by Robert Hass
When Jack London, aged 21, arrived at Dyea Inlet in August of 1897, six steep miles of the Chilkoot Pass stood between him and the trail to the goldfields of the Yukon. The beaches were thick with stampeders, prospectors, would-be prospectors, and the piles of gear that were going to get them to Dawson City and make them rich once they got there. But most of them were not moving, for the very good reason that they could not get over the pass. To prevent mass suicide by greed, the Northwest Mounted Police required that each man who entered the territory carry a thousand pounds of food and five hundred dollars in cash. Beyond the pass, it was another twenty-one miles to Lake Linderman, where the long river voyage to the Yukon began. The August sun was powerful, the switchback trail up Chilkoot was littered with dead and exhausted horses, and the Tlingit porters had raised their rates to fifty cents a pound. London’s brother-in-law, an unprepossessing Oakland grocer of about sixty, calculated that it would cost them their entire grubstake to get to the lake and a boat. He regarded the milling crowds on the beach and his own prospects and decided to go home.
Jack London then did a characteristic thing. According to his biographer, Richard O’Connor, “he stripped down to his bright red flannels, loaded a hundred and fifty pounds on his back, and charged up the pass.” None of the accounts say exactly what the total weight in food and gear was—somewhere between half and three-quarters of a ton. He made twenty-four-mile round trips, twelve miles under pack. The vitality of it is impressive, and the methodicalness even more so. It helps to explain how he was able to write fifty books in sixteen years, and how that combination of method and will, exhilarating at first, must have eaten him up. At the end, three miles from the lake, he made four trips a day. It took him nearly a month; he boasted, years later in John Barleycorn, that after a while he could outpack some of the “Siwash” porters and that he liked whooping encouragement to them as he passed them. His account of it is high-spirited, and it has the fine, careless tone of the prose that made him, in a few short years, one of the most famous writers in the world: “I had let career go hang, and was on the adventure-path again in quest of fortune.”
Earlier that year, he had, after dropping out of the University of California, worked fourteen-hour days in a steam laundry. At eighteen he had shoveled coal in a power plant, sometimes on eighteen-hour shifts. At fifteen, when his father was injured and couldn’t work, he had put in twelve-hour days in a cannery at ten cents an hour. At that moment, in high summer, in the spruce scent of the air on a ridge above a fjordlike Alaskan bay, he must have felt that he had been transformed, even with the pack on his l back, from a beast of burden into a much more splendid kind of animal. Martin Eden is his autobiographical novel, but Martin Eden comes later. If Jack London had written the story of his life in 1897, that story would have been The Call of the Wild, at the end of which Buck, the domesticated Californian dog, has become a wolf and “may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.”
London was a romantic; it was his special gift as a writer to make life seem vivid and intense. He had had a dreary childhood and a difficult youth, and they filled him with a sense—which it is another of the gifts of his fiction to convey—that there were great things in the world and great things inside him, and that there was something wrong with a society that beat I the sense of grandeur out of other people, or wore it away. To freeze one of those moments on the mountain is to see the immediate appeal of his work: life as a grand struggle, masculine, openhanded, and best attacked head-on. Out of this sensibility, quick, generous, and responsive, and out of his prodigal, half-formed gifts and immense determination, he made real art and forged his huge success. It is this that makes the end of his relatively short life, the bad health and heavy drinking, the political contradictions and foolish choices and personal disappointments, and that last stream of mediocre, half-finished, and self-aggrandizing books, seem tragic. He is, still, the most widely read fiction writer in the world, translated into almost every language and selling briskly in most of them. And there is a reason for this. He wanted life to be large and gallant, and wanted his books to convey it, and they do.
But there is also another side to this image of the young man on the mountain; the suspicion, for example, that the readers of Jack London’s time would have seen it as a kind of allegory. Notice that it is Tlingits he is passing on the trail. Here is one of London’s contemporaries, the Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong, discoursing on the extermination of Native Americans and the manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race: “It would seem as if these inferior tribes were only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying: Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The literary and popular culture of the nineteen hundreds, which Jack London came to embody and which trapped him in ways that are familiar to us from the careers of Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, was dominated by imperialism, social Darwinism, and a style of aggressive masculinity. Theodore Roosevelt set the tone. He came to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901, and he was admired by the public for “the reckless and exultant sweep,” the Encyclopaedia Britannica said, of his charge up Kettle Hill. The year before his ascension to the presidency, he had published a book called The Strenuous Life, and a few years before that, an essay entitled “The Manly Virtues and Practical Politics.”
One of the windfalls of the cult of the masculine was wilderness preservation. It was argued that a red-blooded civilization would grow effeminate if it did not have wild spaces. And it was, again, President Roosevelt who gave the movement a boost by accompanying John Muir and a requisite number of reporters on a camping trip to Yosemite Valley. The tone is even in the early poems of Ezra Pound; in the truly awful, though handsomely written “Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” for example, which contains, in Kiplingesque meters, a portrait of Christ as a manly fellow, especially at the Last Supper:
Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere But a man o’ men was he.
There is even an echo of it, touchingly, in Henry James’s The Ambassadors—published like The Call of the Wild in 1903—that moment in the garden when the elderly Lambert Strether is moved to give one of his young countrymen advice: “Do what you like so long as you don’t make my mistake . . . Live! … It doesn’t matter so much what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?”
Two political offspring of the cult of masculinity and the grand struggle were the justification of monopoly capital by invoking the laws of social Darwinism, and the justification of imperialism and racism by invoking the heroic responsibility of bearing the white man’s burden. Social Darwinism had come to the United States by way of the writings of Herbert Spencer, a civil engineer who became the main philosophical spokesman for English industrialism and Victorian science. Charles Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from him; Spencer in turn had glimpsed the idea of it in the population studies of Thomas Malthus and erected on it a philosophy of progress that he grounded in mechanical physics and evolutionary biology. His vogue in America was immense, and Martin Eden, a West Coast provincial, was not the first young American to think that Spencer had put all of life on a sound philosophical basis. American churchmen, of course, disliked his materialism and agnosticism. Part of his attraction was his air of scientific certainty. His definition of evolution, for example: “an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which the matter passes from an indifferent, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.” It must have been very satisfying to young men like Martin Eden to think that, having memorized that mouthful, they were in cool possession of the meaning of all life.
Among the less intellectually inclined, as Richard Hofstadter points out in Social Darwinism in American Thought, Spencer’s ideas took a less complicated form. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who remarked that there hovered over English Darwinism a melancholy sense of many humble people in straitened circumstances. The laboring poor were the indifferent, incoherent homogeneity from which the captains of fate and large businesses emerged. “The fortunes of railroad companies,” the financier James Hill said in 1910, “are determined by the law of the survival of the fittest.” He was echoing Andrew Carnegie, who had said much the same thing and who, in his autobiography, remembered his conversion to Spencer and Darwin in rapturous terms: “I remember the light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution. ‘All is well since all grows better,’ was my motto.” John D. Rockefeller was similarly impressed. “The growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest,” he said in 1900, and, in 1915, more simply: “God gave me my money.”
To the suspicion that the images of the young man charging up the hill and the young dog transformed into a wolf carry a large freight of ideology could be added another—that the unleashing of sheer vigor or of predatory power is not in itself either much of an accomplishment or morally very appealing. Nietzsche’s idea of the superman also was enjoying a vogue in tum-of-the-century America, and though Nietzsche had understood the economic roots of social Darwinism, his superman seemed to mesh nicely with a swashbuckling version of the I survival of the fittest, as if it were an Horatio Alger story with a certain amount of bloodlust thrown in. Simply, the idea that man, at his best, is a wild predator is a dangerous idea, and it is difficult not to feel that that idea, among others, lies buried in The Call of the Wild.
Parallel to this culture of warrior manliness, there was a growing movement for the political emancipation of women. In the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century, the American industrial system was jolted by a series of depressions, the first of which came in the year of Jack London’s birth. There was wide unemployment, the market in labor was crowded, wages were low, and the conditions of work for men, women, and children were shameful. During this time drunkenness among the working poor was perceived to be a problem as serious as poverty itself and a particular threat to families. It is hard to remember from our present vantage point that there was serious opposition to woman’s suffrage because it threatened to abolish the male camaraderie of the saloon. When Jack London came to write his autobiography—it is one of his best books—he wrote it in the form of a temperance tract. John Barleycorn begins with London’s announcement of his intention to support what was called female emancipation. His reason for doing so was his decision that the use of alcohol should be outlawed because it was a killer—not a killer of weaklings only, which would be more or less in the natural order of things, but a killer of strong men. John Barleycorn is a complicated, and in some ways a cunning, book, but one of the things it seems to assert is that the way alcohol kills these men is by dissolving their illusions by too-frequent exposure to the fundamental truth of life: that the grand struggle for existence is a dream, a meaningless bubble in the meaningless weirs of the evolution of matter.
But we have come in a circle that brings us to the darkness at the end of Martin Eden, and to look at that book, we had better look at Jack London’s life, from which it was drawn.
His life, crowded with events, was eventful even before he was bom, in San Francisco on the twelfth of January, 1876. It is often said in biographical notes that he was bom in the “slums of San Francisco,” but that is not true. Nor is it true that he was bom into the working class. It is pretty certain that he was, though he did not know it until many years later, the child of his mother’s short, violent relationship with a man named W. H. Chaney. She, Flora Wellman, was a spiritualist, and he was an astrologer. The youngest daughter and the rebel of a large, comfortable Massillon, Ohio, family, as a child she contracted a nearly fatal case of typhus, which badly stunted her growth—as an adult she was less than Five feet tall, partially bald, and she had poor vision. She became interested in spiritualism during adolescence—it was at that time closely connected to the women’s movement—and in her early adult years she broke with her family and went west. Chaney was, when they met, a man of fifty-five; he had practiced law and journalism in Maine, where he had left behind a reputation for virulent combativeness, and had drifted to New York and then to San Francisco.
The couple met in 1874 and moved in together. She gave piano lessons and seances; he lectured on astro-theology and conducted an astrological practice. When Flora became pregnant, Chaney left her. According to a newspaper report printed in the San Francisco Chronicle in June of 1875, she responded by shooting herself in the forehead with a pistol. The publicity made her a cause celebre briefly in the circle of socialists, spiritualists, phrenologists, and advocates of free love, freethinking, and women’s emancipation in which the couple had moved.
Flora, big with child, told her story at spiritualists’ meetings, and collections were taken up on her behalf. Chaney wrote and had printed a pamphlet defending himself and claiming that she had not shot herself but only gouged her forehead with a piece of glass to simulate a wound. (His only other known publication was a volume entitled Primer of Astrology and Urania, privately printed in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1890.) Eight months after Jack’s birth Flora married, and she gave her son her husband’s name.
John London was, by all accounts, an exceptionally kind and gentle man. Bom in Pennsylvania, he had farmed in Iowa and served in the Union Army. When Flora met him, he was a door-to-door salesman for the Singer Sewing Maching Company. A widower, he was living in a boardinghouse and, unable to take care of them, had placed his two daughters in an orphanage. It appeared to John and Flora that they could be mutually useful to each other, and the pair married. John London did not have his wife’s advanced interests, and though she continued to give seances occasionally, she abandoned most of hers. In the middle of a severe economic depression, they set about trying to make a better life, a task they failed at dismally and often. Jack London, in later life, attributed their failure to his mother, who got her way by having Fits of hysteria and whose way was always to push her luck.
The family First tried a grocery store in Oakland; John London was cheated by his partner, and the store failed when Jack was four. His stepfather then tried his hand at farming— growing produce for the Oakland markets in Alameda, ranching on the San Mateo coast, then raising an olive orchard and chickens in the Livermore Valley. In John Barleycorn, Jack London speaks of these places as “poor-ranches,” as if what they raised were poverty, and he remembers the San Mateo coast as bleak and sad. In any case, the farms also failed, and in 1886, when Jack was ten, the family returned to Oakland, where they rented a pair of cottages and ran a boardinghouse for young women who had been imported from Scotland to work in the cotton mills. Within a year, the couple had decided to buy the cottages, and then lost the mortgages on them. Though the Londons were not working class, they had failed at Five businesses, and now they came into it. John London found work as a night watchman on the Oakland wharves and washed down the decks of a yacht club on weekends. Jack was set to work before and after school as a newspaper boy, an iceman’s apprentice, and a pinsetter in a bowling alley. But he loved the life of the city streets, and he discovered the Oakland Public Library, where he was befriended by the librarian, a poet named Ina Coolbrith, and he began to read books with the hunger of the famished. “I read everything,” he wrote later, “but principally history and adventure, and all the old travels and voyages. I read mornings, afternoons, and nights. I read in bed, I read at table, I read as 1 walked to and from school and I read at recess while the other boys were playing.”
Early in Martin Eden there is this description of the novel’s hero: “He was a harp: all his life that he had known and that was his consciousness was the strings; and the flood of music was the 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 magic and sublimated way.” This is Martin in love, but it catches something of Jack London’s gift for saturating himself in his experience. He spent less than a year in the Yukon, much of it shut in a winter cabin and some of it sick with scurvy, but among all the writing that those years engendered, it is his version (and that of Charlie Chaplin) that survives in the American imagination. The time between his fourteenth and twenty-first birthday was the seedbed of his imagination; he described it. mythologized it, transformed it. and fashioned from it the persona of his adult years, a projection powerful and attractive enough to become an industry. The Oakland waterfront, with its restaurants and boutiques, is now known as Jack London Square.
Then it was known as the waterfront, and when John London injured himself in a railroad accident, the family—both of John London’s daughters had married and left—moved to a shack not far from it. Jack had graduated from grammar school and had gone to work at odd jobs and taught himself to sail a small skiff in the estuary; now he took a job in a cannery, where he put in between ten and sixteen hours a day at ten cents an hour. He quit after a few months, borrowed three hundred dollars from his nurse, a woman named Jenny Prentice, to whom Jack was close all his life, bought a sloop, and got into the profitable business of robbing south bay oyster farms in the middle of the night. When his sloop was sunk by a rival thief, he worked briefly, on the other side of the law, for the California Fish Patrol.
We are now deep into his self-mythologizing. Much of the account of this period reads like a boy’s adventure story, and it was, later, written as boys’ adventure stories, The Cruise of the Dazzler in 1902 and Tales of the Fish Patrol in 1905. How did the Londons in their poverty come to employ a nursemaid for their children who was able to save three hundred dollars from her wages? And would she have loaned it—when men made a monthly wage of thirty to fifty dollars—to a fifteen-year-old boy to buy a boat? But I am passing along the story as it is told by the biographers, whose main source was Jack himself.
At any rate, when other children were in high school, he was, in his own phrase, “a man among men,” working the waterfront and drinking with the sailors in their taverns. In January of 1893 he signed onto the sealer Sophia Sutherland and spent seven months at sea, including stops at Yokohama and the Bonnin Islands and seven weeks in the breeding grounds of the Bering Sea, where the crew slaughtered and skinned seals from sunup to sundown and the decks were slick with gore. He came home to a job in a jute mill, again at ten cents an hour, and then, with the idea of apprenticing himself as an electrician, he shoveled coal in a power plant twelve to thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, with one day off a month, at a flat thirty dollars a week. In April of that year, 1894, he had had enough, and he joined the western branch of Coxey’s Army and went on the road.
Coxey’s Army was conceived as a nationwide march of the unemployed on Washington, D.C., to demand the creation of federal public works projects, and it raised the specter of revolution before the comfortable classes in America. Jack had no politics, and went along on a lark. He dropped out of the army in Hannibal, Missouri. Many men had defected by then or were intimidated out of proceeding. Jacob Coxey (who happened to come from Flora Wellman’s hometown of Massillon, Ohio) did reach Washington, where he was promptly arrested for treading on federal grass. Jack rode the rails to Chicago and then to New York, and was himself jailed for vagrancy while attempting to view Niagara Falls. He spent thirty days in the Erie County Penitentiary’. He tells this story in The Road. Though he was apolitical when he left Oakland, he returned a socialist. He also made another decision in that year, which he described in an essay:
The women of the streets and the man of the gutter drew very close to me. I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat. And I confess a terror seized me.
What when my strength failed? When I should be unable to work shoulder to shoulder with the strong men who were as yet babes unborn? And there and then I swore a great oath. It ran something like this: All my days I have worked hard with my body, and according to the number of days I have worked, by just that much I am nearer the bottom of the Pit. I shall climb out of the Pit but not by the muscles of my body shall I climb out. I shall do no more hard work and may God strike me dead if l do another hard day’s work with my body more than I absolutely have to do.
The other kind of work is mental. When he returned home, he enrolled in Oakland High School, and it was there, through her brother Ted, that he met Mabel Applegarth, the Ruth Morse of Martin Eden.
He came to know Ted through the high school’s Henry Clay Debating Society, where he was able to try out the ideas in the books on socialism he was beginning to read. Soon he was a regular visitor at the Applegarths. They were English immigrants; Mr. Applegarth was a mining engineer, and it was, probably, the first respectable middle-class home Jack London had ever been inside. He was immediately dazzled by Mabel. “It was a great love,” he wrote to his friend Anna Strunsky in 1900, “but see! time passed. I grew. I saw immortality fade from her. Saw her only woman. And still I did not dream of judging. She was very small. The positive virtues were hers, and likewise the negative vices. She was pure, honest, true, sincere. But she was small. Her virtues led her nowhere. Works? She had none. Her culture was a surface smear, her deepest depth a singing shallow. Do you understand? Can I explain further? I awoke, and judged, and my puppy love was over.”
In fact, it did not happen so quickly. Jack, an oversized high-school freshman, courted Mabel through the school year while he tried to teach himself to write by turning out stories and essays for the school paper. A high school course was then three years. He decided to compact two of them into a summer, and he spent it studying furiously for the University of California entrance exam, which he passed. A semester at Berkeley—what he remembered of it was standing on the steps of Wheeler Hall, conscious of his rotting teeth from a poor boy’s long diet of candy—only made him more restless, and he dropped out at midyear, determined to make his own way as a writer. It was then that he took the job in the steam laundry described so brilliantly in Martin Eden. He was getting nowhere. By summer he was off to the Yukon.
When he returned, confirmed in his politics, his head full of new experience, deeply absorbed in reading Spencer for philosophy and Kipling for the art of fiction, he was still resolved to marry Mabel as soon as he had made enough money to do so. He lived with his mother, and he wrote night and day, refusing any other work. He had arrived home in July, and he sold his first story in December. “To the Man on Trail” was taken by a San Francisco magazine, Overland Monthly (the Transcontinental Monthly of Martin Eden). The following August Atlantic Monthly took a story, and by December he had a contract for a book. During this time, Mabel, dubious about the value of his work, was Jack’s only literary confidante. Part of her anxiety may have been that her father had died and Mrs. Applegarth had begun to tighten her hold on her daughter. “Mother was always a selfish woman,” one of her brothers once observed, “Mabel spent her life taking care of her.” When Mrs. Applegarth moved herself and her daughter to San Jose, Jack bicycled the thirty miles to visit her. Now, with the book contract in hand, he proposed marriage. Mrs. Applegarth gave her consent, on the condition that Jack either move in with them or provide a home for her in Oakland. Jack was not at all certain that he could disentangle himself from his own mother and saw that the situation was impossible. That was January of 1900. Jack and Mabel did not formally end their relationship, but in April of that year he married Bess Maddem, one of his high school classmates. She was a plumber’s daughter, tranquilly beautiful and very bright; she had tutored Jack in mathematics while he was preparing for his entrance exams. The marriage lasted only three years, during which Bess gave birth to two daughters. Early in their marriage, in the first flush of his success, Jack had met and fallen in love with Charmian Kittredge. He married her in 1905 and lived with Charmian for the rest of his life.
In that first decade Jack London did his best work, turning out books at the rate of three and sometimes four a year. They included the Klondike stories in several volumes. The Call of the Wild, The People of the Abyss (an account of life in London’s East End slums). The Sea Wolf (based on his experience on the Sophia Sutherland), The War of the Classes (a book of political essays), The Road and The Iron Heel. He was a very well-paid and very famous writer when, in Honolulu in 1907, on a much-publicized voyage around the world in his own yacht, he began to write a book based on his own struggle to become a writer. Martin Eden was his eighth novel and twenty-first book; he would write another twenty-nine before his death in 1916.
“Critics,” he wrote in John Barleycorn, “have complained about the swift education one of my characters, Martin Eden, achieved. From 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 true and not. Martin Eden was raised in a working-class family; Jack’s background was more curious than that. Unlike Martin, he found his way to books early, and unlike Martin, he had the support of his mother. Though she seems not to have given him much affection or attention as a child—he complained to Charmian that she never touched him—she did encourage him in his efforts to educate himself and to write. It is hard, in fact, not to suppose that there is some connection between his large appetites and meteoric rise and Flora Wellman’s intensely thwarted life—he seems to come out of it like a cork from a bottle. There must also be a connection between her spiritualism and her son’s resolute and dogmatic materialism. Flora’s seances were quite spooky to him as a child; the power that the rational laws of Herbert Spencer had for Jack must have been as much relief as discovery. In Martin Eden, Jack London does not sketch—perhaps like most of us, he only barely understood—the familial shapes of love and fear that formed him.
But if he was not Martin Eden, his beginnings were inauspicious enough. He had had one year of high school education and a semester of college. Nor did he have, like Dreiser and Hemingway. an apprenticeship in journalism:
My difficulty was that I had no one to advise me. I didn’t know a soul who had written or who had ever tried to write. I didn’t even know one reporter. Also, to succeed at the writing game, I found I had to unlearn about everything the teachers and professors of literature of the high school and university had taught me. I was very indignant about this at the time; though now I can understand it. They did not know the trick of successful writing in the years of 1895 and 1896. They knew all about “Snowbound” and “Sartor Resartus”; but the American editors of 1899 did not want such truck. They wanted the 1899 truck, and offered to pay so well for it that the teachers and professors of literature would have quit their jobs could they have supplied it.
There is a certain amount of swagger and irony in this, but it underlines an important fact—Jack London apprenticed himself to the marketplace and to the conventions of popular fiction, which in 1899 was a medium of entertainment.
This explains why, in his later years, he churned out work like a writer for television and lived like a movie star. It also explains, or helps to explain, some of the limitations of his work. Part of his legend is that he was a precocious boy who with the help of Ina Coolbrith was reading Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina at twelve. But he doesn’t write like it. He writes like someone who has read lots and lots of magazine fiction. That is why, even today, reading London has for many readers the flavor of the popular novels of their childhood. It is in small things, like the elaborate characterization of dialogue. “ ‘Hold on, Arthur, my boy,’ ” Martin says in the first chapter of the novel, and London adds, “attempting to mask his anxiety with facetious utterance.” And again: “ ‘That’s all right,’ was the reassuring answer.” This seems so old-fashioned because the writers who did study Madame Bovary, like Hemingway, embarked on a thorough scouring of the Victorianisms that cluttered American prose fiction. They let readers understand for themselves that Martin was feeling out of place. Also typical is the careless use of whatever metaphor comes to hand. In The Call of the Wild, for example, there is a characteristic moment. London is describing the transformation of Buck: “A carnivorous animal, living on a straight meat diet, he was in full flower, at the high tide of life, overspilling with vigor and vitality.” There is something funny about a carnivore in full flower, and about a flower that becomes a tide. Even though London’s prose has a vigor that sweeps past these moments, it is hard not to be at least half-aware of them. That is why George Orwell, who liked Jack London and admired Martin Eden, could also say of the novel that “the texture of the writing is poor, the phrasing is obvious and worn, and the dialogue is erratic.”
The plot of the popular novel is a daydream; it was part of London’s success that he was able to project his own deprived boy’s powerful daydreams on the world. In the novels this makes for problems of construction and problems of shading. The whole later development of Martin Eden, for example, is coarsely conceived and a little false. Martin’s selflessness and moral vindication are too complete. London wants him to be an individualist, but he needs to get him in trouble as a socialist, and that involves some fidgeting with the plot. Martin’s noble restraint when women throw themselves at him, the melodramatic circumstances of his last meeting with Ruth, the Dickensian distribution of chicken farms and steam laundries to the folk Martin has met along the way, the judge who sits still while Martin delivers himself of a scathing philosophical lecture—it is all too much. But it is also the usual machinery of high-minded and improbable fiction. It was the set of conventions London had learned to use.
And though his work has these serious weaknesses, the power of Martin Eden is undeniable: it has a force that sets it apart from many more gracefully written novels. There is even a way in which the book is served by its flaws. The writing at the outset may be awkward. London, describing a drawing room, is dealing with a more complicated social world than he had ever attempted before, and the prose gets better as the novel proceeds, so that there is an odd way in which it matches the transformation of that young fellow who “awkwardly removed his cap” in the novel’s first sentence. In The Great Gatsby, for example, it means everything that Nick Carraway’s tone and Fitzgerald’s style are finer than the characters Nick finds himself among, because that is the point of the book. But Martin Eden’s style doesn’t need to be finer than the Morses’; it simply needs to be more alert and alive, which it is, so that the first chapter of Martin Eden, whatever its flaws, is one of the best things in the book.
The struggle to become an artist is an old and powerful theme. And Jack London makes it persuasive partly because he is in his own territory—it is really the Horatio Alger story of his childhood, about the poor boy making good—and partly because he focuses on a writer’s work, and London almost always writes brilliantly about work. All the detail is wonderful to read: the hours at the typewriter, the zigzag course from the door to the head of the bed, the Spartan meals of rice and dried fruit, and the incessant trips to the pawnshop. But more impressive than the account of Martin Eden’s work is the story of the growth of his mind, the great theme of romantic poetry. And this is also convincing, not, certainly, in the set-piece speeches, but in the passages about Martin’s solitary study.
Martin Eden is also, of course, the story of a love affair. Martin is half in love with the world he has glimpsed in the Morses’ house, and so the language of his emotion is full of vague, though deeply felt, intensities. But Ruth is sexually attracted to Martin. And here Jack London was working right at the edge of what was acceptable to the audience he was writing for. This may account for Ruth’s slightly peculiar fixation on Martin’s neck. But on the whole the writing is very strong, and like the prose of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, it is in some ways stronger and more subtle because of the sublimation it is forced to deal in. Ruth’s attraction is unconscious, and, though she is treated rather roughly in this book, London’s rendering of her deepest feelings can be both tender and shrewd.
The romantic plot and the story of Martin’s development are linked because it is one of the points of the novel that he grows past his lover; the sense of a person’s intellectual growth is one of the rarest and most difficult things to render in fiction, and London deals with it so expressively partly because he manages so well the slow changes in Martin’s perception of Ruth. And this growing past her brings us to the center of the book, which is its sense of anger and betrayal, rooted in Martin’s discovery that the people who had evoked for him the deepest imagination of the wonder and mystery of life were, finally, little souls, neither good nor bad, for whom culture was good manners and thirty thousand dollars a year was worth almost anything. Because the Morses cannot finally be blamed for the fact that they are the best that Martin’s world has to offer, nor for the fact that in growing toward them and past them, he had cut himself off from the narrow, but solid and comforting pleasures of his own social world, there is nothing for him to be angry at but existence itself. And because he has not yet understood this quite, Martin goes dead. It is at this moment, once the machinery of the plot has faded, that Martin Eden becomes a very remarkable book.
For its final development the introduction of the character of Brissenden is crucial. He was modeled on a San Francisco poet named George Sterling, who was Jack London’s closest friend. The style of late nineteenth-century poets in the poker game of manly life was to pass. If evolution was a remorseless struggle in which only the most rugged passed on their genes, they were willing to be strange flowers that bloomed only once. The French symbolists were the first to strike this pose, the English and American decadents and aesthetes at the turn of the century followed their lead, and the type became the stock figure for the poet in popular culture. The genius of Charlie Chaplin’s conception of the Little Tramp, for example, was to give him a touch of this figure, and how it must have confounded the unconscious script of his audience as it released them into laughter! Not the carnivore in the wilderness on a straight meat diet, but that little poet, the dreamer and flower-sniffer, who kowtowed when he had to and scrapped when he had to, and somehow survived. Brissenden, like George Sterling who actually did commit suicide, is the pure type, and he is very sympathetically drawn. He is there to suggest, by his fineness of spirit and his aristocratic uselessness, that, despite Martin’s excitement about Spencer, evolution may not be such a grand thing after all.
He is also there to introduce Martin Eden to socialism and to raise that theme in the novel. Contemporary readers were very aware of it—or, rather, they were aware of what they felt to be the absence of it. London was the best-known American socialist of his time, and though he had run for mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket, and contributed financially to the party, and was about to publish a book called Revolution, he was coming under attack from his compatriots for his high living. He was particularly sensitive to criticism of Martin Eden, and he defended the book to the novelist Upton Sinclair: “Martin Eden is an individualist, I am a socialist. That is why I continue to live, and that is the reason why Martin Eden died.” Sinclair, writing about the book, noted that reviewers had not grasped London’s point, if that was his point: “It is easy to understand the befuddlement of critics; for he had shown such sympathy with the hard-driving individualist that it would hardly occur to anyone that the character was meant to be a warning and a reproach.”
It is true that there is no reproach in the novel; London had got too deep into his subject to be passing out moral judgments. There is, however, a warning, and it comes from Brissenden in the thirty-eighth chapter, when Martin is on the verge of literary success: “ ‘I’d like to see you a socialist before I’m 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.’ ”
Brissenden, it turns out, is exactly right. The time of disappointment comes and Martin can find no sanction for his existence in his individualism. London is careful to underline this again on shipboard. Finding he has no use for the other people in first class—he knows exactly why their shirts look so white and crisp—and finding that he hardly recognizes the world of the crew, he stumbles onto an intellectually inclined quartermaster who tries to prod him ‘‘with socialist propaganda,” but at this point Martin is too far gone.
The writing in these last pages, London’s rendering of Martin’s sickness with the bright white light of existence, is brilliant, the numbness of it truly terrible: ‘‘He slept much. After breakfast he sought out his deck chair with a magazine he never finished. The printed pages tired him. He puzzled that men found so much to write about, and, puzzling, dozed in his chair. When the gong awoke him for luncheon, he was irritated that he must awaken. There was no satisfaction in being awake.” It is like the freezing numbness of his chilling late story. ‘‘To Build a Fire.” He wrote about this sickness also in John Barleycorn: ‘‘I had read too much positive science,”—he means Spencer—“and lived too much positive science,” and he attributed his condition to “the savage interpretation of biological fact.”
Nor was he the only one of his contemporaries to feel this. We have seen Andrew Carnegie’s response to the doctrine of evolution. Here is the response of the young Theodore Dreiser:
Up to this time there had been in me a blazing and unchecked desire to get on and the feeling that in doing so we did get somewhere; now in its place was the feeling that spiritually one got nowhere, that there was no hereafter, that one lived and had his being because one had to, and that it was of no importance. Of one’s ideals, struggles, deprivations, sorrows and joys, it could only be said that they were chemic compulsions, something which for some inexplicable but unimportant reason responded to and resulted from the hope of pleasure and the fear of pain. Man was a mechanism, undevised and uncreated, and a badly and carelessly driven one at that. … I fear that I cannot make you feel how those things came upon me in the course of a few weeks’ reading and left me numb, my gravest fears as to the unsolvable disorder and brutality of life eternally verified.
This is, I think, where we find Martin in the last chapter, his anger numb, his self-love burnt out, in full possession of this dark idea that has, throughout the novel, flickered just underneath its confidence in evolution. But the book takes one more surprising turn. Martin’s gift had been for struggle, and he gathers himself to struggle one more time. His antagonist is the force that has, all his life, driven him “up to the surface and into the clear sight of the stars,’’ and his one weapon is the tension of his will. The final scene in the novel is a little like something out of Dostoevsky, and the writing, which is surely the best in the book, has unmistakable conviction. One sees what Jack London has discovered. If the world is merely a matter of personal interest, without transcendent principle, then its one meaning is the instinct to live, and the man of will must sanction himself in the struggle with that meaning. The logic of the novel is the love of death, and perhaps it is the logic of the culture, which may be why Martin Eden continues to haunt the American imagination.
Source: Robert Hass introduction to the Bantam edition of Martin Eden