Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

Published in 1908, Martin Eden came exactly in the middle of London’s literary career (1900-1916), during which he published an extraordinary fifty books. It is the first book he wrote after his ill-fated voyage to the South Seas aboard his yacht the Snark, and it reflects the illness and depression he brought home with him. At the same time, it is, in the words of Maxwell Geismar, “[o]ne of the angry books in American literature, very much in the manner of Richard Wright’s Black Boy.” Much of the anger is directed at the bourgeoisie, who scorn Martin Eden for his low-class origins while wrapping themselves in an genteel snobbery, and this aspect of the novel is the crux of the relationship between the Morse family and Martin. Yet Martin Eden relates to Eden’s major novels as well. Many of them deal with education—the education of Buck the dog into the ways of survival in the Arctic in The Call of the Wild (1903); the education of White Fang into similar strategies of survival in White Fang (1906); the education of the sheltered and effete poet Humphrey Van Weyden in the ways of the sea, seamanship, and self-assertion while he is being transformed from a physical weakling into a self-reliant superman in The Sea-Wolf (1904); and the education of Martin Eden in literature, philosophy, writing, and the speech and manners of the genteel class, even while he learns to jettison his admiration for that class and dismiss it with contempt. Like London’s Klondike narratives and The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden also presents a Darwinian superman; Martin is both physically tough and intellectually superior to anyone else in the novel, but except for a brutal fistfight in a flashback sequence in the slums, the ordeal in which Martin proves himself is his unrelenting struggle to educate himself and to become established as a writer in the face of endless rejection.

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