A Lesser-Known American Classic: Jack London’s Martin Eden

martineden1Very recently, I was excited to learn that my First Floor: New and Featured Department colleague and fellow blogger Julie is, like me, a big fan of Jack London’s novel Martin Eden.  Why the excitement?  Well, I first read the novel about four years ago, and it instantly found a spot amongst my top five favorite books of all time.  Since then I’ve searched far and wide for others who share my enthusiasm about this somewhat obscure classic, and Julie is the first person I’ve discovered to have also read and enjoyed it.  Hence, I have decided to use a precious blog post dedicated to this momentous occasion.

Jack London’s name is indelibly synonymous with his most famous novel, The Call of the Wild.   While Call is a great piece of literatucallre deserving of its fame, and quite more philosophically complex than one might at first assume, I’ve often felt that London is short-changed for being known only as “that guy who writes about dogs,” or, sometimes, “that guy who wrote about building a fire.”  Maybe our middle school reading curriculum is to blame for this.  Whatever the cause, London’s true depth is often overlooked.

For awhile I was guilty of short-changing London too, imagining him only as the “dog guy.”  When I eventually decided to read beyond Call of the Wild, it was because of some Jack London references in Edward Abbey’sseawolf The Fool’s Progress.  Given my affinity for Abbey at the time, I thought it might be useful to see why London inspired him.  So, I began my London education by reading another of his most famous novels, The Sea Wolf, and I was pleased to discover that London not only wrote an amazing story of high seas adventure and survival, but also interspersed the action with philosophical discussions of the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution, one of my big interests.

(WARNING, PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD)

Indeed, London certainly wrote about a lot more than dogs.  After this realization I was a convert to London’s writing, and sometime shortly thereafter I stumbled across the ultimate subject of this post, Martin EdenMartin Eden is about a young, working class guy named (surprise) Martin Eden who by chance stumbles upon the world of the bourgeoisie.  He is instantly impressed, falls in love with a young bourgeois girl named Ruth, and decides to better himself to earn her love.  Through a devoted process of self-education, Eden’s self-improvement is a great success, and he soon rises above his station amongst the working class, begins mingling with the bourgeoisie, and earns the love of Ruth.  Eden then decides to become a writer, and he fiercely dedicates himself to the craft.  In the process Eden loses Ruth, becomes an intense individualist, and eventually far surpasses the bourgeoisie that he once admired.  Through his hard work Eden eventually succeeds mightily as a writer, but by that time a strong sense of disillusionment has pervaded Eden’s psyche, and he decides to end his life.

Martin Eden is generally considered semiautobiographical, since London also rose from the  working class to become a famous writer, though many attest that Eden’s suicide is probably not a hint at London’s own young, debatably suicidal death.  London’s politics also shine through in Martin Eden, since London himself once explained that the novel was an attack on Eden’s extreme individualism.  Indeed, throughout the book Eden describes himself as a kind of Nietzschean individualist, and decries the “slave mind” of socialism.  London, however, was a pretty serious socialist, and so the tragic ending of Eden was ultimately intended as a statement about taking individualism too far.

When I read Martin Eden I had a slightly different take on the meaning of the story.  Indeed, I considered it to be the story of the fate of a guy stuck in social class limbo.  I’m not making up this term — Alfred limboLubrano describes and discusses it well in his interesting book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams.  Class limbo is felt when one leaves behind one’s original socioeconomic roots, usually the working class, and rises into a new class, generally the middle class.   In London’s day, it may have taken a lot of self-education to rise through the ranks, much as Eden and London did.   In today’s world it’s a bit more common, and it usually happens when a working class kid goes to college and suddenly finds him/herself “educated” and working in a job with a shiny new white collar.

But class is more than just the job one works or the money one makes, it’s also about social customs.  Entrance into the middle and upper classes requires assimilation into their culture.   Once a working class individual fully assimilates into a new class culture, there’s no going back.  They’ve suddenly gone beyond their working class customs, and they no longer relate to their friends or family, and vice versa.  On the flipside of things, they never seem to fully fit in with their new class culture’s friends and coworkers who have lived admidst the culture their entire lives.  Hence they’re stuck somewhere in the middle, straddling two social classes but never fully belonging to either one – class limbo.

This is Martin Eden’s experience.  The story begins with Eden as a big, rough-and-tumble working class guy with bad habits and worse grammar.  As he self-educates himself and becomes a writer, he loses his strength and physical presence while modifying his less-civilized behavior, thereby fitting in better with the bourgeoisie.  But just as he becomes acceptable to the bourgeoisie, he realizes the shallowness of their culture and sees that his work and dreams have been for naught.  By that time it’s too late for him to return to the working class, as he can no longer identify with working class people, nor they with him.  Thus does he begin his downward spiral to self-destruction.

In an introduction to the 2002 Modern Library Paperback edition ofwhitefang Martin Eden, Paul Berman describes how Eden “begins to feel that he has become two men instead of one,” one who is “civilized and clean” and one who is a “fistfighting barbarian.”  Interestingly, he claims this sense of division to be the “deepest note” in all of London’s writing.  This is true.  Consider, for instance, the division between nature and civilization in The Call valleyof the Wild and White Fang; the division between mighty gold prospecter and obese, alcoholic businessman in Burning Daylight; and the division between brutal working class city life and refreshing agricultural rural life in The Valley of the Moon.  Truly the theme of division was London’s big one, and usually the division is between one’s “roots” and some kind of artificial experience.

I believe Jack London’s own class limbo inspired this theme.   Indeed, there are several anecdotes about London and his obvious class confusion.  One story goes that London would wear a flannel shirt to parties held by his wealthy literary peers to show off his working class roots, but that it was ultimately seen as a sham.  After all, he was quite wealthy because of his writing by that time, and could not fairly say that he was working class.  Another observation comes from his friend and literary successor Upton Sinclair, who said that London did not know if he wanted to be a revolutionary or an aristocrat.

jacklondon1In the end, London proved much too big to fit into any simple human category.  By not knowing quite where he fit into the human world, he grew into something much larger.  His doing so is what inspires me, a fellow traveller through class limbo, to look beyond the superficial divisions of social life and keep my eye on the much bigger picture.

Today is Jack London’s 133rd birthday.  Happy birthday, Jack.

–Wes

4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Lesser-Known American Classic: Jack London’s Martin Eden

  1. Hey, Wes:

    Thanks for the post. Have you ever heard of “Star-Rover” by Jack London? Here’s the Wikipedia summary: I have a feeling you might like this one.

    “The Star Rover is a novel by American writer Jack London published in 1915 (published in the United Kingdom as The Jacket). It is a story of reincarnation.

    It evokes divided opinion; many London aficionados esteem it highly. Alexander Kershaw calls it a “cult classic” and London’s “most soulful work.” “It is unlike any other Jack London novel. Biographer Russ Kingman refers to it as marking “an abrupt change in London’s literary style.”

    A framing story is told in the first person by Darrell Standing, a university professor serving life imprisonment in San Quentin State Prison for murder. Prison officials try to break his spirit by means of a torture device called “the jacket,” a canvas jacket which can be tightly laced so as to compress the whole body, inducing angina. Standing discovers how to withstand the torture by entering a kind of trance state, in which he walks among the stars and experiences portions of past lives.

    ‘I trod interstellar space, exalted by the knowledge that I was bound on vast adventure, where, at the end, I would find all the cosmic formulae and have made clear to me the ultimate secret of the universe. In my hand I carried a long glass wand. It was borne in upon me that with the tip of this wand I must touch each star in passing. And I knew, in all absoluteness, that did I but miss one star I should be precipitated into some unplummeted abyss of unthinkable and eternal punishment and guilt.’

    The accounts of these past lives form the body of the work. They are in effect a series of powerfully written, but disconnected and unresolved, short stories. The writing sometimes rises to the level of poetry, sometimes sinks to the level of purple prose. According to Kevin Starr, London planned a historical novel of the West and used some of this material in The Star Rover.

    The jacket itself was actually used at San Quentin at the time and Jack London’s descriptions of it were based on interviews with a former convict named Ed Morrell, which is also the name of a character in the novel.”

    This puppy is esteemed by some occult/new age groups. It’s definitely out there.

    best,
    Don

  2. Great post, Wes. You’ve inspired me to read some London. From your descriptions of the overlapping layers of London’s life, class conflict and the divisions he explores, it sounds like these are the kinds of novels that I could carry around in my head to analyze and reconsider for a long time after I’ve finished reading.

    Thanks!

  3. London’s long been a favorite of mine. We read Sea Wolf in my Hero/Anti-Hero class back in undergrad (thank you mr. Waddell!), and Rolf Larsen is the picture of the Nietzschean Superman:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9Cbermensch

    Thanks, Wes!

    Scott

  4. Dave

    Wes,

    Thanks for the inspiring post. I will be reading Martin Eden. I too only knew Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf. Recently I read Star Rover and totally loved it. Fantastic writing. The book is wonderfully magical and quite convincing in its thesis that the spirit is immortal.

    Dave

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