The Magazine

The Ice Palace

Jack London’s thousand words a day.

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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This presumably direct manner in fact moves the reader away from, rather than closer to, actuality. As does, from time to time, Labor’s enthusiastic abandonment to cliché: When speaking of London’s aspirations, he notes, “Life itself was the biggest, most exciting game in town, and he was hell-bent on playing for the highest stakes.” Such well-worn phrases have the effect of lowering the stakes, even as they attempt to ratchet them upwards.

Labor also fails to mention one of the best criticisms of London, George Orwell’s 1943 introduction to a volume of his stories. Orwell convincingly presents London as a writer whose main theme was the cruelty of nature and who had a corresponding streak of brutality, seen in his preference for the strong against the weak man. A prime example is his novel The Sea-Wolf (1904), in which the ship’s tyrannical captain, Wolf Larsen, has a lot more “life” than the civilized narrator who witnesses his cruelty. Orwell admires some of London’s stories for the way they delight in the savage struggle that is life, perceiving its cruelty while refraining from choosing sides, thus suspending narrative judgment. Orwell also makes the prescient observation that even London’s best stories—and this would apply to the novels as well—have “the curious quality of being well told and yet not well written.” This is a tricky distinction, but Orwell may have been on to something in suggesting that one can perceive a kind of narrative power despite worn or obvious phrases and “erratic dialogue.”

“A Socialist with the instincts of a buccaneer,” Orwell called London; but it wasn’t only seafaring adventures that London used as material for his books. The People of the Abyss (1903), his account of life among the London poor, is surely a strong predecessor to Orwell’s own adventuring in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). But for all its exploration of grittiness and its social message, London’s book is interesting for its inclination toward poetry and poets. Epigraphs to individual chapters feature lines from, among others, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Carlyle, The Rubaiyat, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and William Morris, and it concludes with Longfellow’s “Challenge,” quoted in full. 

This “poetic” side to London can be thought of as a spiritual counter to his materialist philosophy—Darwinian survival of the fittest and all that. In The Sea-Wolf, to my mind the most gripping novel of the ones I’ve read, the narrator Humphrey van Weyden finds himself aboard, and compelled to stay aboard, The Ghost, Wolf Larsen’s ship. Humphrey, soon known as “Hump,” manages to elicit from the captain, a man of rippling muscles (like London himself?), the confession that he’s been reading Robert Browning but is having trouble with him; whereupon Hump gets out his copy of the poet and reads “Caliban on Setebos” aloud. (No wonder Wolf was having trouble.) He goes on to quote a stanza from Omar Khayyam aloud, to which Larsen cries, “Great. .  .  . That’s the keynote.” 

At one level, this is ludicrous. But it brings out another side of London: his romance with literature, fueled by the heavy reading he did when preparing to be a student at the University of California (he lasted only a term).

At the beginning of Martin Eden, the book Pnin looked for in vain, the hero meets a lovely, aristocratic young woman who lends him copies of Browning and Swinburne. The untutored hero is ecstatic and vows to change his life. Going to bed that night, he has a vision of the lady’s “pale face under its crown of golden hair, remote and inaccessible as a star.” He proceeds to bestow a kiss on both the Browning and Swinburne volumes. And in the final chapter of this long, sometimes tedious, novel, Martin, about to abandon himself to the sea, reads aloud a stanza from Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine” before casting himself into the waters.

All Labor has to say about Martin Eden is that it is “an indictment of the protagonist’s fatal self-centered individualism.” But London’s inability to imagine a convincing inner life for any of his characters makes talk about such an “indictment” pretty hollow. The book comes alive in its scenes of “action,” as when the hero and his partner are working in a small steam laundry with “unremitting toil.” What we remember from the sequence is Martin’s left hand holding up the body of a shirt “and at the same time the right hand dipped into the starch—starch so hot that, in order to wring it out, their hands had to be thrust, and thrust continually, into a bucket of cold water.” The whole laundry incident is alive with the energy of a writer who knows how things work because he has worked them—and no inner life is necessary.