Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What's wrong with Jack London?

"The Man at the Tiller" 1892, by Théo van Rysselberghe
Oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance
 que nous ayons si pleinement vécus
 que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre,
 ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.

Marcel Proust,« Sur la lecture »

Jack London is an old friend. In fact, he is the one who taught me French. You could argue that it was one of his French translators, Louis Postif, who did, but still, it was Jack’s captivating storytelling that kept my attention, all through the hundred or so pages of the “bibliotheque verte” edition of his “Fishing Patrol”.

This needs a little explanation.

In the winter of ’74, I was whisked away from unhappy days in a College in Ostend to bright, warm and sunny Abidjan. My Dad secured a new job and so the whole family packed up and moved from Belgium to Ivory Coast

We had no house the first months and stayed at the sumptuous “Hotel Ivoire”, a surreal landmark in that African capital. But even a swimming pool and a palm tree get boring after a few days and, being who I am, I found my way soon enough to the small book- and souvenir shop in the vast air – conditioned hall of the hotel. A row of  green colored, hardcover pocket books caught my attention. It was a collection of volumes of the famous “Bibliotheque Verte” from the Editions Hachette. Books for young readers aged 10 to 12. Say what you want about the French, they love books and they know how to pass this respect for the written word to the next generations. Fascinated I took each volume and inspected the titles, the writers and the cover illustration. I finally chose: “La Patrouille de pêche” by a certain Jack London. There was one problem, I did not read or speak French. Six years of Dutch had erased the fluency I once had but this did not cool my enthusiasm and after having closely inspected the six full color illustrations and with my Mom as a translator by my side I started to read. I still remember the first phrase: “ La baie de San Francisco est si vaste que ….”. I still have my book. The first pages are heavily annotated with translations and synonyms, but then slowly they become less and less and by page twenty they have disappeared. I was drawn into the story, my latent knowledge of French resurfaced and a few days later, I proudly finished the book. Knowing nobody in Abidjan, I had found in Jack London a new friend. Other books followed soon enough: “ L’appel sauvage” ( The Call of the Wild ), “ Croc Blanc” ( White Fang ), The Razzle Dazzle… I finished all the available titles in a few weeks and then I switched to the “ Bibliothèque Rouge” the collection for more mature readers: “ The Sea Wolf”, “The mutiny on the Elsinor”, “The adventurer”. Then it was the Jack London “for adults” with “Martin Eden”, his book about his circumnavigation on the Snark and his alcoholic memoirs. I finished with his lesser known books, the socialist utopian and dystopian ones with which he probably finally lost his readers as he lost me. In the span of a couple of months, I had read all London’s book…

Growing up, and after many more books by other more famous writers, I started to realize that few people shared my passion for Jack London. Especially the serious readers did not appreciate my favorite writer as I did. What was wrong? Why could Jack London not grow into adulthood with me and why did I have to leave him “behind” as a writer of “children’s literature” or adventure novels as he was considered too often? Was it the intellectual mood of the eighties which barred his continuing success? There were remarks about London in those days: White, male, macho even, working class, known for some racist remarks and on top of that a passionate advocate of unionization, socialism, and the rights of workers, an explicit socialist so to say, never a good thing in the US of A.

I am not in the habit of writing off old friends, so I decided to reread the Sea-Wolf, arguably one of London’s best, where an attempt at intellectualization was tried and failed…


Jack London ( January 12, 1876 – November 22, 1916 ) does not need an introduction. Most people are acquainted with his life-story: of humble origin, self educated, a successful writer, realistically describing the stories he jotted down when he joined other young men for the gold rush to the Klondike, seal-hunting in the Northern Pacific or his hard time as a down on his luck hobo.

Some details of his life are less known:

His father asked his mother to have an abortion when she announced her pregnancy. As an answer she shot herself but survived. When Jack was born his mother handed him over to a black girl, Virginia Prentiss who would act as a surrogate Mother for young Jack. He would keep a loving filial bond with her all through his live. So much for his racist reputation.

While it is true he was from rather modest origins, he was never poor as he later liked to claim. From the moment London could work, he did: In a cannery, as an oyster pirate, then as a crewmember of the Fish Patrol in the Bay area. He also signed on for a season on a sealing ship, an experience which would be the basis for his book “ The Sea Wolf”.

London drifted for some time into “tramp-hood” and he did “prison time”. London was no “softy”, but the degradation of man and the brutality he experienced and saw in Erie County Penitentiary at Buffalo shocked him. He got an impression of the darker side of Mankind which he would also translate into his book.

Valuing a higher education, he decided to enter Berkeley University. He did succeed to pass the entry examination after an intense period of cramming, a period recounted in his semi-biographical Martin Eden, but he had to quit later for financial reasons. This and the negative reply he received from his biological father when he sent him a letter asking recognition drove him, age 21, to the Klondike and his literary destiny.

London died early, only forty years old, from a kidney failure. There has been, and still are, theories that he committed suicide. The general public seems to find it more fitting to the very masculine Jack London to decide his own end, instead of suffering from a debilitating and extremely painful disease. A French translator of Jack London, in his introduction to Martin Eden, saw in the suicide of the fictional Martin Eden, a prediction that London would choose his own end. Although it enhances the mythological aura around the adventurer – writer, this is simply not true. Unlike his fictional alter – ego, Jack London died from natural causes.

While it is generally agreed that one should tread carefully when interpreting literary works on the basis of biographical insights, the reverse is also true, one should be as careful with the interpretation of a writers live on the basis of their fiction. 


Jack London was a very prolific writer and commercially very successful. George Platt Brett, London's Macmillan publisher believed London’s fiction “represented the very best kind of work done in America.
Still, it is a fact that Jack London is not included in the American literary canon; or if his, certainly not in the top regions.
This is surprising,  but understandable too. His writings are not, I must admit, on par with the greater contemporaries of his time: He is no Mark Twain, no Faulkner, no Henry James or Stephen Crane, no Fitzgerald or Hemingway, far away of contemporary Modernist landmarks like Pound and Eliot. These are just simply more interesting writers.

Of course, canon or no canon, this does not devaluate London in my eyes at all. On the contrary, Jack London is a master story teller and he did write a high number of captivating books but curiously it seems that he never aimed at something higher, something greater. Never had he the intention to write the "great American Novel." Or if he did try, he failed.

His terrible hero, Larsen speaks in the novel “Sea-Wolf” about a frustration. He says “that he never amounted to anything great”, that he had all the determination and will, but was never given the proper opportunity. The words were written by London but could these words be the words of Jack London? We do not know, for once his success was established, Jack London had all the opportunities and freedom in the world to write something exceptional, that Great American Novel, but he did not. Or he could not or he never intended to…It keeps puzzling me.


Unknowingly and unintentionally, London occasionally did come close to writing that time-less, glossed – over, internationally admired classic. He succeeded in “To build a fire”, everybody agrees. But it was only a short story.

Jack London was good at short stories.

He did achieve “greatness” in the haunting opening chapters of “White Fang”. Two men and their sled dog team rushing a coffin through a dark forest and huge amounts of snow. A large pack of starving wolves is following them. The men cannot sleep and need to watch their dogs…Fantastic writing, chilling atmosphere but then the story takes a turn and the Magic is gone…
The same happens in the “Sea Wolf”. London builds up a great narrative, presents fantastic characters, creates a poignant atmosphere and then unexpectedly, inserting a completely new element he completely undermines his opening and effectively destroys his story.
The historian Dale Walker commented: “Jack London was an uncomfortable novelist”, the form [ of the novel ] too long for his natural impatience and the quickness of his mind. His novels, even the best of them, are hugely flawed.

Unfortunately, with  some hindsight we have to agree. London jeopardized the possibilities he so carefully initiated with “The Sea-Wolf”. All ingredients were available to make a masterpiece, a book which could have shamelessly been compared to other time-less classics. Alas…


The story opens with a collision of a ferry with another ship during a foggy night in the middle of the bay of San Francisco. One of the passengers, the literary man Humphrey Van Weyden finds himself in the cold water fighting for his life. Seconds before drowning, he is pulled into a rescue boat. He recovers on board of an outbound sailing-ship, a seal-hunting schooner plunging through the waves  en route to the Northern Pacific. The surprised Van Weyden expects and demands to be brought back to shore. But he soon enough understands that he is on board of a floating hell, ruled by captain Larsen, a brutal, yet highly intelligent skipper. The captain known under his nickname Wolf is a terrible figure terrorizing his men and using his exceptional physical strength to knock down every hint of protest. Larsen has picked drowning Van Weyden out of the water for the simple reason to replace a sailor who has drunk himself to death. The survivor's protests are rapidly smothered. Van Weyden, an academic intellectual, is totally unprepared for the harsh life on board. The work, the people, the life around him, are simply too hard for him. Larsen, however is interested in him and amuses himself with a social experiment: can he “educate” the fad to survive on the ship? Wolf advices him and occasionally helps him to survive in a world, Van Weyden, in an earlier life, could not even imagine.


The greatest achievement of Jack London in this book is without doubt the creation of the character Wolf Larsen. Ambrose Bierce said of The Sea-Wolf  that "the great thing—and it is among the greatest of things—is that tremendous creation, Wolf Larsen … the hewing out and setting up of such a figure is enough for a man to do in one lifetime"
London found his inspiration partly with the notorious real life seadog Captain Alex MacLean, who used to visit “Heinold’s First and Last chance saloon" in Oakland as his customary waterhole at a time when young Jack, would sit in a corner with his study book .
There is also probably a lot of Jack London himself in Larsen. They do share the same chilling nickname, Wolf. One because of his brutality and vicious nature, the other because of his Alaskan experiences. There is also in both of them the autodidact education and their achievement as self-made men .
Larsen is all complexity and made of extremes, a combination of tremendous strength and high intelligence. Described as a perfect specimen of masculinity, he has an atavistic aura around him of something primal, something primitive and animalistic.

We have all reasons to believe that Jack London intended something more serious than just another adventure story with his “Sea – Wolf”.

In the opening sentences of the book, London smartly drops the names of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He would explain later that he had intended his story as "an attack on the super-man philosophy" and complained that his readers had failed to see it as an attack but saw it on the contrary as a glorification of that same super-man idea.

The character of Wolf Larsen is easy recognizable as a Nietzschean Ubermensch with his strong radical individualism, his materialism, his achievement in freeing himself of all irrationality, especially from the human religious "abysmal" realization of eternal return and the immortality of the soul. He has pulled himself out of the amorphous human herd. He is a strong self made and self educated man, dictating and making the law on board of his ship, instead of obeying the pre-given moral laws. Larsen creates his own values, effectively sailing over morality, tough for himself and tougher for others. He finds no meaning in life except for survival and pleasure and has come to despise all human life and deny its value.

The Wolf however fails both intellectually and physically. While he cannot convert Van Weyden to his way of thinking, the latter one remains his moral superior. Also physically, his immense internal strength not withstanding, the Wolf is deteriorating. Prone to terrible headaches he is slowly turning blind and paralyzed loosing his functions one by one.

Larsen sees himself too as a failure, aware and frustrated that he never amounted to anything great. As said earlier, he claims that he had all the determination and will but was never given the proper opportunity.

Says Nietszche: “Der Mensch ist ein Seil, geknüpft zwischen Tier und Übermensch, - ein Seil über einem Abgrund.” ( Man is a tightrope between Animal and Superhuman). The crew of the Ghost are all different knots on that tightrope. Some of them are still close to the Animal, some of them are already well advanced on that tightrope, with Wolf Larsen maybe in front, but still far away of that ideal, still hanging above that abyss, still on the deck of the surging ship. The process towards Superman is not finished. Wolf Larsen remains stuck in his nihilism and has not outgrown the initial destructive stadium, he is still fighting the insidious truths. He has not reached the creativity dimension yet, this final objective of enhancement of humanity.

In Joseph Conrad’s attack on Nietzsche in “Heart of darkness”, Kurtz, the Uebermensch has achieved more than Larsen. While the Captain is a monster for his crew, Kurtz has already become, through his force, a charismatic demigod for the tribes in the jungle. But he too has to be evacuated as he succumbs to illness and exhaustion.

Still, it is Conrad’s “Mistah Kurtz", the literary world remembers as the attack on the Uebermensch concept. It is in Kurtz, not in Larsen that TS Eliot will  see the archetype of the 20th century man. It is Kurtz, who is remembered as the more formidable literary figure. It is Conrad who is remembered as the greater writer.


The novel also includes passages of Herbert Spencer ( education ) and  Charles Darwin ( survival of the fittest ), a combination that hints at the concept of Social Darwinism.

The relation between Larsen and Van Weyden has indeed something of a social experiment.

Van Weyden has until he is on board of Larsen’s ship been quite successful as a literary critic in a well protected Academic world. He lives from a pension he has received from his father. Larsen despises him for this and argues that the critic survives on someone else achievements and that he is actually nothing more than a parasite. As a seaman amidst a crew of sealers, physically weak, he is completely useless. He is not even worth the meals he receives. The reader understands that without help Van Weyden will not survive this world he does not know.

Larsen, who intends to amuse himself, decides to ”educate” Van Weyden and to learn him to “stand on his own legs”. Larsen makes him the cabin boy with a chore of menial works. The captain, without sparing Van Weyden all insults and degradation, protects him from the crew. Van Weyden, thanks to his intelligence and fast learning, succeeds in learning of the ship's workings and through several experiences, makes it to second mate. Physically he gets stronger and better suited to the harsh life at sea.

Like Buck, the dog in “The call of the Wild”, Van Weyden is forced, by exposure to cruelty and brutality, to grow from a soft and domesticated character to someone tough and self-reliant.

While Larsen succeeds to make Van Weyden fit for live at sea and able to earn his own bread, intellectually he does not succeed to make the literary critic a copy of himself. It is Van Weyden, who remains the moral superior, it is Van Weyden who in the end who survives.


It is a great story. Captivating and entertaining. The first readers tought so too. The first printing of the forty thousand copies of The Sea-Wolf  were immediately sold out. Even before publication.

While it was never London’s intention or ambition to write that “Great American Novel” which others writers pursue as a lifetime achievement, the “Sea- Wolf” with its strong story and exceptional characters was well on his way to surpass all other books London had written up to now.

But London jeopardized the book, at least for the intellectual audience, by inserting in chapter 18, in the middle of the book and right in the middle of Wolf Larsen worst crimes, an unexpected character.

A lifeboat is spotted in the middle of the ocean, with on board a woman. Not just a woman, but Maude Brewster, a female poet, and an intellectual acquaintance of Humphrey Van Weyden!

“She seemed to me like a being from another world. I was aware of a hungry out-reaching for her, as of a starving man for bread. But then, I had not seen a woman for a very long time. I know that I was lost in a great wonder, almost a stupor, - this, then, was a woman?

I can picture Jack London’s female readers and fans sitting up at these lines, but I cannot help but be amazed at how London effectively destroys his story and turns it into a corny Love story, a Romantic drama.

I am not alone in my disappointment. Ambrose Bierce noted, "The love element, with its absurd suppressions, and impossible proprieties, is awful."

Did London get bored by the length of the novel? Could he not picture another end? Did he indulge to the expectation of his female public? Was he forced by an imminent deadline to submit his pages?

London, of humble origin, wrote for money and for success with a large audience. And he did well according to these standards. He was in those days the highest paid writer in the US! Unfortunately, this financial success did not free his mind from money worries, for he needed a lot of money to pay his expensive lifestyle, to maintain his Glen Ellen range and sail his expensive yacht around the world.

So, I guess, London wrote to sell and he knew his public very well, making concessions to their expectations, concessions to the demands of his editors, concessions to fashion …

His inability to see his writing as a job, as something else than a way to earn money, obstructed his achievement to become an Artist. That is the reason, according to me, that he failed to gain the reputation of “Great writer” and the reason why his reputation today is more and more downgraded by the reading community to a writer of adventure novels or children’s books.

Life is more than the survival of the fittest.

About the illustration;

Theo Van Rysselberghe, a member of the Belgian avant-garde exhibiting group Les XX (The Twenty), took part in an aesthetic revolution in his homeland. He was instrumental in inviting Seurat to show his monumental painting A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte 1886 in Brussels, the year after it was first exhibited in Paris. With his friend, the Symbolist poet Emile Verhaeren, van Rysselberghe had visited the Société des Artistes Indépendants, where the painting had a stunning effect. Verhaeren wrote that it ‘asked me to forget all colour and spoke to me only of light’.

Influenced by Signac, the theorist and enthusiast of Neo-Impressionism, van Rysselberghe adopted the new technique of Divisionism. He separated hues, and placed them side-by-side on the canvas, where they combine as the viewer perceives them. More startling than his technique is his daring and original composition for The man at the tiller. A dark, triangular figure sits in the extreme lower-right corner, counterbalanced by a light triangle of sail and boom at upper left. The blue silhouette of the helmsman forms a wave, reminiscent of Hokusai’s The great wave off Kanagawa c. 1829–32. Curling across the central area are lines of green waves, repeating with variation. A band of white foam links the sailor to the ropes and the sail. The sea’s power over the little boat, and the concentration which the man needs to prevail in the elements, contrast with the large distant sailing-ship, secure in a tranquil band of sky and sea forming the top third of the composition.
The chromatic use of opposites is seen best in the blue and orange clothes of the helmsman, opposed by the use of orange and blue for flesh and wood. The sail is not white, but rather picked out in pinks, yellow and blue, intensified in the yellow wood of the boom. Dots and dashes of green and white enliven the moving surface of the waves. As well as tonal divisions, contrasting directions of the paint strokes distinguish each of the picture planes. The canvas is framed in a darker blue, following the theories of Seurat and Signac. Although the sailor has traditionally been identified as van Rysselberghe’s friend Signac, the artist’s correspondence identifies him as Yves Priol, the Breton crew-man on Signac’s yacht Olympia. Van Rysselberghe later exchanged this work for one of Signac’s paintings, a mark of friendship among artists.
Christine Dixon