Very 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 literature 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’s 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 Eden. Martin 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 Lubrano 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 of 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 of 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.
In 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.