting to establish for himself the meaning of his existence. At the beginning of the book, despite his physical experience, Martin is in a state of unawakened innocence; he has lived in “sublime carelessness.” A glimpse of the Morse home stirs him, and thus stimulated, he is aflame with youthful desire to possess this new world. Suddenly self-conscious, he asks who and what he is: “It was the first time he had ever really seen himself.” As his world widens, Martin’s self-confidence grows, and his radiant, youthful enthusiasm, his zest for life, is the distinguishing feature of the first part of the book. Determining to become a writer, he plunges toward the realization of this goal. In so doing, for sev­eral years he channels all his energy toward becoming rather than being. The library, he decides early, is the “chart room” of knowl­edge. True, statements of self-analysis occur throughout the book, but there is no further vital reassessment which could provide the basis for another change. After two years, the intellectually sophisticated apprentice writer is considerably different from the original bumbling, stammering sailor; and yet he naively retains the same personal goals, those symbolized by the Morse home and by Ruth. Martin in his eager impingement on life reads deeply, particularly in the “iron facts of biology,” and becomes a philosophical pessimist. His outlook is further darkened by per­sonal disappointments. The society in which he lives enslaves him in dehumanizing labor; it rejects his manuscripts. Various indi­viduals misunderstand or scorn him. Even Ruth, who has sym­bolized the love so essential to his nature, fails him. When he achieves success there is a final travesty of human relationship. His former antagonists now eagerly seek him out, and Ruth’s brother brings her to him, pandering the love which Martin had been denied before his success. With Martin’s fall from inno­cence, his animal verve and gusto are enervated; thus vulnerable, his spirit is shattered when he discovers, in all his naivete, that his desire for financial and social success cannot furnish a rea­son for living, that human beings are not necessarily what they appear, that underneath the fagade of the seemingly new and various world lurks a void of darkness. Such is the outcome of Martin’s successful acquisition of knowledge, or rather of his reali­zation that there is no absolute knowledge to be obtained; accept­ing the vision of darkness, he loses the will to live.

The sudden disillusionment and eventual suicide of Martin Eden represent a drastic change of mood corresponding to the sudden shift in the individualism-socialism theme, and the quickness of this change is probably the weakest part of the book. The ending was not an afterthought, however. In a conversation with Martin Johnson (at the time a young member of the Snark’s crew and later to become the well-known explorer-photographer) when he was just beginning the novel, London spoke of the “un­happy death” he had in mind for the hero. Furthermore, had London insisted on keeping Success as the title, against the pref­erence of his publishers for Martin Eden, the irony of Martin’s apparent achievements would have been more unmistakably em­phasized. Also, London does make some attempt to prepare for Martin’s change by certain warnings, though these might easily be overlooked in the face of Martin’s almost unconquerable vigor. Unsatisfactory diet and overwork produce several danger sig­nals, despite his splendid physical constitution. The long day­dream of the fight with Cheese Face which Martin acknowledges to himself is a “bit of hysteria and melodrama,” the several days’ attack of the grippe which normally he would have withstood, the “half delirium” he is in when he finishes the manuscript of “Overdue,” all indicate that his physical vitality is being weak­ened. There are also signs of mental danger. He comes to believe that the books which are “all the comrades that were left to him” and which deal with the “bottom of things” expose with merciless logic the futility of human endeavor. A little later he admits that when he is nervous and overwrought he is haunted by Long­fellow’s lines suggesting that it is easy to end care by a single step into the sea. Recognizing these symptoms, Brissenden cas­ually suggests socialism as a “sanction” for Martin’s existence, telling him that he must be “handcuffed to life somehow.” Lon­don has prepared for Brissenden’s statement by characterizing Martin as an individual whose nature demands more than any­thing else love and sympathetic understanding; inevitably Ruth’s final defection, by removing the last source of that love and sym­pathy, will disarm Martin in his struggle for survival. In yet another way, by the use of irony, London lays bare Martin’s essential weakness and thus anticipates the conclusion. Martin is bitterly critical of the success story of Mr. Butler, who sacrificed everything as a young man—health, intellectual and spiritual development, zest for life—to prepare to make $30,000 a year; and yet Martin holds himself to a survival-level existence with the result that he too becomes the pawn of success. After reading Spencer, Martin is ashamed of his earlier “childish” and “half- baked” attempts to write, of which he had been so proud; but shortly thereafter he again assumes that he has achieved final maturity. And he sneers at the girls of the working class whose thoughts “did not go beyond ice cream and a gentleman friend,” although at the same time he is thrusting aside, in the hope of eventual success, the even more imperative demands of his own nature for human companionship.

Most critics agree that in Martin Eden London deals seriously and vigorously with important ideas. It is less certain that he shapes these ideas into an entirely satisfactory novel. Alfred Kazin asks whether London was not “one of those sub-artists who out of the very richness of their personal experience only seem to suggest the presence of art in their work,” 1 and this question points to the source of much of the weakness of the novel. Far too often London merely assigns his own chaos to his character without fulfilling the novelist’s function of ordering and objecti­fying this experience. Consequently the representation of class distinctions can be narrowed to the view of a boy who had had a hard time getting ahead in the world. The vacillation noted in the development of the socialism-individualism theme illustrates Upton Sinclair’s appraisal that his friend could never decide whether he wanted to be a revolutionary or a landed gentleman.2 The abrupt shift in Martin’s attitude from relish of life to bore­dom and despair reflects the confusion of the author who in his early thirties was already considering suicide.

London’s failure to achieve objectivity is reflected in most of the aspects of the novel. One difficulty is that London has not firmly determined the point of view from which he wishes to present his material. Usually we perceive from the mind of the competent, but withal innocent, young man who shrugs off hard knocks and refuses to believe that he can be beaten:

It came to him [Martin] insensibly that it was a very good world. It certainly appeared more beautiful to him. For weeks it had been a very dull and sombre world; but now, with nearly all debts paid, three dollars jingling in his pocket, and in his mind the consciousness of success, the sun shone bright and warm, and even a rain-squall that soaked unprepared pedestrians seemed a merry happening to him.

Martin’s knowledge of the world and of himself is incomplete, however, as intermittent editorial comments make apparent:

He [Martin] did not know that he was himself possessed of unusual brain vigor; nor did he know that the persons who were given to probing the depths and to thinking ultimate thoughts were not to be found in the drawing rooms of the world’s Morses; nor did he dream that such persons were as lonely eagles sailing solitary in the azure sky far above the earth and its swarming freight of gregarious life.

Such interpretations by the author, while going beyond Martin’s vision, invariably support the vital and attractive central charac­ter. Occasionally we see Martin from the point of view of other characters, Ruth and Brissenden, principally. Yet it is stressed repeatedly that Ruth’s understanding of life is patently shallow; and Brissenden, although noting that Martin needs to change his attitude, plainly indicates that this change is but a necessary compromise with a contemptible society. In Martin’s final indict­ment of life, there is little to indicate that the hero’s view is unsound; he desultorily agrees when Lizzie Connolly tells him that his “think-machine” is sick, but the emphasis is on Martin’s self-pitying conclusion that the world is a paltry place. The au­thor’s failure to detach himself from his character leaves the reader with a largely unresolved contradiction. If we strain for every hint of Martin’s immaturity suggested by the attitude of others toward him, we may conclude that Martin has fared poorly, bright though he is, as a result of his own weakness. He has failed to build a coherent social philosophy, to attain satis­factory personal relationships, or, more broadly, to correlate his diverse experience into a self-sustaining view of life. But again, as we assume Martin’s point of view, one often corroborated by the omniscient author, we may decide that Martin is not respon­sible for his predicament. Victimized by the pettiness or mean­ness of almost everyone he encounters, he succumbs to the incom­prehensibility of his environment.

The lack of sureness with which London handles the point of view is also reflected in the structure of the novel. Malcolm Cowley has designated “four common types of novels”: those that could be titled “The Adventures of —–” or “The Courtship of —–” or “The Education of —–” or “The Rise (or Fall) of —–.” 3 These categories perhaps can help to explain why, having become involved with Martin’s early struggles, we have difficulty in accepting his rapid disillusionment. As London nos­talgically recalled his early adventures which made his young manhood a glorious struggle, he conceives of the novel as The Education of Martin Eden. When Martin, following the pattern of his creator, wins that struggle (on some levels at least) London confronts him with the problem uppermost in the author’s mind: why is “success”—acclaim, money, “pleasure”—not enough to live by? And so the last part of the book, in consonance with the mood of London’s later years, becomes The Fall of Martin Eden. The tone of the “Education” contradicts the “Fall” and vice versa as the author shifts his attitude toward his materials during the course of the novel.

One of the striking achievements of the book is the central character. To the initial Martin Eden, London has imparted his own early buoyancy and intensity:

Along with his humbleness because he [Martin] knew so little, there arose a conviction of power. He felt a sharp gradation between him­self and his shipmates, and was wise enough to realize that the dif­ference lay in potentiality rather than achievement. What he could do, they could do; but within him he felt a confused ferment working that told him there was more in him than he had done. He was tor­tured by the exquisite beauty of the world, and wished that Ruth were there to share it with him. . . . 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 through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt.

London’s vivid portrayal of the fire, energy, and optimism of Martin comes alive in such passages; Martin is a memorable characterization both as a recognizable individual and as the spirit of youth. But for Martin, youth passes quickly, a casualty of the first dispelling of his illusions of life, of humanity, of himself. When he discovers he has nothing to substitute for these illu­sions

. . . the desperateness of his situation dawned upon him. He saw, clear eyed, that he was in the Valley of the Shadow. All the life that was in him was fading, fainting, making toward death. . . . This was his peril. Life that did not yearn toward life was in fair way toward ceasing. Some remote instinct for preservation stirred in him, and he knew he must get away.

The second Martin, as I have noted, is much less convincing than the first, perhaps because London, out of his own disillusionment, sketches Martin’s despair too hastily and superficially. Even so, the total characterization is a believable and impressive portrayal of the anguish of a sensitive and perceptive twentieth-century “hollow man” who has come to believe that life is long and empty.

Although London’s identification with Martin Eden’s actions and attitudes enables him to endow his hero with great vigor and vitality, this identification also tends to result in too much em­phasis being placed on the characterization. Martin dominates the canvas of the novel to the extent that the other characters seem relatively flat and insipid. His antagonists, the Morse brothers and their parents, the editors, his brothers-in-law, Judge Blount, the “real dirt” intellectuals, are mostly figures of straw, their outlines only vaguely discernible through the miasma of Martin’s self-concern. Perhaps it is sufficient that the Morse family and their friends remain stereotypes, since London’s main point in regard to them is that they ease through life, unable or afraid to be full human personalities. But certainly the repre­sentation of the intellectuals is unsatisfactory. Martin accommo­dates Kreis with a “loan,” willing to lose the money because Kreis gave him the “greatest night” of his life. (According to Joseph Noel, Nathan Greist, after whom Kreis is patterned, loaned London money.)4 Yet neither this important night nor Martin’s blunt refusal of more such evenings is entirely credible; Kreis and the others are too briefly sketched to be more than two-dimensional figures. Their flatness is particularly unfortunate since the reader consequently has no adequate basis for eval­uating Martin’s ready dismissal of the intellectual life as a way out of his despondency. Actually there is no character of his caliber with whom Martin has any meaningful communication. He is isolated even from the minor figures for whom he has an affinity and who do come through somewhat more clearly—Joe Dawson, Maria Silva, and Gertrude. Martin shares the drudgery of each of these, but mentally he is far beyond them. Brissenden and Professor Caldwell are his intellectual equals, but in their brief appearances they really have little interaction with the hero, serving rather to emphasize the essential validity of his attitudes. Thus because of his superiority Martin stands above and apart from the rest. But the contest has been too easy. Martin would be a stronger characterization if he were more stoutly challenged by other carefully created characters in the novel.

The two principal women, Lizzie Connolly and Ruth Morse, are given some of the most mawkish lines in the book. Even so. in comparison with the other minor characters they are relatively lifelike. Lizzie is briefly but effectively presented as a frank, level­headed girl whose instinctive enjoyment of life is the counter­part of Martin’s early insouciance. Her honest approach to life contrasts sharply with Ruth’s maidenly reserve. As a twenty-five- year-old girl waiting for her knight to appear, Ruth at first is likely to seem preposterously unreal to many readers. We should remember, however, that she is a proper Victorian young lady who has been protected from the water-front reality Martin has known. Her stilted speech is in keeping, for the most part, with her training and temperament; her sentimentality may be dis­tressing, but it is not unbelievable. London has created a senti­mental character who is easily shocked and is trained to ignore the “nasty,” but he delineates this romantic personality with realistic if restrained strokes.

The style of the book is about what one would expect in view of London’s attitude toward his craft. Shortly after he had first begun to publish, he wrote a friend, “If cash comes with fame, come fame; if cash comes without fame, come cash.” In practice this meant, after he had become an established writer, that on most days he turned out a thousand words in a two-hour stint, almost never revising. Throughout Martin Eden occur instances of wooden dialogue as well as inept, pedantic, and trite phrasing. For example, “Not in a day could he learn to chant in noble verse”; or “ ‘Dig up, you venerable discourager of rising young talent!’ Martin exhorted.” Still, London was aware of the prob­lem of technique—Martin tells Ruth that he will not take a job as a journalist for fear that it will warp the style he has worked so hard to attain. At its best, the style of Martin Eden is crisp and direct, particularly when London is describing action or set­ting a scene:

Out on the broad verandas of the hotel, men and women, in cool white, sipped iced drinks and kept their circulation down. But in the laundry the air was sizzling. The huge stove roared red hot and white hot, while the irons, moving over the damp cloth, sent up clouds of steam. The heat of these irons was different from that used by house­wives. An iron that stood the ordinary test of a wet finger was too cold for Joe and Martin, and such test was useless. They went wholly by holding the irons close to their cheeks, gauging the heat by some secret mental process that Martin admired but could not understand.

The concrete and visual qualities of London’s writing are most effective in this novel in communicating a sense of Martin’s vital­ity, his bursting energy. This style is obviously less well adapted to expressing the nuances of Martin’s state of mind in the con­cluding passages. And so at times London writes, as one reviewer complained, “like a gifted, excited sophomore,” a judgment which again brings to mind his habit of composing at full speed with­out revising.

On almost every page there is evidence of this “gifted excite­ment”; Martin Eden crackles with the electricity of human desire and suffering. There is much less evidence of the dedicated care of the conscious artist attempting to transmute his excitement into something universal. Consequently, London’s literary mode, like Martin’s, often seems the spontaneous reflection of largely unreconciled attitudes toward life, rather than a meticulously for­mulated literary theory: Martin takes a compromise position be­tween the “god” and “clod” schools of fiction, ignoring neither man’s “earthly origin” nor his “divine possibilities.” In another context London says this of Martin: “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.” Various competent critics have categorized London as a realist, a roman­ticist, and a naturalist in turn. Although it is helpful to know where London “fits” in the literary movements of his time, in­sistence on any one of these labels misrepresents him; actually, London is each at various points in his fiction, including Martin Eden, and this methodological eclecticism—or rather spontaneous expression—makes him particularly representative of his literary age.

Certainly on the basis of the concrete, almost photographic representation of various scenes from Oakland life, Martin Eden is realistic. The metaphysics of the book, however, is predomi­nantly naturalistic. London, like Martin, had read eagerly if hastily and sketchily in the writings of such nineteenth-century giants as Darwin, Marx, and Spencer. The world of this novel is post-Darwinian; its inhabitants are determined by their social and economic environment as well as by their biological heritage. Martin’s education, his “self-analysis,” largely consists in com­ing to recognize man as kin to the animals and like them the victim of heredity and environment. But, of course, it is easier to be objective about the buffetings that others receive from forces which hopelessly overshadow them. Martin, like London, was a temperamental individualist even before he read Nietzsche, and so for his own part he continues the assault on these forces. And he makes a pretty good struggle of it, so intense is his will. There is no essential conflict, however, between this will and de­terminism; within the framework of pessimistic determinism there is room for the Darwinian struggle for survival. Martin’s will is akin to the life force which Wolf Larsen in The Sea-Wolf de­scribes as “like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year or a hundred years,” the force that starts Martin swimming for land after he has lowered himself into the middle of the ocean. In the foreword to his ac­count of the Snark voyage, London describes himself as “a little animal called a man—a bit of vitalized matter,” who is in con­flict wdth “the great natural forces . . . unconscious, unmerciful, and unmoral.” The vitalized bit of matter named Martin Eden gradually becomes aware of behind-the-scenes machinery which invalidates the superficial modus vivendi he had originally evolved; and his intellectual platform becomes the naturalistic point of view, even toward himself. His biological mechanism is in conflict with the forces of his social and economic environment. With a sense of personal outrage at the unfairness of this conflict, an outrage that is at once naturalistic and romantic, he desires the oblivion of death. Martin in the latter part of the book, despite his increased knowledge and income, despite his success, is a much punier figure than he was in all his raw vitality at the beginning—because of the unequal contest in which he has know­ingly become engaged. In this contest individuality will not suf­fice. Perhaps this is what London meant in the statement that socialism would have saved Martin: if he had been able to align himself with some great force of life, the contest might have seemed less unequal.

Malcolm Cowley has observed that naturalism “has always shown a tendency to dissolve into something else.” 5 In Martin Eden the “something else” dissolves into naturalism. Ultimately, Martin lowers himself into the ocean and waits for death. A bonita takes a piece out of his “white body.” There is a last whimper as his world ends—“His wilful hands and feet began to beat and churn about, spasmodically and feebly.” This “insect man” of the naturalists is a far remove from the almost typi­cally romantic figure of the first part of the book. The tragedy of the early Martin is the tragedy of an individual of great prom­ise who is unable to find values to live by; but is there anything tragic about the object described in the last lines of the book, swirling about a few feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean? London asks us first to believe in the surpassing importance and dignity of Martin, and then he asks us to believe in a malign and incomprehensible universe in which the individual has no importance and dignity. Again, as a conscious artist, London has failed to create a consistent work of art; but as a tormented hu­man being, he has graphically represented his not untypical an­guish as he confronts what seemed to him some of the facts of twentieth-century life.

If one demands in a novel purity of conception and unflagging precision of execution, it is apparent that Martin Eden is a disap­pointing book. It is also apparent, however, that London sur­mounts his flaws as an artist to represent seriously, and at times movingly, some of the significant problems of his or any day. Fred Lewis Pattee has noted that London dealt with the “under-running motifs” of the period and that therefore he was “the interpreter of his times and of his region.” 6 But Martin Eden goes beyond the interpretation of the California of 1900. In de­scribing the plight of a character whose exuberant confidence gives him a false picture of life, and who gradually becomes aware of darkness, London echoes a typical attitude of his age toward a universal human problem, basically the same attitude expressed by greater writers such as Arnold in “Dover Beach” and Conrad in “Heart of Darkness.” To one concerned with literary move­ments, part of the interest of the book lies in its representation of so many facets of its cultural and literary milieu. It contains elements of romantic optimism, of realistic appraisal, of natural­istic pessimism. This is a book reflecting American intellectual experience of the last half of the nineteenth century, from Emer­son and the early Melville through Howells to Dreiser. But ro­manticism and realism and naturalism are more than pedantic labels for literary modes. They suggest the cast of mind of human beings writing and reading. In attempting to trace in Martin Eden the progression of his own attitudes toward life, attitudes that varied from that of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” London makes a comment about human expe­rience that frequently strikes home with compelling force.


East Lansing, Michigan August, 1956

1. Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., Inc., 1942), p. 115.

2. Upton Sinclair, Telling the World (London: T. Werner Laurie, Ltd., 1940), p. 129.

3. The New Republic, CXXXV (July 9, 1956), 16.

4. Joseph Noel, Footloose in Arcadia (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Com­pany, 1940), PP- 40-41.

5. Kenyon Review, IX (Summer, 1947), 430.

6. Fred Lewis Pattee, The New American Literature (New York: Appleton- Century-Crofts, Inc., 1930), 136.

Source: Jack London, Martin Eden, Copyright 1908 by Jack London Copyright renewed 1936 by Charmian K. London Introduction and Notes © 1956 by Sam S. Baskett

Sam S. Baskett, Professor of English (emeritus) at Michigan State University, has written essays on a number of writers, including Jack London, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and, most recently, the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. He has taught internationally in Mexico, Turkey, Japan, and the United Kingdom.


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