The Sea-Wolf, one of Jack London’s best-known novels, is based in large part on his 1893 voyage aboard the Sophia Sutherland (or Sophie). Like the Ghost of the novel, the Sophie sailed to the far northern Pacific to hunt fur seals. London came away with the raw material for a novel. A decade later, the experience bore fruit in one of the most important works of the American seagoing tradition.
The sea-wolf of the novel’s title is Wolf Larsen, captain of a sealing schooner that rescues literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden after a collision in San Francisco Bay. Rather than return him to shore, however, Larsen forces Van Weyden into the role of cabin boy. As the Ghost crosses the North Pacific, Van Weyden must earn his sea legs and master such mundane tasks as washing pots and peeling potatoes. He must also learn to protect himself, as Larsen’s unpredictable episodes of savage cruelty have infected the entire crew.
At sea Larsen can play the tyrant as easily as any frontier lawman, but he is anything but petty. He is an educated man who justifies his violent nature with the concept (pioneered by scientist Charles Darwin) of the survival of the fittest. As he explains to Van Weyden, “The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength.”
Attempted mutiny and violent brawls punctuate the voyage, and the...
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