(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alfred Kazan observed that “the greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story that he lived.” Martin Eden is London’s most autobiographical character, and the story of his rise from a waterfront tough to a celebrated writer is close to London’s own, his portrait of the artist as a young man. It begins with Martin, an uncouth sailor, rescuing Arthur Morse from a gang of muggers. When Morse takes him to his home, Martin is awed by its paintings, books, and elegance and becomes instantly enamored of Morse’s pale, ethereally beautiful sister Ruth. Her presence makes him painfully aware of his clumsy walk, his rough, slangy speech, his lack of education, and his ignorance of manners. His infatuation with her is the catalyst prompting him to overcome these handicaps, rise to her level, and win her love. Calling himself “god’s own mad lover,” he plunges wholeheartedly into educating himself, reading omnivorously and trying to become a writer. What he lacks in refinement he makes up for in animal vitality, sensitivity, and intelligence. Ruth, by contrast, seems to him all spirit, and he elevates her to a pedestal as a saint. Only gradually does he become aware of her limitations. Though she is a college graduate, her education is shallow, her refinement superficial, her politics extremely conservative. She finds Martin’s robust love for life both magnetic and threatening, and when he shows her the stories he has written, uncompromisingly realistic tales of the adventurous world he has known, she is shocked by what she considers their vulgarity. Struggling to win her and to express his artistic vision, Martin writes prodigiously, only to have everything rejected by the genteel magazines. To support himself, he gets a job in a laundry only to find himself worn out as a “work beast.” By the time he makes a breakthrough and becomes a sudden celebrity as an author, he has become a disillusioned pessimist. All the work the publishers cannot get enough of had been rejected previously, and his fame and fortune seem absurdly meaningless. Ruth had rejected him; now, when she comes crawling back, he rejects her. At the end, sunk in profound depression, he jumps overboard from an ocean liner and drowns himself.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Foner, Philip S. Jack London: American Rebel. Rev. ed. New York: Citadel Press, 1964. A study of London as social critic, with a socialistic bias.

Geismar, Maxwell. Rebels and Ancestors. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953. An analysis of London’s angry criticism of social and economic injustice.

Kershaw, Alex. Jack London: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A narrative of London’s life and times.

Labor, Earle. Jack London. New York: Twayne, 1974. A concise introduction to London’s life and works.

Walcutt, Charles Child. American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956. An analysis of London’s place among such naturalistic writers as Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser.