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...
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- Critical Essays