Martin Eden: Jack London’s ”Splendid Dream”

by Sam S. Baskett

Vividly embodying as it does the tangled strands of Jack London’s personal, cultural, intellectual and artistic experience, Martin Eden remains a readable, affecting work sufficiently complex to invite continued critical attention. The results of this attention, however, have been inconclusive. Some critics, pointing to the novel’s undeniable vitality, rank it as London’s best. Others, citing equally evident weaknesses of structure, expression, characterization and tone, all but dismiss it. Moreover, there are widely varying interpretations of the conclusion. What, indeed, are the implications of the abrupt suicide of the protagonist, the youthful, attractive, intelligent, sensitive, vital, successful — and autobiographical — hero? How does this action relate to the rest of the novel and to the author’s attitude toward the function of the novelist? Or, to put the question more radically, did London in fact really see the novel through, shaping his own raw experience into a coherent artistic expression?

The most inclusive answer to these questions, I suggest, is that London attempts a more ambitious pattern than he fully accomplishes; and thus in a sense the novel, like the character and his creator, is ultimately disappointing. On one level, Martin Eden, written at a crisis in London’s life, is a not altogether conscious confession of a variety of personal failures, including his failure to become the iconoclastic yet affirmative writer he had expected to be. On another level, it is a speculation about the possible stance of an ideal modern American engaged in the effort to understand, to order and to interpret his experience from a center at once intellectual and emotional. In attempting to write an intensely personal work and at the same time portray the fundamental human condition as he had come to understand it, London incurs considerable risk — as if Henry Adams in The Education had not heeded his own warning against Rousseauistic subjectivity, or Fitzgerald had written The Great Gatsby from within the title character rather than the more studied perception of Nick Carraway. The scope of London’s effort, however, transforms the impact of these and other obvious shortcomings, if we follow Faulkner in evaluating a writer on the basis of his “splendid failure to do the impossible,” by the way in which he “failed to match the dream of perfection.”1 The characterization of Martin Eden is an expression of London’s “splendid dream”2 and finally an admission that he had lost it. The nature of the dream and the failure, both personally and objectively, is made clearer by the apparently audacious comparisons of Martin Eden with the two major American “fictions” just mentioned.

It is scarcely necessary to document again what has been repeatedly established: Martin Eden’s experiences as a self-taught student, an impassioned lover and a determined writer closely parallel those of the author; as London remarked, “I was Martin Eden.” Moreover, the state of mind of the despairing hero at the end is much like that, internal as well as external evidence suggests, of the thirty-one-year-old writer contemplating his career. In his painstaking study of London’s short stories, James McClintock has convincingly traced “a recurring pattern that emerges from all of London’s fiction: he experienced an initial enthusiasm at having discovered a scientifically justifiable rationale for believing in humanly sustaining values; then a sober realization of human limitations coming from an awareness that death can be understood but not conquered; and, finally, a bitter sense of futility to which he submitted.”3  And London was at just such a nadir when he was writing Martin Eden, the “long sickness” described in retrospect in John Barleycorn. The final tone of the novel thus emerges as London’s deepest expression of personal pessimism. But London’s plaint, to paraphrase Jay Gatsby, was more than merely personal,4 as the pages of both Martin Eden and The Education of Henry Adams: A Study in Twentieth Century Multiplicity attest.

The background, temperament and perspective of the persona of The Education could hardly be more distinct from the characterization of Martin Eden. “Adams” is defined in large part by his distinguished inheritance, his unflagging intellectual commitment and his ironic retrospect across nearly seven decades of accumulating sophistication. Contrastingly, Martin, without specific ancestry, almost literally emerges from the sea, passionately but briefly and naïvely contends against various forces, and then terminates the struggle by suicide while still in his early twenties. These differences notwithstanding, an essential thrust of each character is toward an understanding of what Martin terms “the scheme of existence” (p. 101 ).

“Adams” is continuously explicit about his central task of education, “running order through chaos.”5 He recalls his progress through one “failure” after another until “Of all flowers in the garden of education, confidence was becoming the rarest” (p. 146). Eventually he sees himself as “the first in an infinite series to discover and admit to himself that he really did not care whether truth was, or was not true” (pp. 231- 32). He continues to “amuse” himself, however, with this “criminal” attitude — what Eliot’s Gerontion was to term “Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season” — contemplating the possibility that “Nihilism had no bottom. For thousands of years every philosopher had stood on the shore of this sunless sea, diving for pearls and never finding them. All had seen that, since they could not find bottom, they must assume it” (p. 430). “Adams”, however, will not join those, “From Pythagoras to Herbert Spencer,” who, making that assumption, “had explored an ocean which [science] preferred to regard as Unity or a Universe, and called Order” (p. 451). For “Adams,” “Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man,” and if “‘in the last synthesis, order and anarchy were one . . . the unity was chaos” (p. 406).

“Adams” is speaking as the historian, not as the novelist, but he pauses to consider the plight of the story teller contemplating such “truths”:

Every fabulist has told how the human mind has always struggled like a frightened bird to escape the chaos which caged it; how — appearing suddenly and inexplicably out of some unknown and unimaginable void; passing half its known life in the mental chaos of sleep; victim even when awake, to its own ill-adjustment, to disease, to age, to external suggestion, to nature’s compulsion; doubting its sensations, and . . . after sixty or seventy years of growing astonishment, the mind awakes to find itself looking blankly into the void of death (p. 460).

Unless, that is, the constant effort to “enlarge” the “synthesis” produces too great a strain. “For human purposes a point must always he soon reached where larger synthesis is suicide” (pp. 401-02).

Such a fabulist is Jack London in Martin Eden, bgun in the same year that Henry Adams privately published The Education. Unmistakably, from the time that Martin lurches into the novel and into the bourgeois circle of the Morse family, “surrounded by the unknown, apprehensive of what might happen, ignorant of what he should do,” in his eyes “an expression such as wild animals betray when they fear the trap” (p. 4) he is determined to make that “unknown” into a world in which he is at home. He regards the books on the table as a “starving man at sight of food.” Unable to follow the unfamiliar conversation closely, he nonetheless catches “a glimpse of the apparently illimitable vistas of knowledge. . . . Here was adventure, something to do with head and hand, a world to conquer” (p. 18). On the way home he encounters some university students and reflects that “They had been studying about life from the looks while he had been busy living life. . . . Later on they would have to begin living life and going through the mill as he had gone. Very well. While they were busy with that, he could lie learning the other side of life from the books” (p. 26).

The next day Martin liegins his feverish assault on this “other side of life.” He is frightened and depressed by his first visit to a library. “From every side the books seemed to press upon him and crush him. He had never dreamed that the fund of human knowledge bulked so big. . . . How could his brain ever master it all? Later, he remembered that there were other men, many men, who had mastered it; and … his brain could do what theirs had done” (p. 40). In this effort, “He lived every moment of his waking hours, and he lived in his sleep, his subjective mind rioting through his five hours of surcease and combining the thoughts and events of the day. . . . In reality, he never rested, and a weaker body or a less firmly poised brain would have been prostrated in a general break-down” (p. 89). Eventually, he makes his major intellectual discovery — Spencerian naturalism. Spencer, for Martin, achieves “the correlation of knowledge — of all knowledge”:

This new concept was a perpetual amazement to Martin, and he found himself engaged continuously in tracing the relationship between all things. . . . He drew up lists of the most incongruous things and was unhappy until he succeeded in establishing kinship  between them all. . . . Thus, he unified the universe . . . observing and charting and becoming familiar with all there was to know. And the more he knew, the more passionately he admired the universe, and life, and his own life in the midst of it all (pp. 100-01). [Italics added.]

With such a framework, he is now confident that he is “on the right road and that some day, if he is “lucky,” he “may come pretty close to knowing all that may be known.”

Even as an unread sailor, Martin has a “conviction of power” arising from the “sharp gradation” he feels I between himself and his shipmates; and by the time he goes to work with Joe Dawson in the laundry a year later, he “knew of the enormous gulf between him and this man — the gulf the books had made” (p. 131). Intellectually, Martin is not only beyond the uneducated, however. He soon out­distances “the Morse circle” and is able to hold his own with the best minds of his acquaintance. Professor Caldwell, “the brightest, the most intellectual man I have ever met,” admits that Martin has “exposed” his insufficient knowledge of “biology in its largest aspects” (pp. 220-21). The poet Brissenden, who has the quality lacking in Caldwell, “fire, the flashing insight and perception, the flaming uncontrol of genius” (p. 256), gives Martin his approval; and Martin believes that he is able to challenge the carefully thought out positions of the “real dirt” intellectuals to whom Brissenden introduces him. From his first realization that he desires knowledge until almost the end of the book, Martin’s dedication to the task of understanding the entire “scheme of existence” is a major part of his characterization. Whether we accept his judgment or not, it is obvious that Martin has come to think of himself as an intellectual of the first order, an opinion reinforced by the voice of the narrator. Martin, London writes, at first

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 .is lonely eagles sailing solitary in the azure sky far above the earth and its swarming freight of gregarious life (p. 224).

Martin’s buoyant confidence for much of the novel in his ability to survive, to prevail, even with Spencer’s assistance to unify the universe, “his own life in the midst of it all,” is sharply different front “Adams” ’s increasing awareness of the inevitable failure of the ultimate search for unity, that under an apparent order is a substructure of irrationality. Martin’s sustaining vision is the opposite. An impassioned advocate of Spencer — and indirectly of Hegel — he discerns under the apparent chaos a substructure of rationality and order. Thus he hits “unified the universe.” But it is a precarious unity that he has constructed, one that is shattered by the defection of those close to him and by his ultimate inability to relate “work performed” to results. His scheme of “correlation,” “his own life in the midst of it all” no longer seems valid. Like the Thames daughters in The Waste Land, he finds himself in a world in which he “can connect / Nothing with nothing.” He speculates, “Per­haps Nietzsche had been right. Perhaps there was no truth in anything, no truth in truth — no such thing as truth” (p. 377). Less tough-minded than “Adams”, he is unable to “amuse” himself with such thoughts — “his mind wearied quickly and he was content to go back to his chair and doze.” He has come to the point postulated by “Adams” “where larger synthesis is suicide.” Having the “will strong enough that with one last exertion it could destroy itself and cease to be,” he lowers himself from the Mariposa into the darkness of the ocean. As he dives deep,

Colors and radiances surrounded him and bathed him and per­vaded him. What was that? It seemed a lighthouse; but it was inside his brain — a flashing, bright white light. It flashed swifter and swifter. There was a long rumble of sound, and it seemed to him that he was falling down a vast and interminable stairway. And somewhere at the bottom he fell into darkness. That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know (p. 381).

Although this highly effective ending remains ambiguous, the last sentence emphasizes that “knowing” has indeed been a central theme in Martin’s life and in the book; and, further, it suggests that any earlier confidence that Martin has had in his “knowledge” has been unfounded. Beneath the personal despair that success for Martin — and London — had proved hollow is the intimation, the long rumble of sound down an interminable stairway, of “Adams” ’s bottomless nihilism. In Martin’s epistemology, finally, the internal “lighthouse” is unavailing against the external darkness.

If London’s hero is in part a portrait of the intellectual, the seeker after “primary truth” also adumbrated in the even more directly autobiographical John Barleycorn, he is the dreamer and the lover as well. Nick Carraway admires Jay Gatsby for his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” his “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness” which distinguished him from the “foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dreams” (p. 2). Patently this description cannot apply to the “Adams” of The Education. That Martin bears resemblance in part to both “Adams” and Gatsby is a measure of what London has attempted in his characterization.

The dream of the young James Gatz is nothing less than to create a new self and a new universe for that self, a universe of the imagination that would demonstrate “the unreality of reality.” Naming himself anew, Gatsby springs, as Carraway comes to understand it, “from his Platonic conception of himself,” inventing “just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent.” As James Gatz, he had “lived naturally”: “He knew women early, and . . . became contemptuous of them,” he worked as a “dam-digger and a salmon-fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed.” Now, as Jay Gatsby, he embarked on a career in “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty,” and a “universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain.” The sight of Dan Cody’s yacht, representing “all the beauty and glamour in the world,” at anchor over “the most insidious flat on Lake Superior,” is the occasion of his final abandonment of the old self and the “real” world for his commitment to “a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” (pp. 98-101). But it is not until he has met Daisy Fay, “High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl” (p. 120), and “forever wed his unutter­able visions of her perishable breath,” that “the incarnation was complete” (p. 112). To this “conception” of himself, Carraway believes, Gatsby “was faithful to the end,” but as he approaches his death to which the perishable, diminished dream represented by Daisy has led him, Carraway imagines that perhaps Gatsby

no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real. . . .” (p. 162).

The “high price” is the death of the invented self as well as the sustaining dream; and the final action of “that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees” merely affixes the “natural” seal of reality to the expiration of Gatsby and his universe.

Martin’s dream is comparable to Gatsby’s, both in its magnitude and in its incarnation in the person of an idealized lover.6 The dream of a new self and a new world begins with the opening scene in the Morse home as he drinks in “the beauty” of the turn-of-the-century middle class decor before him: “He was responsive to beauty and here was cause to respond.” Every unfamiliar detail of this new world impinges on his consciousness and “his thoughts, sympathies, and emotions leapt and played like lambent flame. He was extraordinarily receptive and responsive, while his imagination, pitched high, was ever at work establishing relations of likeness and difference.” In the midst of these new impressions, he is expressly renamed, as, “he who had been called ‘Eden’ or ‘Martin Eden,’ or just ‘Martin all his life,” is introduced to Ruth Morse as “Mister” Eden:

And then he turned and saw the girl. The phantasmagoria of his brain vanished at the sight of her. She was a pale, ethereal creature, with wide, spiritual blue eyes and a wealth of golden hair. . . . He likened her to a pale gold flower upon a slender stem. No, she was a spirit, a divinity, a goddess; such sublimated beauty was not of the earth (pp. 2-4).

Previously, Martin has existed “naturally” in what might be called “the insidious flats” of life — “stokeholes and forecastles, camps and beaches, jails and boozing-kens, fever-hospitals and slum streets.” “No word, no clew, no hint, of the divine had ever reached him. . . . There was no life beyond, he had contended; it was here and now, then darkness everlasting” (pp. 23-4). In Ruth, he has a vision of transcendence, an “outer lighthouse,” so to speak, expressed in images of light: “Her face shimmered before his eves” (p. 24). He discusses with her a poem that he has read by Swinburne in one of her hooks: “It was all lighted up an’ shining, an’ it shun right into me an’ lighted me up inside, like the sun or a searchlight’ ” (p. 9). And Ruth “might well he sung by that chap Swinburne”7 (p. 4). Transported from his earlier world, Martin has “met the woman at last . . . whom he had expected, in a remote way, he would sometime meet. . . . He did not think of her flesh as flesh, — which was new to him; for of the women he had known that was the only way he thought. Her flesh was somehow different. He did not conceive of her body as a body. . . . It was an emanation of her spirit, a pure and gracious crystallization of her divine essence” (p. 23). Almost instantly, Ruth embodies for Martin not only “sublimated beauty,” and the “love [that] was an organic demand of his being,” but also through her university education what seems to him “apparently illimitable vistas of knowledge” (p. 18) In sum, Martin worships Ruth as a three-fold goddess of love, of knowledge, and of beauty, now “remote and inaccessible as a star,” but if he can only “win to her,” the “tangibility” (p. 18) will be complete.

Like Gatsby, Martin remains faithful to his new conception of himself and the world, and to the dream “incarnated” in Ruth, until almost the end. Two differences between the characters should be remarked, however. Gatsby, although in part sketched realistically enough, exists primarily in a mythic dimension beyond the “just personal” where, in Stevens’ phrase about poetry, the visible is a little difficult to see. Although Martin also exists in such a realm “wherein a man sees his dreams stalk out from the crannies of fantasy and become fact” (p. 15), where he sees “a great vision and was as a god” (p. 93), much more than Gatsby he is described as a person engaged with mundane realities in the ordinary universe, even as Nick Carraway. A second distinction concerns the singleness of their dreams. Gatsby’s “unutterable visions,” once discovered in Daisy, remain static: “his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (p. 112). When the “incarnation” is lost, Gatsby’s dream–and thus Gatsby —is at an end. Martin’s vision of Ruth is at once more complicated and more flexible, but he is also dependent on this vision for his new self, and when Ruth defects, Martin no more than Gatsby can spin another universe out of his brain, despite his fleeting image of “flower-garlanded” maidens in a “clean, sweet” garden-valley in the idyllic South Seas.

The diminishment of Ruth in Martin’s eyes is a gradual process. First, he chances to notice the stain of cherries on her lips. “For the moment her divinity was shattered. . . . It was as if he had seen the sun fall out of the sky, or had seen worshipped purity polluted” (pp. 90-1). Accepting her as human, he comes to realize her intellectual limitations — she is unable to understand his excitement about Spencer: “his brain went beyond Ruth’s” (p. 176)- and her conventional standards of “beauty” — she shrinks from all that is not prettified and has no appreciation of Martin’s own attempts as a writer to “recreate” the beauty of the world. The evidence of her fallibility, however, has no bearing on Martin’s love. “It mattered not whether the woman he loved reasoned correctly or incorrectly. Love was above reason” (p. 105). Once “not of the earth,” Ruth is now, to Martin, on “the topmost rung” of life, “pure, and fair, and divine, and with power to make him know love, and to aspire toward purity, and to desire to taste divinity,8 the evolutionary product of “a thousand thousand centuries” of “primordial ferment” (p. 116). It is only when Ruth, acceding to her family’s pressures and her own conventional attitudes — much as Daisy cannot leave her husband for Gatsby — rejects Martin that his vision fades and, his world destroyed, he no longer cares. Following Martin’s sudden success as a writer, Ruth makes overtures to him, but he is “unresponsive as a stone,” realizing that she had been “an ethereal creature of his own creating, the bright and luminous spirit of life love-poems. The real bourgeois Ruth, with all the bourgeois failings … he had never loved.” He tells her finally, “Something has gone out of me. . . . Life has so filled me that I am empty of any desire for anything” (pp. 362-67). Like Gatsby, Martin has lost his “old warm world” vitalized by the existence of an ideal outside his own mind. Wearily he closes his eyes and “masses of vegetation . . . took form and blazed against the background of his eyelids. It was not restful, that green foliage. The sunlight was too raw and glaring” (p. 367). No more than Gatsby can Martin live in this “raw” materiality without a dream, in Joseph Wood Krutch’s expression, of love as “an ultimate self-justifying value.”

It is not until the end of the despairing twenty-ninth chapter, “The Abyss of Ignorance” that “Adams” “proposed to fix a position for himself, which he could label: ‘The Education of Henry Adams: a Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity.’ ” The first response of Nick Carraway to the Gatsby experience is one of world weariness: “When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever” (p. 2) and thus it is not until later that he acquires the moral strength to become the “fabulist” of which “Adams” spoke, to tell a story that “has been a story of the West, after all” (p. 177). Out of the writing of The Education emerges “Adams” ’s working hypothesis that since the mind had always successfully reacted before, “nothing yet proved that it would fail to react [now] — but it would need to jump” (p. 498). Out of the “writing” of The Great Gatsby — by Chapter IX it is “After two years.  . . .” — Fitzgerald’s persona, Nick Carraway, comes to envisage at least the possibility of a faith in a non-Spenglerian West. Both “Adams” and Carraway — Henry Adams and Scott Fitzgerald — move from a vision of nothingness, “The Abyss of Ignorance” and Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s “valley of ashes,” to the creation of a fictional world as a stay against chaos: “From this the poem springs,” Stevens writes in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” “that we live in a place / That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves / And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.”

A voracious if undisciplined seeker after knowledge and “God’s own mad lover” of all that Ruth represents to him, Martin is yet profoundly committed to “the creation of beauty.” “ ‘My desire to write,’ ” he tells Ruth, pleading for her faith in his ability, “ ‘is the most vital thing in me’ ” (p. 250). This desire bursts forth a few months after meeting Ruth. From his responsiveness to life and his desire for Ruth, his “splendid dream arose,” a dream that will unite the “lighthouse” of his imagination with the external lighthouse of reality, expressed in the same metaphor of light:

He was tortured by the exquisite beauty of the world, and wished that Ruth were there to share it with him. He decided that he would describe to her many of the bits of South Sea beauty. The creative spirit in him flamed up at the thought and urged that he recreate this beauty for a wider audience than Ruth. And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw. Clearly, and for the first time, he saw Ruth and her world. . . . There was much that was dim and nebulous in that world, but he saw . . . the way to master it. To write! The thought was fire in him (pp. 70-1).

Elsewhere I have described Martin’s developing aesthetic in more detail,10 but essentially he is concerned with how to relate the real and the ideal, “the scheme of existence” and his “joy of creation that was supposed to belong to the gods” (p. 85). Again and again Martin returns to his desire to unite his “knowledge,” that which he knows through his “reason,” and his dream, that which he knows through his “imagination”: “While his imagination was fanciful, even fantastic at times, he had a basic love of reality that compelled him to write about the things he knew” (p. 73); “The real world was in his mind, and the stories he wrote were so many pieces out of his mind” (p. 85); “His work wras realism, though he had endeavored to fuse with it the fancies and beauties of imagination. What he sought was an impassioned realism, shot through with human aspiration and faith. What he wanted was life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soul-searching left in” (p. 212). Such a work is Brissenden’s “Ephemera.” “ ‘There is nothing like it in literature,’ ” Martin exclaims. The poem “dealt with man and his soul-gropings in their ultimate terms, plumbing the abysses of space for the testimony of remotest suns and rainbow spectrums. It was a mad orgy of imagination. . . . and through it all, unceasing and faint . . . ran the frail, piping voice of man. … ‘It is truth gone mad,’ ” Martin concludes, “ ‘It is the truth of the sneer, stamped out from the black iron of the Cosmos and interwoven with mighty rhythms of sound into a fabric of splendor and beauty’ ” (pp. 280-81).

This possibility of a fiction of faith, of harmony, of love — of Value — in the face of the “Cosmos” is explicitly embodied for Martin in Ruth: “it was for Ruth that his splendid dream arose” (p. 71), the dream of becoming a writer, one of “the world’s giants,” an interpreter of existence. The central role of his belief in Ruth as exemplifying the highest value he can envisage and the relation of this belief to his dream of not only finding but interpreting the nature of all existence is stated directly in a passage cited in part previously:

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

Ruth, thus, has become a person to Martin, but also she remains an abstraction: Belief. Martin will write because of her, to her, and of her—-as incarnated Belief. For a time, Martin does believe that he has achieved the voice to express this unification of the real and the ideal, maintaining his confidence even though no one else, including the all-too-human Ruth, understands, or even accepts, what he is attempting to do in his writing. Eventually he finds an audience in Brissenden, the cynical genius who scornfully rejects Martin’s basic beliefs — in knowledge, in art, and especially in Ruth: “ ‘And you wrote that tremendous “Love-cycle” to her — that pale, shrivelled, female thing’ ” (p. 264)! As ‘‘a sanction for your existence. . . . in the time of disappointment that is coming to you,” Brissenden suggests that Martin become a socialist, even though it means swallowing “the whole slave-morality” (pp. 301-02). Martin remains steadfast in his faith in Ruth, in himself and in his art, however, until, as I have noted, his “splendid dream ” of discovering a world of beauty and meaning through his art is terminated by Ruth’s defection, by the recognition that the reality he has discerned is “an ethereal creature of his own creating, the bright and luminous spirit of his love-poems” (p. 365). He has experienced “the crash of his whole world, with love on the pinnacle. . . . and been landed in a pestiferous marsh” (p. 323).

In similar straits the personae of Adams and Fitzgerald are portrayed as beating on against the currents surrounding their lives to produce “fictions” of the mind at least aspiring to the act of finding what will suffice. “To find, / Not to impose . . . / It is possible, possible, possible. It must / Be possible,” Stevens summarizes the tentative creative belief of the modern artist. But Martin had aspired to write out of an earlier, more innocent belief that truth could be learned, that love could be won to, that for the imaginative artist such as he, to find was not only possible but an inevitable aspect of “the scheme of existence.” “In the crash of his whole world,” Martin is unable to explore, through his art, the possibility of a new world as had “Adams” from “the abyss of ignorance” and Carraway from “riotous excursions” into the human heart. No longer confident there is such a thing as “truth” and “done with philosophy” (p. 356), “unresponsive as a stone” to Ruth (p. 362), he mechanically completes an unfinished manuscript, “feeling like a ghost. . . . the spirit of a man who was dead,”11 and then recites “I have done. / Put by the lute” (pp. 317-18). Martin’s “splendid dream” of a life as one of “the world’s giants,” an artist of the true and the beautiful, is terminated even before he wills his death.

With London’s approval, it seems most likely: there is little ironic distance to be discerned between the voice of the narrator and his mask — in contrast to the complex ironic mode of The Education and the subtle gradations of vision developed in The Great Gatsby. In John Barleycorn, London does separate himself from Martin, affirming that his belief in “THE PEOPLE” saved him, the solution to “disappointment” suggested by Brissenden; but it is difficult to find firm evidence of this salvation in a close examination of the available material about London. Unlike Martin, he did continue writing until his life ran down at the age of forty, some eight years later. And Martin Eden itself is an exploration of the disillusionment that Martin was unable to write from. As McClintock has remarked, however, “Eden’s suicide almost marks the death of Jack London’s best short fiction,”12 a judgment that provokes the reflection, just what long fiction written after 1908 can we place alongside Martin Eden? In none of his subsequent novels, it seems clear, was London to go anything like as far in assuming the responsibilities of the novelist, as described by James Baldwin, to tell as much truth as he could bear and then a little more. In Marlin Eden the hero had home all he could, and so, apparently, had the author.

We might well wish that both character and author had borne more in this moving fiction, and that London had been able to make his complex composite persona as convincing as the separate masks of Adams and Fitzgerald. Martins achievement is tarnished for the reader not only by his over valuation of his intellectual achievements and by his insistence on the tangible realization of his dream, but most profoundly by his incapacity to write, corroboration lacking, in uncertain exploration. And as the character remains somewhat unconvincing as the ultimate thinker, dreamer and writer, so London’s own “splendid dream” of creating such a character falls short. Moreover, the extensive quotations I have given from Martin Eden in indicating its resemblance to The Education of Henry Adams and The Great Gatsby make manifest London’s “exasperatingly uneven artistry.”13 More significantly, however, these quotations, and indeed the book as a whole, establish that resemblance and thus emphasize not London’s failure but the dimensions of the pattern he was attempting. Martin Eden himself was not more ambitious. It is the same unachievable pattern sought in many of the major works of the American imagination. Richard Poirier has remarked that Huckleberry Finn can be considered as a superior history of American literature.

It is superior because it brings within its cover’s a conflict too often discussed as if it merely split American fiction, or the works of the American writers, down the middle. On the one side we have the “romantic” and on the other we have the “realistic” or “naturalistic” schools. None of the interesting American novelists can be placed on either side of this dichotomy. Nearly all of them are written in protest against the environment of the “rest of life” which contradicts the dreams of their heroes and heroines. The distinction to be made is between those whose protests sometimes take the form of creating in their works an alternative environment. as James and sometimes Faulkner have tried to do, as Mark Twain for a while did do, and those for whom the environment of the real world simply overpowers, as it does in Huckleberry Finn, any effort of the imagination to transcend it.14

Martin Eden Is also such a history of American literature relating the protest and ultimate failure of the imagination against the “environment of the real world,” and if it remains, as Franklin Walker has said, one of London’s most “puzzling”15 books, it is because it reflects the “overpowering” strain the author must have experienced in attempting the impossible yet characteristic task of the central American writer. One cannot claim, obviously, that matters of craft aside, London’s achievement as a “fabulist” makes him fully comparable to the “giants” Martin Eden brings to mind.16 But if both author and his mask stop short of exploration in relation to Adams and Fitzgerald and others, they yet in this novel keep distinguished company for an impressive distance.


1. New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1955, p. 4.

2. Jack London, Martin Eden, ed. Sam S. Baskett (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1956), p. 71. Subsequent citations in text.

3. James I. McClintock, White Logic (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wolf House Books, 1973), pp. xi-xii.

4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), p. 152. Gatsby thus dismisses the importance of Daisy having ever loved her husband. Carraway reflects in response, “What could you make of that, except to suspect some intensity in his conception of the affair that couldn’t be measured.” Subsequent citations in text.

5. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (New York: The Modern Library, Inc., 1931), p. 12. Subsequent citations in text.

6. Earle Labor comments on the parallel situations in Martin Eden and The Great Gatsby, in Jack London (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974), pp. 82, 122.

7. See Roy L. Weitzel’s extensive discussion of the metaphor of light and the Swinburne allusions, “Toward a ‘Bright White Light’: London’s Use of Swinburne in Martin Eden,” Jack London Newsletter, 7 (January-April 1974), 1-8.

8. In “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” “Adams” is less confident than Martin of the ‘‘power” of the American woman, although it should be considered that for Martin, Ruth is the only woman to have such power. In America, “Adams” states, “neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force — at most as sentiment. . . . The Woman had once been supreme; in France she still seemed potent, not merely as sentiment, but as a force,” pp. 383-84.

9. Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929), p. 114. Krutch sketches the framework for the “incarnations” attempted in both novels: “For the more skeptical of the Victorians, love performed some of the functions of the God whom they had lost. Faced with it, many of even the most hard-headed turned, for the moment, mystical” (p. 106).

10. Sam S. Baskett, “Martin Eden: Jack London’s Poem of the Mind,” Modern Fiction Studies 22 (Spring, 1976), pp. 23-36.

11. At the end, Carraway speculates, Gatsby must have been in “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about,” p. 162.

12. McClintock, p. 121.

13. McClintock, p. ix.

14. Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 16.

15. 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), p. 133.

16. If Martin Eden seems a lesser illustration of Poirier’s appraisal of Huckleberry Finn (Note 14), it also expresses “the special conditions of life in America” which Leo Marx defines as a “major theme” in The Education of Henry Adams: “the pulling apart, in Adams’s own experience as in the culture generally, of feeling and intellect, love and power.” The Machine in the Garden (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 344-45.

Western American Literature, Vol. 12, No. 3 (FALL 1977), pp. 199-214 (16 pages) Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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