The Sea Wolf (1904)
I would rather be ashes than dust!
Here's an interesting, though little considered, thought for you: with the obvious exception of Karl Marx, whom a Colgate University professor of mine described as a hemorrhoid ridden little failure of a man who assumed that because he could not succeed in a capitalist society that success was impossible, virtually every renowned author of the Left, by definition, disproves his own theories. I mean, if the capitalist deck is truly stacked against the poor and birth, not ability, determines social position, then how the heck did people like Upton Sinclair and Jack London and H.G. Wells and Richard Wright and their ilk become so stinking rich and famous. Of course their dirty little secret is that they succeeded because they were more talented than others. Now if these folks were willing to suck it up and acknowledge that fact and base their philosophy on the intellectually honest basis that some people just don't have what it takes so it's up to society to provide for them, then it would be possible to respect them. Instead, by steadfastly maintaining that societal inequities are the result of external factors, they make themselves sound kind of silly. Perhaps no author has ever embodied this contradiction more blatantly that Jack London. In fact, his own life and his writings stand in such stark contradiction to his militant socialism as to offer the appearance of incipient schizophrenia.
Jack London was born into poverty, abandoned by his father, quit school as a teen and worked at a variety of menial tasks before he became a writer. So did poverty, fatherlessness, lack of education, etc. trap him in a life of poverty? Well, actually he became the highest paid writer in the United States and remains one of the most popular American authors to this day. Oops! So much for Marx... While London was an avowed Socialist, his writings are perhaps the supreme literary reflection of Social Darwinism--the theory that people who succeed in society do so not because of privilege but because of superior ability. In his most famous work, The Call of the Wild (see Orrin's review), a sled dog returns to nature and the thin veneer of domestication is quickly stripped away; he rapidly reverts to savagery, becoming the prototypical Alpha male. The Sea Wolf recapitulates this story in human terms for anyone who missed the point.
Humphrey van Weyden is an effete young man of privilege who ends up stranded aboard a sealing ship under the tyrannical control of Wolf Larsen (get it? Wolf). Humphrey represents civilized man:
As I lay there thinking, I naturally dwelt upon myself
and my situation. It was unparalleled,
Larsen is the very embodiment of man in the state of nature--brutal, virile, amoral:
Pacing back and forth the length of the hatchway,
and savagely chewing the end of a cigar, was
Larsen challenges Humphrey's artificial world view with an elemental philosophy of survival of the fittest:
"What do you believe, then?" I countered.
"I believe that life is a mess," he answered promptly.
"It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves
He swept his arm in an impatient gesture toward a
number of the sailors who were working on
"They move; so does the jellyfish move. They move
in order to eat in order that they may keep
"They have dreams," I interrupted, "radiant, flashing dreams -- "
"Of grub," he concluded sententiously.
"And of more -- "
"Grub. Of a larger appetite and more luck in satisfying
it." His voice sounded harsh. There was no
"But that is beside the matter," I cried.
"Not at all." He was speaking rapidly, now, and his
eyes were flashing. "It is piggishness, and it is
"Because you are stronger," I managed to blurt out.
"But why stronger?" he went on at once with his perpetual
queries. "Because I am a bigger bit of
"But the hopelessness of it," I protested.
"I agree with you," he answered. "Then why move at
all, since moving is living? Without moving
So does London condemn Larsen's atavistic beliefs? He does present him as a beastly creature, but he is also a heroic figure, to be admired in many ways. As when he analyzes Milton's Paradise Lost:
If ever Wolf Larsen attained the summit of living,
he attained it then. From time to time I forsook
"He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God's
thunderbolts," Wolf Larsen was saying.
"The first anarchist," Maud laughed, rising and preparing to withdraw to her state-room.
"Then it is good to be an anarchist!" he cried. He,
too, had risen, and he stood facing her, where
"`Here at least
It was the defiant cry of a mighty spirit. The cabin
still rang with his voice, as he stood there,
Again that unnamable and unmistakable terror was
in her eyes, and she said, almost in a whisper,
London is at least ambivalent about Larsen, perhaps even admiring.
And does Humphrey survive by forcing Larsen to become more civilized, more of a social creature? Not! Humphrey himself becomes more of a primal man. After he and Maud, a woman likewise stranded with Larsen, escape to an island with a seal rookery, they are forced to survive by their own wits and will. At one point, they determine to roof their hut with sealskins and face the daunting task of killing a seal, fending off repeated attacks by enormous bulls. When Maud confesses her fear, Humphrey feels the beast surge within himself:
"I'm dreadfully afraid!"
And I was not. Though the novelty had not yet worn
off, the peaceful comportment of the seals
"I'm afraid, and I'm not afraid," she chattered with shaking jaws. "It's my miserable body, not I."
"It's all right, it's all right," I reassured her,
my arm passing instinctively and protectingly around
I shall never forget, in that moment, how instantly
conscious became of my manhood. The
"I am all right, now," she said, looking up at me gratefully. "Let us go on."
And that the strength in me had quieted her and given
her confidence, filled me with an exultant
Thrust back into the maw of Nature, the milquetoasty Humphrey of yore disappears. When Larsen's wrecked ship washes up on the shore, the new Humphrey boldly sets out on a course which would have been unimaginable months earlier:
"It's too bad the Ghost has lost her masts. Why,
we could sail away in her. Don't you think we
I sprang excitedly to my feet.
"I wonder, I wonder," I repeated, pacing up and down.
Maud's eyes were shining with anticipation as they
followed me. She had such faith in me! And the
"It can be done, it can be done," I was thinking
and asserting aloud. "What men have done, I can
This assertion of confidence in his own ability, an ability equal to or superior to that of any other man is pretty hard to square with the Socialist politics of doing for others because societal impediments prevent them from doing for themselves. It is instead consistent with the conservative belief that man requires freedom in order that all men achieve their full potential, even recognizing the uncomfortable fact that many men will achieve little because they are simply less talented than their fellow men.
In the end, as Humphrey takes over from Wolf Larsen--as he becomes the Alpha male and takes over the pack--it is impossible to interpret this as anything less than a triumph and it is hard to read anything other than admiration in London's tone:
"What are you doing down there?" he demanded. "Trying to scuttle my ship for me?"
"Quite the opposite; I'm repairing her," was my answer.
"But what in thunder are you repairing?" There was puzzlement in his voice.
"Why, I'm getting everything ready for restepping
the masts," replied easily, as though it were the
"It seems as though you're standing on your own legs
at last, Hump," we heard him say; and then
"But I say, Hump," he called down, "you can't do it."
"Oh, yes, I can," I retorted. "I'm doing it now."
"But this is my vessel, my particular property. What if forbid you?"
"You forget," I replied. "You are no longer the biggest
bit of the ferment. You were, once, and able
The Socialism that London espoused in the political arena is little more than the belief that Man would be best served if all the yeast was stale, in order that no man rise above another. It would allow the State to make motzah of the species, leveling unequal peoples into a flat, bland Saltine of humanity. It is impossible to believe that the Jack London who lived and wrote as he did, truly hoped for this vision to become reality. Regardless, his novels make a compelling case for the opposite position, for individual greatness and excellence. By cleverly cloaking his conservative message in a liberal wrapper, he has virtually guaranteed himself a permanent place in the Western Canon. Survival of the fittest indeed…
-Jack London's Ranch Album
Book-related and General Links:
-London, Jack (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
-The Jack London Collection
-Jack London, his life and books (Jack London State Historic Park)
-Jack London's Ranch Album
-Jack London Main Page
-Jack London at Cetenary College of LA
-PAL: Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide Chapter 6: Late Nineteenth Century - Jack London (1876-1916)
-BIO: Jack London (1876-1916) original name John Griffith Chaney (kirjasto)
-ETEXT: Archives of many works including journalism
-ETEXT: The Call of the Wild (1903)
-ETEXT: The Sea Wolf
-ANNOTATED ETEXTS: (Self Knowledge)
-ESSAY: THE PHILOSOPHY OF JACK LONDON (Joseph Sciambra, Sonoma State University)
-ESSAY: Call of the Wild (Henry Veggian)
-ESSAY: Jack London on the Great War (Michael E. Hanlon, Trenches on the Web)
-ESSAY: Jack London: Superman unmasked (Bridgman, Joan, Contemporary Review; March 1998)
-BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: A short life intensely lived: The adventure of Jack London (Harmon, BIOGRAPHY Magazine)
-REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF JACK LONDON Volume One:1896-1905. Volume Two: 1906-1912. Volume Three: 1913-1916 (E.L. Doctorow, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Jack London, Hemingway and the Constitution Selected Essays, 1977-1992 By E. L. Doctorow (CHRISTOPHER LEHMAN-HAUPT, NY Times)
-ESSAY: FREEDOM ,NECESSITY AND DOGS I HAVE KNOWN (Leigh Hafrey, NY Times Book Review)
I enjoyed the review, it is better than most that I have encountered. It is a shame that the writer, perhaps still too deeply in the shadow of a former professor, chooses to weave Jack London's socialist leanings into what teetered on a real understanding of the richly developed characters in one of the few high points of American popular literature. The Sea Wolf has an almost Dantesque quality that the reviewer missed - I am convinced - because of his narrow focus on politics. This quality is twisted by London's deification of man, and therefore it lacks a theologically convicing ascent to paradise. Dante's engine of ascent was divine grace. London's is conspicuous by its absence. This is the great flaw of Humanism and even a writer of London's caliber cannot escape it. Romance then becomes the window dressing to cover his flawed "OZ"
Jack London shows a grasp of the nature of evil and its personification in the figure of Lucifer. Nearly tripping over this he quotes the passage where Maude speaks the obvious:"You are Lucifer". But Maude has no grasp of what this means, this is why she is the perfect vehicle to deliver this line. Humphrey has already confronted this truth and from it given us the brilliant image of the rage of a creature of vast intellect and enormous strength who has no one to compare himself to. no mirror to show him the greatness he is sure he possesses. This is the rage with which Lucifer terrorizes Hell (Milton's rather milquetoast fallen angel aside) Despising the fawning servitude of his minions, Growing wild with rage at the fear he inspires, and even when he encounters resistance, rather than respect, it fires his wrath and he consumes it like the demons of Lewis's "Screwtape Letters". Searching for that vintage which satisfies, yet doomed to hunger again. In the end, Jagger's "man of wealth and taste" is consumed by the brute physical rage of his nature. The flaw that renders him unable to defeat his brother death which cocoons whatever was of the higher order and smothers it.
Humphrey does not become the animal that is part of Wolf Larsen's nature, rather he uses this energy, inspired by the Beatrice like figure of Maude, who is in reality his original nature, now seperated to be contrasted against his new strength and the ever dangerous possibility of succombing to its corrupting power represented by the reappearence of the Ghost and its occupant, now physically alone, as his spirit has been on the Ghost all along.
Humphrey represents the triumph of man. Secular Humanism which is not at all at varience with London's Socialism. The power that man wields as civilization develops is guided by his intellect and emerges as the great end.
- Matthew Brooks
- Dec-06-2002, 19:07
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