Jack London American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4714

American fiction writers in the second half of the nineteenth century turned to Europe, and France in particular, for inspiration. Authors such as William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, and Frank Norris with one hand wrote essays on the validity of European writing practices and with the other composed their own...

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American fiction writers in the second half of the nineteenth century turned to Europe, and France in particular, for inspiration. Authors such as William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, and Frank Norris with one hand wrote essays on the validity of European writing practices and with the other composed their own stories and novels in the European realist or naturalist manner. Works such as Garland’s Main-Travelled Roads (1891) or Norris’s McTeague (1899) matched the European writers in their ability to capture sordid surroundings and present controversial themes. What the Europeans had that the Americans did not, however, was a serious, adult reading public of significant proportions.

There was no place in the United States for the like of Émile Zola, the savage French writer who raked his society over the coals in novel after novel. It was possible for Garland and Norris to turn out occasional hard-hitting works, but in order to earn a living they also had to lower their standards and turn to writing pot-boilers and sentimental stories.

London, who came nearly a generation after such men, solved the problem of how to treat serious themes while making money by coming up with the realistic, philosophically oriented adventure tale. His life gave him an edge over those other authors in writing of adventure. Norris, for example, wrote a weak novel about Arctic exploration, but he had never been to the Far North. When London, on the other hand, wrote in The Call of the Wild about prospectors and sharpers in gold-rush Alaska, he was drawing on his own very real experiences. He was also well read in the philosophy of the day, and this aided him in conceiving his stories as parables that tested and commented on contemporary thought.

The leading discussions of late nineteenth century social science were at the center of London’s fiction. He was not intent on embodying these ideas uncritically but rather on probing them for weaknesses. Questions about the effect of the environment on individual development and about the ability of the environment to screen out the best individuals for special positions were among the issues being debated. The biologist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had been interpreted as implying that because an organism had to adapt to the ecological system in which it resided, human free will was drastically limited.

Naturalist writers such as Zola and his American followers wrote books in which vicious and villainous characters were shown to be products of unhealthy living conditions and heredity. The sociologist Herbert Spencer added a new twist to this interpretation. Coining the term “survival of the fittest,” he noted that every society had top places and that to reach those positions demanded willpower and perseverance. Though the conquerors of society’s heights may have had to adapt themselves to the law of the jungle, they were magnificent successes when compared to the miserable failures that populate the lower ranks.

Such a Spencerian interpretation of Darwin dovetailed with American puritanism, which held that achievement in life corresponds with God’s approval of one’s righteousness, or, to put it in secularized terms, that success is testimony to one’s virtue and abilities. This concept might certainly serve as a guiding star over London’s life: He had risen from being a street brawler to being one of the most celebrated writers of his time—certainly this proved that one could rise and triumph over one’s natal circumstances.

Rather than wholeheartedly endorsing this idea, London repeatedly questioned its optimistic slant. In The Sea-Wolf the ship’s captain is a man of indomitable will, a leader, a physically strong man, and an avid reader of profound books (particularly Spencer’s). His superiority has raised him over others, but it has had the fatal consequence of making him arrogant and friendless. In a novel that brings this theme even closer to home, Martin Eden (1908), a writer who has risen from obscurity to fame finds that his working-class viewpoint makes it impossible to associate with his new middle-class literary peers. Moreover, his new learning isolates him from the type of people he grew up with and once could love. The fittest, in London’s presentations, are so superior as to be unnatural.

A related sociological theme, developed particularly at the end of the nineteenth century by American writers such as Brooks Adams, was the doctrine of racial hierarchy. This doctrine, particularly appropriate as a justification when the United States was beginning to acquire colonies, held that just as superior individuals rose to the top of a society, so superior races, such as the Anglo-Saxons, would naturally become the leaders and teachers of inferior races, such as the Eskimos.

Again, London accepted the theory but highlighted its tragic implications. In “In the Forests of the North” (1902), a lone white man survives an Arctic expedition and finds himself in a remote Indian village. He decides to throw in his lot with the tribe that has nurtured him, and, because of his natural superiority, which London explicitly attributes to his race, he can lead the tribe to victory over all the surrounding Eskimo tribes. Yet his superiority makes it impossible for him to communicate intimately with the people of the village, and he lives with a tortured longing for his own kind.

A final important theme in London is the place of love in the world. London clearly sympathized with his superheroes, yet he seemed to see no hope for their integration into society unless it be through heart-humbling love. Again his thought chimed with contemporary speculation. Spencer argued that, although among savages strength and cunning set a person apart, in modern civilization it is a person’s ability to sympathize widely that would take him or her to the top.

Although in his major texts London did not show his strong men bowing to romance, it was an important secondary theme, becoming uppermost in minor novels such as White Fang. In this book a savage dog, who has been leading a wolf pack and who is subsequently caught and mistreated by a succession of masters, is obtained by a gentle Weedon Scott, “The Love-Master.” Through all-enduring patience and caring, Scott converts the Arctic beast into a top-notch dog. In this case, a being has passed from barbarism to civilization without losing its superior ranking.

In every work discussed thus far except the last, London was setting forth a viewpoint that would not recommend him to a large audience. He was pronouncing negatively on the American credo of success at any price, for example, by showing that success leads to isolation and unhappiness. In compensation for this sobering message, London spun a whopping good yarn for his readers. One especially remarkable aspect of his narrative skills was the fashion in which he could transform metaphysical questions into dramatic tableaux. In The Sea-Wolf, for example, the captain, Wolf Larsen, maintains that people crave life above anything. The anemic intellectual Van Weyden, who has accidentally landed on Larsen’s ship, continues to hold an idealistic position. Suddenly Larsen springs from his chair, grabs the intellectual by the throat, and nearly chokes him to death. After letting him up, Larsen asks him if he now gets the point. Through such maneuvers, London gave philosophical discussions the excitement of an adventure tale.

The Call of the Wild

First published: 1903

Type of work: Novel

A domesticated California farm dog is stolen and transported to Alaska, where his wild instincts gradually surface.

The Call of the Wild was London’s first success, and it represented an imaginative recasting of strands of thought from Darwinism and literary naturalism. The general concept of the book is a clever play on themes generated by attacks on the theory of evolution. Religious writers ridiculed the evolutionists’ idea that humans were the descendants of prehistoric apes and poured scorn on the concept that a being with a godlike soul shared traits with other members of the animal kingdom. Thinkers of this ilk lambasted writers such as Frank Norris, who in McTeague showed animal traits appearing in his characters when they were under stress.

London found a creative way to sidestep such objections, while maintaining central evolutionary tenets. Rather than showing a person descending to animalistic behavior, he describes a dog making such a descent. Certainly a dog is already an animal, but in The Call of the Wild, through a series of misadventures, a pampered domestic dog is transformed into an Arctic wolf.

A central motor of this transformation is the influence of the environment. The dog protagonist, Buck, has adapted to life as a doted-on member of the family, but his life is imperiled by the Alaskan gold rush. Sled dogs are at a premium, and dognappers are scouring the country for hardy brutes. Buck is stolen and sold north to a government courier, Perrault, and learns to adapt to the hard life of pulling a dogsled through the snowy wastes.

Buck’s adaptation is eased by the revival of ancestral traits. As London notes, “not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive. . . . [h]e remembered back to . . . the time the wild-dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest.” Such a note was often struck in Darwinian novels that described human behavior. In the already noted McTeague, the hero’s wife, Trina, becomes increasingly miserly as characteristics of her German peasant forebears come to life. More startlingly, the hero, McTeague, when pursued by the police, resurrects lost animal behaviors, such as wonderfully keen hearing. The ethnic note is also sounded. Where writers describing humans noted the part that racial qualities played in the individual personality, London sees the same type of qualities accounting for Buck’s growing superiority over the other dogs in the team: “His cunning was wolf cunning . . . his intelligence, shepherd intelligence and St. Bernard intelligence.”

The novel is more than a vigorous endorsement of such biological themes; it is also a Bildungsroman, that is, a novel concerned with the education of the protagonist to the ways of the world. Bought by Perrault, Buck’s main teachers are the seasoned sled dogs. He learns from them, for example, that he must not only “wolf” down his food ration to avoid having it stolen by other canines but must try to rob others’ portions to increase his prestige. Buck caps this stage of his education by killing the top dog and assuming his post.

These examples may suggest that a dog’s life is all violence and competition, but, in fact, primitivism has two faces. London’s unusual subject allows him to see virtues in a return to an aboriginal state that could not be found if humans were his subjects. To continue using Norris’s novel as a counterpoint, when McTeague becomes as wily as a hunted animal, there is little but degradation in his reversion to earlier animal patterns. When Buck recalls his ancestors’ activities, however, there is the feeling that he is returning to a truer world. Life is hard there but authentic. The pampered house dog could never experience the joy of the hunt. Buck is “ranging at the head of the pack . . . [in] an ecstasy that marks the summit of life.”

The shift in perspective allows London to stand the typical ending of the Darwinian novel on its head. In Zola’s Le Bête humaine (1890; The Human Beast, 1891), for example, the complete emergence of the protagonist’s hereditary tendency to alcoholism leads to villainous actions. In London’s novel, in sharp contrast, when Buck is at his most savage he is also most completely fulfilling his potential—utilizing his brain, muscles, and heart to the utmost.

After running a gamut of human masters, Buck is obtained by the kindly John Thornton, who allows him to wander in the woods, where he learns to hunt. One day Buck returns from an expedition to find Thornton killed by Indians; his last ties to humanity have been cut, so he gives in to the call of the wild. He ends the novel at the head of a wolf pack, a legend to the Indians.

Such an upbeat ending was out of keeping with the general tenor of fiction that dealt with such themes, but it was appropriate for a work that had shifted the terrain of such writing from human to canine society. The optimistic but logically consistent presentation of how the law of the jungle could turn the protagonist from a civilized pet into a legend of the wilderness won readers who could not stomach the representation of similar themes in a human milieu.

The Sea-Wolf

First published: 1904

Type of work: Novel

A literary dilettante undergoes a rough education at the hands of a seagoing superman.

The plot of The Sea-Wolf was a popular one in the late nineteenth century; Rudyard Kipling, for example, had used something similar in Captains Courageous (1896). A snobbish, upper-class weakling is forced to obey the commands of a harsh, lower-class dictator and ends up greatly profiting by the experience. In London’s novel, a literary gentleman, Humphrey Van Weyden, is washed off a San Francisco ferryboat and taken up by an outgoing seal hunter. The imperious captain, Wolf Larsen, has just lost a hand and decides to press the protesting Weyden into service as cabin boy for the long voyage.

An apter parallel for London’s book than Kipling’s novel may be found in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). In both London’s and Melville’s novels, the center of attention is not the slowly maturing, sensitive narrator but the superhuman ship’s captain. In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is a monomanical, charismatic zealot, and the critical light thrown on him is also used to criticize basic premises of a then-current theoretical posture, Byronic Romanticism. In something of the same way, in The Sea-Wolf the judgment passed on Wolf Larsen, the dynamic, intelligent, yet brutal captain also undercuts the materialism he espouses.

Larsen is contradictory. At first Van Weyden sees the ship’s master as nothing more than an unfeeling hulk. He witnesses Larsen tossing a dead body overboard without a proper burial ceremony and forcing his men to obey him through fear of his fists. As the trip progresses, however, Van Weyden finds in the captain’s cabin a well-stocked library of current literature: science, history, even grammar. At this discovery he says to himself about Larsen, “At once he became an enigma.”

As it turns out, the captain’s violence is rooted in a materialist metaphysics—and violent he is. When a crewman complains of an arrangement, Larsen and the first mate beat him senseless. When the cook does not keep the mess clean, he is dangled over the ship’s side until a shark lops off his foot. Larsen’s study of Darwin, Spencer, and other evolutionists has taught him that life, in his preferred phrase, “is like yeast.” It is a battle that goes to the strong, and, according to Larsen, every noble sentiment that Van Weyden defends is so much “bosh.”

Furthermore, as if to corroborate the captain’s doctrine, the ship is run on the law of the strong. The captain fights with the crew, terrorizing them—they futilely attempt a mutiny at one point—and almost every sailor plots vengeance against another for a real or imagined slight. Van Weyden himself is pushed around by the cook until, as if to confirm the captain’s ideas, Van Weyden employs threats to subdue his enemy, calmly sharpening the blade of a dirk until the cook is scared witless.

Although the captain’s philosophy accounts rather well for the dog-eat-dog atmosphere onboard ship, there are a number of fatal chinks in it. For one, it is a philosophy reserved for winners. It is small consolation for the sailors that the one beating them is their natural superior. Moreover, it is a philosophy of hopelessness. When the captain’s debilitating headaches weaken him, his metaphysics offers him no solace, leaving him to a titanic despair. Larsen’s superb fitness isolates him, and he is particularly unsuited for mixing with women. When the sealer picks up a young shipwrecked woman, Maud Brewster, Larsen treats her as roughly as he does his men and ends by trying to rape her.

As in most adventure tales, the actions and characters are exaggerated. The ship seems to undergo every catastrophe: losing its seal boats in a storm, a mutiny, pitched battle with a poaching sealer, and multiple desertions. Wolf Larsen is a larger-than-life but memorable creation, and it is to London’s credit that he never softens the portrait. Though he is betrayed by his body, blind and half paralyzed, Larsen remains a staunch atheistic materialist. Even blind, he tries to kill the narrator, Van Weyden. It begins to appear that materialism begets violence as the only way for the unbelieving soul to make a mark on a world that holds neither immortality nor lasting value.

London locates his final criticism of materialism in his depiction of Larsen’s bodily dissolution. The captain’s powerful will, trapped in a frame struck down in its prime, seems to be crying out for a way to continue. Although the arguments for immortality offered by Van Weyden are less than convincing, the book does leave a powerful impression that there must be something to life beyond the physical world. Nevertheless, it is Wolf Larsen, a man so sincerely and devastatingly criticized, that fascinates the reader. Van Weyden, who gradually comes to accept a part of the captain’s philosophy and learns how to be a good sailor, becoming a man in the process, is a much less interesting character.

Near the end of the novel, Van Weyden and Maud Brewster escape the ship and land on a desert island. A plodding Robinson Crusoe-type episode follows, which, without the presence of the captain, has little life in it. Happily, this section is brief: By a rather implausible coincidence, Larsen, abandoned in his blindness by the crew, lands on the same island. The story gathers excitement again as a cat-and-mouse game ensues between Van Weyden and the dying Larsen. In The Sea-Wolf London finds that the savagery which he believes is relatively laudable in the canine world of Buck is much less palatable in human society.

Martin Eden

First published: 1908

Type of work: Novel

A poor sailor sets out to turn himself into an intellectual and successful author to win a middle-class woman.

In Martin Eden, London turned away from writing science fiction and adventure tales to write a realistic study of a working-class writer’s struggle to survive while educating himself. Many critics have called this book London’s masterpiece.

For all their verve and philosophical pungency, London’s adventure novels lack the breadth and sympathetic observation found in serious realistic fiction. In The Sea-Wolf, to take one example, although there is a wealth of incident, the actions revolve around the three central characters. No broad social canvas is painted. The complexity of the plot of Martin Eden, on the other hand, makes it necessary for the author to portray all of San Francisco society.

Martin Eden is an out-of-work sailor who is invited to the Morse home because he has helped one of the sons, who had been set upon by ruffians. In the home, he is enthralled by the college-age daughter, Ruth Morse, having never encountered such a vision of feminine purity before. Spurred by his growing affection, Martin determines to live by his brain rather than his back: He will be an author.

While keeping contact with Ruth, he is forced to take handouts from his sister or work at casual labor when his money runs low and the rejection slips pile up. He moves through many sectors of society, from the upper-middle-class world of the Morses to the petit bourgeois world of his sister to the lower-class environs of his sailor friends to the sub-proletarian bowels where he seeks employment. A reader completes the book with an awareness of life as a whole in early twentieth century California.

One drawback to London’s more popular adventure yarns is that they seem to lack subtlety of observation, or, to put it another way, the scenes of dogsled travel or seal hunting described in this fiction are so out of the ordinary that their novelty overrides any question of their freshness. In Martin Eden, by contrast, London depicts typical everyday events with a brilliant eye for detail along with a fine sense of structure. The long opening scene, for example, in which the hero comes to his first Morse dinner party, moves back and forth narratively between the sailor’s self-conscious gaucheries and Ruth Morse’s alternating attraction and repulsion toward the stranger.

Another beautifully rendered and observed scene occurs when Martin, after months of study and composition, attempts to rejoin his old mates for an evening of dancing and flirting. The failure of the attempt is poignantly pictured. As London concludes, “He was too far removed. Too many thousands of opened books yawned between them and him.” Scenes such as these hit home with the sensitive reader in a way the scenes in London’s more fabulous stories cannot.

The core of the book concerns the struggles of a writer in the United States, struggles which can be divided into two phases. In the first, before the writer is recognized, everyone disregards him. Martin does not know the ropes, so the magazines reject or fleece him. What work he does sell is underpaid. His girlfriend, who started him on this course, tells him to get a regular job.

The second phase starts when the writer becomes well known. Now everyone ignorantly lionizes him. Magazines beg for pieces they had previously rejected as obscene. His brother-in-law, who had despised him, now sheepishly comes to borrow money. Ruth, who had broken off their engagement because she believed a vituperative, false newspaper report about him, now comes back. His embittered conclusion is that genuine talent is never recognized for what it is. Although he has met a few discerning critics along the way, the vast majority merely follow the prevailing winds of fashion. This realization leads to Martin’s suicide.

The fact that Martin has met some truly selfless critics and writers during phases of his life makes his chosen ending somewhat puzzling and unconvincing, as it is more pessimistic than the evidence warrants. The suicide, though, as is all of the book, is described with London’s trademark vivacity.

London’s adventure writing, whatever its limitations, did have positive value. This discipline taught him to write sentences that crackled with a crisp authority. He puts his finger on that trait in his own writing when he mentions the critics’ growing appreciation of Martin’s prose. “It had been discovered that he was a stylist, with meat under his style.” To take one example from Martin Eden, this description of Martin’s early failures: “Even his earliest efforts were not marked with the clumsiness of mediocrity. What characterized them was the clumsiness of too great strength.” Stephen Crane or Ernest Hemingway, to whom London can be compared, could not produce such pithy, telling phrases.

Arguably, London’s most interesting innovation, following the lead of Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson (though London introduced a more philosophical bent), was to use adventure tales to delve into the troubling questions of evolution and the environment’s effect on human will. Yet to create his greatest novel, he had to step away from this type of fiction; in Martin Eden, he used a broader canvas to depict the adventure that is writing.

“To Build a Fire”

First published: 1908 (collected in Lost Face, 1910)

Type of work: Short story

A prospector in the Yukon makes the mistake of setting out on a day’s trek alone when the temperature is 75 degrees below zero.

London was not one to gloss over unpleasantness, and in “To Build a Fire” he described just how harsh the world can be to someone who disregards its laws. As the story opens, life seems benign enough. It is a still, clear day, and the unnamed protagonist has plenty of time to make the one-day walk to the camp where his friends wait. He is in fine fettle, alert and careful of his footing on the frozen riverbed. He has his dog for company. The only troubles are that it is fearfully cold—75 degrees below zero—and he is “without imagination.” From this seemingly slight situation, London crafts a tale of a universe where any step can be fatal, looking backward to the metaphysical despair of Stephen Crane and forward to the stoic code of Ernest Hemingway.

In Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” (1897), a number of survivors of a sunken ship ride on a lifeboat in heavy seas. The fact that they may drown in sight of the shore underlines to them the indifference of the cosmos to human undertakings. In London’s tale, the omnipresent cold, though ready to sweep away human life, is simply part of the universe’s thermodynamics. When the protagonist has gotten into a desperate plight, having fallen through the ice and wet his legs, the author emphasizes the larger picture: “The cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that tip, received the full force of the blow.” The largeness of the forces involved reduce his plight to insignificance.

In the works of Hemingway, such as A Farewell to Arms (1929) and The Sun Also Rises (1926), the author prescribes that the acknowledged indifference of the larger forces of reality be met by a stoic code of honor on the part of his characters. Though London’s protagonist, foolhardy in attempting the trip alone, lacks the judgment of Hemingway’s ideal heroes, he does display admirable coolness in trying to build a fire to thaw out his legs, taking each difficulty in stride. When he finds, for example, that he can no longer work his numb fingers, he picks up wood with his two palms. Also, after an initial panic when he loses his fire, he resigns himself to death and musters whatever dignity he can, sitting down for the last time quietly.

The story is a short one (fifteen pages), and the compression works to magnify some of London’s strengths while helping to diminish some of his weaknesses. His writing was often marred by obtrusive passages, especially when discussing such charged topics as women or Anglo-Saxon superiority. In this piece, where the concentration is so tightly focused, his prose is always spare and telling. Each stroke of his pen underlines the tenuousness of life in the North or grimly describes the doomed man’s survival strategies.

London had another weakness—for all his experience in the Yukon, he often overstretched his imagination and presented scenes that rang false. This was particularly true in his rendering of Indian life, a favorite subject of his and yet one he had never penetrated with any clarity, preferring clichés to anthropological understanding. The limited matter of this story, a man walking with his dog, meant that London never strayed from what he knew, and the tale has a raw authenticity.

Finally, one of London’s strengths was the ability to draw a landscape vividly. This skill was often downplayed, perhaps because long descriptions would have slowed the pace of his eventful narratives. In this piece, however, such descriptions come to the fore and serve as pointers to the theme of the piece: The seeming quiescence of the landscape he describes is undermined with pitfalls for the inexperienced.

As in The Call of the Wild, London draws attention to the importance of primitive instincts. In a surprising but appropriate manner, he contrasts the dog’s intelligent intuitions to the man’s wrongheaded reasoning. The dog “knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment.” The dog’s instinctive reactions, developed over generations in the Arctic, far outmatched the brainpower of man, a recent visitor. As in other places, London finds a novel way to plump for primitivism.

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