Monday, December 30, 2013

"I scarcely know where to begin" with Jack London's The Sea-Wolf

I am reading Jack London's 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf. London wrote a lot about wolves, didn't he? The wolf in the Sea-Wolf is not a canine, nor is it, I was surprised to find, the name of the ship. This is a seafaring novel, you see, or rather it's a philosophical argument in the shape of an adventure story set on an American seal-hunting vessel called the Ghost, captained by a terrible Dane named Wolf Larsen. Larsen is the sea wolf of the novel's title. I am not relating this in a straightforward manner, I see.

The Sea-Wolf is the story of Humphrey Van Weydon, a 35 year-old American literary critic who lives primarily on inherited money. The novel begins when Van Weydon is lost at sea as his ferry boat is rammed by another ferry boat during a thick fog over San Francisco Bay. Van Weydon clings to his life preserver and drifts out into the Pacific where he is picked up by the Ghost, on her way to the sealing territories off of Japan. The Ghost's captain, Wolf Larsen, has no interest in turning about and setting Van Weydon down in San Francisco, nor does he wish to put the castaway onto any vessel headed toward California; instead, he makes Van Weydon a deal: he can jump overboard and try to swim back to America, or
"My mate’s gone, and there’ll be a lot of promotion. A sailor comes aft to take mate’s place, cabin-boy goes for’ard to take sailor’s place, and you take the cabin-boy’s place, sign the articles for the cruise, twenty dollars per month and found. Now what do you say? And mind you, it’s for your own soul’s sake. It will be the making of you."
Van Weydon takes the offer, as he has no choice. Thus begins his apprenticeship under Wolf Larsen, a sort of Nietzschean uberman who rules through brutality, unfeeling cruelty, and outright murder when he deems it necessary. He is soundly hated by his crew, but also feared and respected. At one point a character compares Larsen to Bill Sykes; the two villains are cut from much the same cloth, but Larsen would eat Sykes for breakfast if you ask me.

The character of Wolf Larsen is not called into being by London to provide a frightening antagonist against whom the hero of the piece will struggle. Larsen displays right off that he is physically capable of killing Van Weydon; it would be easy, maybe even pleasurable, but there's no profit in it just yet. The new cabin boy becomes valued immediately for his knowledge of literature and philosophy, and Van Weydon spends much of the book's first half discussing with Larsen a form of social Darwinist self-reliance, a "materialism" that denies everything except survival of the fittest and the meaninglessness of it all:
“I believe that life is a mess,” he [Larsen] answered promptly. “It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of those things?”

He swept his arm in an impatient gesture toward a number of the sailors who were working on some kind of rope stuff amidships.

“They move, so does the jelly-fish move. They move in order to eat in order that they may keep moving. There you have it. They live for their belly’s sake, and the belly is for their sake. It’s a circle; you get nowhere. Neither do they. In the end they come to a standstill. They move no more. They are dead.”
So there you have the dominant philosophy aboard the Ghost, and on that ship there is no place for Van Weydon's idealism or his impulses toward charity or improvement of civilization. All is vanities (Ecclesiastes is quoted triumphantly by Larsen), etc. When Van Weydon admits to the captain that his life is being threatened by the ship's cook, the captain sees it as a teaching moment, another proof of his eat-or-be-eaten mindset:
“So you’re afraid, eh?” he sneered.

“Yes,” I said defiantly and honestly, “I am afraid.”

“That’s the way with you fellows,” he cried, half angrily, “sentimentalizing about your immortal souls and afraid to die. At sight of a sharp knife and a cowardly Cockney the clinging of life to life overcomes all your fond foolishness. Why, my dear fellow, you will live for ever. You are a god, and God cannot be killed. Cooky cannot hurt you. You are sure of your resurrection... And it is all very beautiful, this shaking off of the flesh and soaring of the imprisoned spirit. Cooky cannot hurt you. He can only give you a boost on the path you eternally must tread. Or, if you do not wish to be boosted just yet, why not boost Cooky? According to your ideas, he, too, must be an immortal millionaire...He’s bound to go on living, somewhere, somehow. Then boost him. Stick a knife in him and let his spirit free. As it is, it’s in a nasty prison, and you’ll do him only a kindness by breaking down the door. And who knows?—it may be a very beautiful spirit that will go soaring up into the blue from that ugly carcass. Boost him along, and I’ll promote you to his place, and he’s getting forty-five dollars a month.” [ellipses mine]
Don't worry, Van Weydon does not "boost" the cook and take his job. He does, however, learn over the long voyage quite a bit of seamanship, and is eventually promoted to first mate (at sixty-five dollars a month, mind you). Wolf Larsen's domination of his crew and his surroundings gradually comes to seem rational to Van Weydon and to the reader. It is a philosophy that works, you see. But it only works aboard the Ghost because Wolf Larsen has complete control of his closed society; those who fight against his form of fascism find themselves "boosted." Van Weydon does not see that he is living in essentially irrational conditions, and so his point of view is skewed. And so is the point of view of the reader. At the halfway point in the novel, there is a brilliant and exciting chapter wherein Larsen and Van Weydon, alone on the ship while the rest of the crew are out on seal-hunting boats, pilot the Ghost (which is a three-masted schooner) in the face of a tremendous storm that sweeps down upon them on the open sea. It's a magnificent episode, and the captain and his mate are brave and triumphant against the forces of Nature. Yes, we all say, the strongest and the hardest will triumph. It is exhilarating, truly it is.

And then the Ghost picks up a life raft carrying four survivors from the wreck of a steamer bound for Japan. One of the survivors is a woman, Maud Brewster. Miss Brewster and Humphrey Van Weydon have never met, but they know each other through the world of American letters; he has read her poetry and essays, she has read his essays and criticism. They are both, it turns out, respected in literary circles. At dinner in the captain's cabin, Maud and Humphrey sparkle and shine and bask in a long talk of poetry and poets, of William Dean Howells and much else, while the seal hunters and Captain Wolf Larsen sit silently by, outclassed and outthought and superfluous. It is a brilliant thing that Jack London has done here, you see: he has made the protagonist and the reader complicit in the violence and domination of the uberman Wolf Larsen, and then suddenly he has introduced the civilized world again, and the coarse brutality and meaninglessness of blind self-determination is even more sharply displayed than when we first encounter it. Maud Brewster's hair pins and batted eyelashes and propensity to faint are more successful foils for Larsen's murderous rages than are all the corpses he's produced thus far. So well played, Jack London. This is not a great novel, but it's a pretty darned good novel. I'm not finished with it yet. Lots of stuff happens in the second half of the book and the philosophical waters are further muddied. Also, some innocent seals get clubbed by our hero. It's that sort of book.

Update! Finished. Quite exciting, I tell you, was that book. And strange, too. I'll be puzzling over London's philosophy for a while, I think. There's a sort of pro-caveman theme toward the end, and Larsen is transformed into a sort of fallen angel character, almost heroic. Curious.


  1. I would probably have read this book if not for the clubbing of the seals. No bears. No seals.

    Happy New Year, Mr. Bailey.

  2. The seal clubbing all happens off-stage. The sailor clubbing all happens center stage.

    No bears are mentioned at all in the novel.

  3. I haven't read London in many years. You find that the Maud section works--there's that famous Bierce quote where he admires the creation of Larsen very much and scorns the Maud portion. You justify her presence in terms of the book's clash of philosophies. Interesting.

    Love writing motion--I'd probably like those sea storm portions.

  4. Yeah, Bierce called it "awful." And I've read enough criticism in the last couple of days of the Maud section of the book to start thinking that many of the complaints are based on an admiration of Wolf Larsen, a looking up to him as a role model. He is, after all, the very face of self-reliance and unfettered greed (let's not forget that Jack London was a vocal proponent of socialism). Larsen dies not in a face-to-face conflict with Van Weydon, but from within, for his kind of life is self-destructive and unnatural, carrying a disease within itself. His demise is slow and pathetic and I think that many readers found that unsettling, the great monster who cannot be defeated simply withering away, buried at sea by the loving couple. The true sailor hero in the book, the model of proper behavior, lives in the first half of the first chapter of the story: he's the retired sailor with the artificial legs who sees the collision of ferries coming and acts to save the passengers, with no regard for his own safety. That's the seafaring man we should emulate. It's all quite subtle and it's a shame Bierce wasn't able to see what London was doing with the book. Though there are certainly clumsy bits with the Maud section and London's portrayal of a man in love. My (long-winded) claim is that The Sea-Wolf is not the story of Wolf Larsen, but is an argument for well-rounded education and social stewardship and cooperation. It's a brave book for London to have written. I like it more the more I think about it.

    The storm chapter is absolutely wonderful. A lot of the stuff about sailing is kinetic and exciting, full of sound and fury and signifying plenty.

  5. I like that way of looking at a book--that is, for example, I'm tired of critics attacking the end of "The Scarlet Letter" or "Huckleberry Finn" and more interested in why that might possibly be the right choice--what it might say or do. Interesting reading of the book, Scott.

    Came back to add this from Annie Dillard: Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.

  6. Good ghee-ravy, this book is completely insane. A literary critic? And then a poet washes onto the ship? Hilarious!

    Unless your description is fiction, London's novel is a parody and likely an attack on Kipling's Captains Courageous, where the posh boy finds himself cabin boy on a cod-fishing vessel and learns the value of blah blah blah. The philosophical principles are those of Emerson and Carlisle. I can see London really deeply hating Captains Courageous.

  7. Tom, I looked on your blog to see if you'd read this; what I was vaguely remembering was that you write about the Kipling, I see.

    I'm not making any of this up; it's a wacky little book, uneven but when it's good it's amazing. I'll have to dig out Captains Courageous and have a look.

    Also, welcome back to blogland.

    Marly, London could've just adopted a kitten if he wanted only four hours of sleep.

    If it's true what he said about a writer needing a philosophy, I will agree with his ghost; too many books (especially, maybe, ones written these days in America) seem to be shot forth from an ethical vacuum: all accusatory with no moral basis, all high dudgeon stood upon no foundation. And stuff. Not that art necessarily needs to be moral, but there ought to be ideas as well as technique. My own ideas are pretty slim.

  8. I'm so rusty that I badly mangled Thomas Carlyle's name.

    Pro-caveman, yes, excellent.

  9. That the world of contemporary word-art is high dudgeon on no foundation: that's a strong idea right there, and not a slim one...

    Kitten would have been more fun and done less brain damage.

    I did think about "Captains Courageous." For that matter, I thought about Richard Henry Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast," which doesn't have the accidental-sailor element but is the memoir of a privileged young Harvard man who decided to go to sea for his health--and had terrific adventures, especially around Cape Horn. Think I'd like to reread that one some day...

  10. All of my current ideas make me sound too curmudgeonly. And rhymey, too: dudgeon, curmudgeon.

    I've been interested in the Dana book for a while but haven't gotten around to it yet. Funnily enough, I was thinking yesterday about the Viking saga, "The Long Ships," and realized that there's an immense literature of young men coming of age aboard sailing ships. Now I want to re-read "Treasure Island," too. That's some book. Next year (and I'm not kidding) I'll be working on a project that I've been putting off for a couple of years, which involves a sea voyage in 1914.

  11. Dana's book is fantastic. It operates in an entirely different mode than either Kipling or London. It refutes them both.

    That last line would take a long argument to support. Maybe it is not true.