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Jack London auf der Roamer

Sailor in a box

Thoughts about Jack London 
Essay by R.Wissdorf
Translated by Sylvie Englert 
My first encounter with Jack London took place in the cellar of my parent´s place. He lay in a giant box under a big stack of dusty books which my father had discarded when his bookshelves overflowed. They were all cloth-bound volumes, my father had bought them second-hand himself because he couldn´t afford new books. With these tons of treasures I, a twelve-year old kid, discovered the world of literature after I´d already devoured all the books for young readers in the library of our parish. And in this box of wonders I discovered such big names as Andre Gide, Herbert Frank, Jean Paul Sartre and above all Jack London. "The Sea Wolf" was the title which fascinated me most. But I couldn´t image what this thing could be except a strange and fantastic creature of the sea. That was the drawback of these cloth-bound books: No text or description on the cover, no illustrations, not a hint of its content - that didn´t make the decision if I should start on that thing or not any easier. The only thing left to me was to go ahead and read it. Which I did. And the very first sentence drew me into the story: "I scarcely know where to begin, though I sometimes facetiously place the cause of it all to Charley Furuseth´s credit."

Now you´re going to ask yourself what´s so special about this sentence. I´m sure that as a kid I didn´t have a clue as to why this sentence urged me to read on. Today my literary knowledge tells me the reason: It foreshadows an important and complex tale (I scarcely know where to begin...), it hints at a happy end (I facetiously...) and it gives some basic information about the protagonists´s personality (the man has friends, he´s part of a social network) and it´s obvious that the novel is going to be gripping because he seems to have gone through a lot (he places the cause "of it all" to Charley´s credit). 

Sure, if a rookie author offered a novel with such a first sentence to an editor, it would very probably end up in the trash bin. But for the age in which I started to read it was a great beginning. I devoured "The Sea Wolf", reread it several times, scribbled childish notes and comments in the margins and twisted the arms of my friends to get them to read it as well - and they´d better like it as much as I did! In a nutshell: I ate, drank and breathed these words and sentences. I have to confess that I was much more attracted to and fascinated by the Wolf Larsen character. Van Weyden was too polished and fussy for my taste, that he´d been transformed into a real man in the end didn´t change my opinion of him.

What spellbound me was - apart from the romantic adventure story - a system of beliefs which was free of the moralizing catholicism with its mendacious consolations which was the environment that I grew up in thanks to my mother. Of course I know today that Jack London projected his alter ego into the personality of Wolf Larsen and surely not into that of a Van Weyden. Like Larsen he grew up in poverty and had worked very hard to rise in the world. On his way to the top he developed an insatiable hunger for knowledge which boosted him far above the average man. Wolf Larsen surrenders his intellect, he curses the day he first opened a book. London didn´t, he improved himself until he had become a Martin Eden. It is likely that this suicidal protagonist of London´s highly autobiographical novel is the reason for the persistent rumours that London followed the example of his character.

Wolf Larsen has the courage to face the truth, that life is nothing more than a seething ferment in which things grow and pass away again according to natural laws which know no mercy. Every cultural achievement is nothing more than the attempt to ignore that the world is hostile to the struggling individual. It take a lot to live such beliefs and have ideals in spite of it. Jack London´s socialism, born out of the love for mankind, didn´t need a god to bless it. There was no divine reward for good deeds and so that did not figure as a motive. His virtue was purely biological. 

If you asked me to rephrase his personality to describe him perfectly, I would say "unbridled will to live". His personal history was full of strange turns and unusual developments. It´s so exciting that it seems to have emerged from a novel itself and it rather surprises me that nobody seems to have bothered to make a film about it. To write his biography is quite a ungrateful task, for of course he has written his best biographies himself, from "The Road", "Martin Eden" and to "John Barleycorn". A biography by a stranger can only copy from these books. 

He was remarkably prolific. Considering that he published his first short story at the age of 28 and his first novel ("Call of the Wild") with 29, he barely had 12 years to complete over 50 books. That demanded more than an obsession with writing, it took great discipline and the feeling that he had a mission. It´s a pity that in Germany today he is mainly seen as a writer of juvenile fiction, his name is linked almost exclusively to "Call of the Wild", "White Fang" and "Jerry of the Islands". The bulk of his output for adults has been forgotten, parts of it have even been lost completey like "The Assassination Buero". Jack London wrote novels of every genre: adventure, science fiction, fantasy and action. He wrote about society as brillantly as he wrote satire and travel reports. Usually his texts were about man´s fight with his weaknesses, hopes and fears - in short, his nature. London had an evident dislike, surely based on his own experiences, of the so-called "educated society". He himself was a self-made man and as such a true product of the US. In our stagnating Europe, he would probably have been thrown on the trash heap of history. But even though all this may seem to you like the stubborn vindication of an admirer who thinks that his hero hasn´t been appreciated enough, you have to concede that some of his books are still in print, and this eighty years after his death. Will writers like Grisham or Gordon achieve the same? Not very likely. 

Jack London has lived many lives in the forty years of his existence - that of a poor farmer´s hand, of a factory worker, a smuggler, a sailor, a hobo. He was a prospector, reporter, student. At the end of his life he was a celebrity, a writer and a socially minded politician, at the same time a child of nature and a philosopher. London lived every one of these lives as if it was his only one, with dedication. But his existence was often characterized by illnesses and vices, by alcoholism and a thirst for pleasure. It´s amazing that he wasn´t a gambler, too. I´d almost assert that he used most drugs available. At the bottom of his heart he was desperate, unhappy, depressed and wondered why every dream that he fulfilled became as insipid after a while as the life that spawned it. Like everyone else he craved simplicity, order, a protecting law. He surely would have liked a God to hold his hand over him and greet him lovingly beyond the gate to death. But his intelligence mocked this child´s belief, even if his heart wished it were true. 

As long as he lived he played with the idea of suicide as the last independent decision of man. He did this to such an extent that posterity believed as a matter of course that he had killed himself. But exactly this thought could have powerfully prevented him from doing it: that it would all be over then. Jack London had a fighter´s nature. His death surely was anything but voluntary. 

co. Reinhard Wissdorf / StoryNet 1996 | Jack London Home | Essays | eMail