Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

Jack London’s Hundred Years War

06 Oct


Young Jack Lon­don


The name Jack Lon­don con­jures up dreams of the Great Yukon, fero­cious wolves, per­ni­cious gam­bling, allur­ing danc­ing girls, and an occa­sion­al drunk­en and bloody bar brawl, time­worn icons of the Amer­i­can tam­ing of the Wild West, and a pro­gres­sive polti­cal mind. The com­mon response most casu­al read­ers hiber­nat­ing in the dark, dank lit­er­ary cav­erns of Amer­i­ca to those rugged writ­ers who lived life as if it were a pro­gram of per­ilous escape and bea­con­less fren­zied aban­don, is exem­pli­fied by the endur­ing myth of Jack Lon­don, the turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry adven­tur­er cul­tur­al­ly trans­formed into a mild seda­tive for ram­bunc­tious boys. A fan­ci­ful string of Walt Dis­ney films depict­ing the tumul­tuous capers of an inno­cent lad bent on civ­i­liz­ing his fel­low out­doors­men has enchant­ed the eager hearts and minds of any­one who ever dreamed of rub­bing two wet sticks togeth­er to warm them­selves and their pals, or to roast a marsh­mal­low and a wiener on a cool Octo­ber evening with­out the usu­al con­ve­nience of news­pa­per, lighter flu­id or a half-dozen match­es.

These over­ly-sen­ti­men­tal­ized adven­ture flicks tick­led the boy­ish imag­i­na­tion. Usu­al­ly told in first per­son, the sto­ries gave courage to those of us who cow­ered before the bark­ing voic­es and effec­tive forces of pound­ing fists offered by the local neigh­bor­hood bul­ly. Intro­spec­tion by the hero of our sto­ries was always light-heart­ed, boy­ish, some­what pro­tect­ed from the beast­ly nature of beast­ly men and women. Amer­i­can film. Always a hap­py end­ing.

As George Orwell point­ed out in an essay writ­ten in 1943, Lon­don is one of those rare writ­ers of genius like Edgar Allan Poe who enjoy a more prodi­gious rep­u­ta­tion out­side of the Eng­lish-speak­ing world than in it. While Poe is crit­i­cal­ly respect­ed both in Eng­land and France, the author of Mar­tin Eden has been great­ly admired by Ger­man, French, and Russ­ian read­ers.

Orwell points out that Lenin’s wid­ow described in a short biog­ra­phy she wrote of him, of how she used to read sto­ries to her hus­band on his deathbed as he lay par­a­lyzed. On the day of his death she was read­ing from Dick­ens’ clas­sic A Christ­mas Car­ol, but he was put off by the bour­geois sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty of it all. The last words Vladamir Lenin ever heard were from Jack Lon­don’s Love of Life.

Obvi­ous­ly, Lenin was ini­tial­ly drawn to Lon­don’s polit­i­cal writ­ings. He remained an ardent Social­ist, and, as Orwell points out, one of the first Amer­i­can writ­ers to pay any atten­tion to Karl Marx. His rep­u­ta­tion in Europe is main­ly found­ed on anoth­er of Lon­don’s books, The Iron Heel, a remark­able book of polit­i­cal prophe­cy pre­dict­ing the rise of Fas­cism. Lon­don under­stood that when the work­ing-class move­ments began to take on expan­sive dimen­sions and appeared to be tak­ing over con­trol of the world, the cap­i­tal­is­tic class would hit back. And until Hitler came ful­ly into his own, most Social­ists imag­ined Marx­ism would sim­ple swarm over the earth with­out a resis­tance.


Mar­tin Eden by Jack Lon­don

In Lon­don’s book, Mar­tin Eden, the pro­tag­o­nist, Mar­tin has weath­ered a poor work­ing class upbring­ing‚ his play­ground was the dirty streets of Oak­land in the first years of the new cen­tu­ry‚ his pals scrap­py street fight­ing lads like him­self, his girl­friends coarse and prof­li­gate. But Mar­tin Eden was look­ing for a way out. As a ded­i­cat­ed mer­chant marine, he accepts the chal­lenges he places before him­self with gus­to. Voy­ages upon the harsh high seas for eight months of the year before dock­ing off on extend­ed fur­lough took their toll.

When back on the hill he stayed with his sis­ter and her hus­band to the ambiva­lent reluc­tance of every­one involved. Robust yet uncouth, igno­rant yet yearn­ing for knowl­edge, Mar­tin is intro­duced to a young mid­dle class socialite named Ruth. She is the eter­nal rose, the effer­ves­cent source of beau­ty and redemp­tion who lights a bril­liant flame in young Mar­tin. After hear­ing Ruth read from a col­lec­tion of Swin­burne’s writ­ings, our young feisty street punk, the bright­est and the strongest grub­bing up from the rib­ald and murky bow­els of noth­ing­ness is trans­formed, in a sense, bap­tized by the fiery spir­it of lit­er­a­ture and fine per­fumeries Ruth brings to him, and cer­tain char­i­ot wheels of grace for Mar­tin Eden are set in motion. The brit­tle romance is chart­ed very plain­ly by the author. Resolv­ing to edu­cate him­self, the slate of mid­dle class val­ues and struc­tures make their way into the agen­da of the young Mar­tin in search for a group of peo­ple he can call his own. Burn­ing the mid­night oil, abid­ing a strict sched­ule of three to four hours of sleep per night, Mar­tin Eden first feeds his intel­lec­tu­al star­va­tion by devour­ing the clas­sics. After sev­er­al alter­nat­ing tours of duty at sea and in the mim­ic­ked words of the mas­ters he con­sumed, he begins to write down sto­ries of his adven­tures, pour­ing his soul and sen­si­tiv­i­ties into pages which began to mount into an inhu­man pile of rejec­tion notices.

His rela­tion­ship with Ruth began to sour when it became appar­ent that she was unable to com­pre­hend or suf­fer the intense strug­gle against the gods of moral and intel­lec­tu­al respon­si­bil­i­ty he was grap­pling with and would con­tin­ue with until a vic­tor had been pro­claimed. Her father and his polit­i­cal friends were hope­ful­ly tied down to inef­fec­tu­al sta­tus quo meth­ods and argu­ments. Their con­de­scen­sion only fueled the young aspi­rant until a chance meet­ing with a group of rev­o­lu­tion­ary anar­chists and social­ists invig­o­rat­ed his spir­its briefly. Before long even this more edgy crowd, edgy to be sure, but just as pompous and pre-occu­pied with sta­tus with­in the ranks matched only by its end­less word­play dis­heart­ed him. Yet he still believed that there was more to life than all this use­less rhetoric and sense­less destruc­tion-ori­ent­ed pro­pa­gan­da caught up in a war of words rather than the toil of sweat, blood, and tears. Unde­terred, young Mar­tin Eden pressed on.

jack-london-stampTime, how­ev­er, began to with­er the young author’s com­pul­sion. It seemed an impos­si­ble achieve­ment to gain access not to the wis­dom of the sages, which he knew he already pos­sessed but to the class of peo­ple who upheld the rules and ves­tiges of that wis­dom. After his breakup with Ruth in a mutu­al dis­sat­is­fac­tion of per­son­al tastes, and a hasty explorato­ry expe­di­tion to his old neigh­bor­hood gang, Mar­tin decid­ed that only the pos­tur­ing fame and accom­pa­ny­ing new for­tune soci­ety bestowed upon an excit­ing, fresh­ly dis­cov­ered, trail­blaz­ing young writer could sus­tain his inten­si­fy­ing­ly decep­tive thirst for social and intel­lec­tu­al accep­tance. He begins to write more earnest­ly.

When favor final­ly arrives, the newest bon mot on the lit­er­ary scene is quick to dis­cour­age the usu­al fare of band­wag­on jumpers, those who had reject­ed his pieces only months before‚ now clam­or­ing for more, more, more! Not­ing the irony, he held to his guns when cer­tain edi­tors insist­ed on see­ing any man­u­scripts still lying around, man­u­scripts already once reject­ed by these very same edi­tors. More truth was dawn­ing upon our young adven­tur­er.

The nov­el, Jack Lon­don insist­ed, was an attack on indi­vid­u­al­ism, the fierce indi­vid­u­al­ism of his era. Being aware of the needs of oth­ers, of the whole human col­lec­tive need, Mar­tin Eden lived only for him­self, fought only for him­self, and, if you please, died for him­self.
Sud­den­ly all the wares of the world are at his feet. Old cohorts quick­ly emerge from the cracks of end­less walls he had nev­er been able to tear down with either his bare fists or the rest­less but youth­ful ener­gy rolling off his tongue. Now his words were famous. Now every­one under­stood. Now every­one want­ed to be his friend. Jack Lon­don was a born rebel whose manip­u­la­tive per­son­al­i­ty demand­ed the imme­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion of his con­tra­dic­to­ry wants. His dialec­tic of appetites wore on with­out a syn­the­sis of sat­is­fac­tion. He once con­fessed to want­i­ng to dri­ve forty hors­es abreast with the thou­sand strong arms of an army. He was a heavy drinker. He died rel­a­tive­ly young.

Mar­tin Eden is Lon­don’s most auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el. His ear­ly death at age forty brought on by his exces­sive bouts of drink­ing and expo­sure to the ele­ments is fore­shad­owed by the char­ac­ter, Eden, who hurls him­self into the ocean depths in route to a trop­i­cal island he had recent­ly pur­chased. Although I am aware of no sup­port­ing evi­dence, per­haps this book is where the poet Hart Crane derived his idea for his own self-inflict­ed drown­ing some twen­ty-four years after its ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion.

The nov­el, Jack Lon­don insist­ed, was an attack on indi­vid­u­al­ism, the fierce indi­vid­u­al­ism of his era. Being aware of the needs of oth­ers, of the whole human col­lec­tive need, Mar­tin Eden lived only for him­self, fought only for him­self, and, if you please, died for him­self.

An irony of the book resides in the fact that it is the only one of Lon­don’s fifty books that his pub­lish­ers, Macmil­lan, has kept in print in a cloth edi­tion for sev­en­ty years, while it has invit­ed the most chaf­ing crit­i­cism from the pro­fes­sion as being too pes­simistic, den­i­grat­ing cap­i­tal­ism and self-improve­ment and ambi­tion with­out pro­vid­ing any alter­na­tives. Lon­don was con­fused with the hero of his book.

Turn of the Century Writers

Turn of the Cen­tu­ry Writ­ers

Indeed, Mar­tin Eden is a clean read, swift in its sit­u­a­tion­al cur­rents and col­or­ful­ly deter­mined in assess­ing the prob­lems the indi­vid­ual faces in his exo­dus from the bat­tle­fields where intel­lects clash and flesh recoils in a nev­er adjourned meet­ing of forces. To stand head­strong on a frozen tun­dra against the ele­ments or to bob just above a watery abyss to test the very nature of con­tro­ver­sy, mea­sur­ing the bonds and covenants between life and death, is an event reserved for the rare few who dare engage with full intel­lect both the demons with­in one­self and those with­in the soci­ety in which one strug­gles to com­pre­hend.

In his time Jack Lon­don lived and died as a strik­ing con­trast to the Hor­a­tio Alger and more recent Ronald Rea­gan myth of hard work, love, suc­cess and respect. Where­as Alger inspired, Lon­don depressed the read­ers of ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. The sim­ple fact is that one must find solace in the tribes as they exist, that one must have faith in the unlove­ly, seem­ing­ly mechan­i­cal soci­ety in order to pros­per. We exist in time and place sim­ply to count out mea­sure until we evolve into some­thing else, hope­ful­ly bet­ter equipped to face our­selves as we real­ly are indi­vid­u­als marooned on a island sur­round­ed by a sea of hope­fuls.

Find a copy of this book. You are prob­a­bly some­one he has writ­ten about. A cen­tu­ry lat­er, we find lit­tle solace in real­iz­ing that Mar­tin Eden’s impas­sioned plea for a more redemp­tive man­ner of liv­ing still remains part and par­cel of the age­less quar­rel all reli­gion, art, and pol­i­tics seeks to address: can we real­ly help our­selves once we know who we are?


"Ignorance and virtue suck on the same straw. Souls grow on bones, but die beneath bankers' hours.""