John Griffith Chaney, born in San Francisco on January 12th 1876, was the son of a traveling astrologer and a spiritualist. He worked while he was finishing his pre-university level studies and,among other jobs, he worked as a sea man, a fisherman and a smuggler.
He was a man of action, not an intellectual, and it is said that his ideas derived from reading Kipling, Spencer, Darwin, Stevenson, Malthus, Marx, Poe and Nietzsche, lack consistency and precision: he accepted Darwinism and racism, prevalent during his time, but at the same time he was troubled that the “inevitable white man” would destroy the rich cultures of various native groups he had encountered (in the South Seas). He was a supporter of women’s suffrage and married a New Woman (second wife, Charmian Kittredge) but was patriarchal toward his 2 wifes and daughters. He was a socialist but an individualist at heart, with a drive toward capitalist success. It is said that his self-taught and uninformed reading made of him a fervent socialist and a naïve fascist (because of his belief in the übermensch), but personally I disagree and think that it is quite a biased, oversimplistic and hyperbolic view, which partly prepare the ground for some of his works (for instance the one I present below). Besides, many “informed” writers, with a more extensive scholar background, have reached similar conclusions to those of Jack London.
Jack London lived to the full and went to Alaska to try his luck during the gold rush in 1897-8, an experience which proved a failure as a means of becoming rich, but which was fertile in literary terms, as the experience provided him with material for a collection of short stories and a background for his novels related to the “Homo homini Lupus” concept. It was during his convalescence, as he came back ill, when he started massively reading and writing. His writings deal with human survival, nature and socialist topics.
He died on November 22nd 1916, at 40 in his Glen Ellen estate, and there’s a romantic legend concerning his death. It’s said that he committed suicide because he was suffering due to his kidney condition, although it hasn’t been proved. You may get contradictory information about this fact, depending on the source. Other sources state that he died of renal failure with gastrointestinal uremic poisoning.
Martin Eden is a sturdy working class mate who has spared a young high-class woman, Ruth, from having a rough time by defending her and getting into a fist fight for her sake. She is so impressed with him, as he “saves” her, and she finds him so different to the kind of men she’s used to, that she invites him over to her house to thank him. There he meets her family and has a look at her surroundings, her upbringing and her library, above all a volume of poems by Swimburne.
He has his own intellectual curiosities and concerns even though he’s automatically regarded as an unambitious working class fellow who is not able to see beyond his limits. But as he puts it: “insularity of mind that makes human creatures believe that their color, creed and politics are best and right and that other human creatures scattered over the world are less fortunately placed than they”, which is of course wrong.
The young couple keep in touch and have long conversations, as couples do, and she seems to strive to change him. In the meantime, due to his monumental strong will, he manages to surpass his own limitations by working and studying at the same time, until he is finally able to publish (“He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live”). In the process, when he’s not known and he has to support himself by his physical work, the woman dismisses his works, but then her opinion changes as he manages to publish and gain a certain renown (“Martin had faith in himself, but he was alone in his faith”).
Then, he seems to be someone new for her, someone she can feel in awe of without feeling embarrassed; but this whole process had made him conscious of several painful truths: “Make me like those other men, doing the work they do, breathing the air they breathe, developing the point of view they have developed and you have destroyed the difference, destroyed me, destroyed the thing you love” and “He knew now that he hadn’t really loved her. It was an idealized Ruth he had loved, and ethereal creature” and that ethereal creature belong to another world, to the “bourgeois swine” who despised him.
In his journey he meets Brissenden, who also belongs to the upper-class but has somehow rebelled against it in his own way, as an individual against the masses, just like Eden has. He’s a physically weak person who lacks Eden’s will and knows it, and he strives for new thrills in life through drugs rather than through action. He’s a good friend for Eden though and they both manage to understand each other. Eden seem to be in the process of stepping into the nowhere’s land: slowly he discovers that those who once were his mates -working class people- are not so close to him now and fail to understand him, but he doesn’t belong with the bourgeoisie either.
As an individual standing against the masses (“Herd-creatures, flocking together and patterning their lives by one another’s opinions, failing of being individuals”), even having achieved his goal, discovers that he is alone. His estrangement from Ruth, Brissenden’s death and his growing apart from his former mates, makes him become increasingly disappointed and disenchanted with life: (“I care for nothing. Something has gone out of me. I am empty of any desire for anything.”)
All this foreshadows the end:
“For too much love of living
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever,
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.”