“Martin Eden” is not Jack London’s best book. In fact, it’s not even one of his better books. His best works are his short stories. Not all of them, because he wrote many, but the ones in which he threw all of his vigor, passion, emotion, and intelligence. I wrote an essay once about Jack London’s best short stories: “The White Silence”, “In a Far Country”, “The Apostate”, The Love of Life”, “The Red One” and so on. Also, “The Call of the Wild” is rightly considered a masterpiece. There is writing in that novella that is so good it sends shivers up the spine and tears to the eyes. “Martin Eden” is good, but flawed. It’s well worth reading, though, for what London poured of himself and his own life’s experience into it.
Before I go on, however, I must point out a flaw in the edition I ordered. The academic or literary or whatever-they-call-it introduction at the beginning of the book is pure unmitigated bullshit. No wonder young people don’t read books. If they tried to read that introduction before the novel, they’d never make it. I ventured into only two or three pages of the fifteen or twenty total and gave up in disgust. Who chooses these guys who write the introductions, anyway? It was so bad it was laughable. I almost always read everything in a book I tackle. First I read the front cover and the inside flaps, then I read the acknowledgements, the copyright page, the dedication – I tell you, I devour it all. But not this time. This time I scraped that introduction off the plate as if a bird had dropped it there. Anyway, onward.
One of the major flaws in the book is the point-of-view lapses. Whenever he feels the urge, London slips out of Martin Eden’s head and into someone else’s. That wouldn’t be so bad, although it’s a stylistic weakness, except when he plunges into Ruth, Martin Eden’s lover. He romanticizes her thoughts so much you wonder if he ever really understood anything that goes through a woman’s head. It is so unrealistic it is comical. And I’m a fan of Jack London’s. I don’t like to laugh. I realize that the character of Ruth is based on one of London’s early loves, Mabel Applegarth, and it is not so much that Ruth is not presented as a realistic part of her social milieu. It is just that London should not have tried to get into her head. He should have stuck with Martin Eden. In the tough, strong, intelligent sailor who educates himself and struggles to become a writer, London is right at home.
Another part of “Martin Eden” that is a bit much to take is its overall depressing spirit. True, Jack London struggled as much as Martin Eden does in the book. But he experienced and enjoyed the triumphs as well as the tragedies. For Martin Eden it’s just one big old tragic mess. By the time he tastes victory it is ashes between his teeth. That’s a shame, because it is so obvious that “Martin Eden” is deeply autobiographical, and yet London brushes over the glorious parts of his travels and his rise to fame, and instead concentrates on the defeats and depression. Maybe by the time he wrote “Martin Eden” he himself was already too jaded to see the good stuff. He did burn himself out and die at the age of forty. Imagine if he had hung on, overcome his weaknesses, matured, and got a second wind. What literary wonders he might have written. Ah, well. Too late for that now. It is all hindsight. Perhaps that’s why when I used to visit the ruins of Wolf House, the mansion he almost finished building before it burned down, I would gaze at it for hours, fascinated, and experience such a profound sense of melancholy. I would stare and stare at the ruins of Jack London’s dreams.
I wrote a fantasy story once called “Wolf in a Cage”. You can find it in my collection “Fear or Be Feared”. I fictionalize one of my visits to the ruins of Wolf House at Glen Ellen, and imagine that the spirit of Jack London himself is caught in the ruins, pacing back and forth in futility like a wolf in a cage in a zoo. Perhaps that’s how he felt in the last years, including when he wrote “Martin Eden”. The joy of fame and success had gotten away from him and he didn’t know how to cope with it. Though he was the most well-paid and popular writer in the world, it wasn’t enough. It didn’t satisfy. It was ashes between his teeth, just like with Martin Eden. For decades it was thought that Jack London committed suicide. That theory is largely discredited. But what he did do is burn himself out. He couldn’t handle the pace. He overloaded himself physically and mentally and had a breakdown from which he never recovered. “Martin Eden”, perhaps, was a premonition of that which was to come.
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And so we come to the end of the book. Martin Eden achieves his fame all of a sudden. One of his books takes off and all the others follow. Suddenly he is a celebrity. Editors and publishers want his work. People around him, even those who wanted to have nothing to do with him when he was poor, those who derided him and told him to get a job, seek his company and ask him to dinner. Even Ruth shows up and wants a second chance. London brilliantly exposes the hypocrisy of them all. Eden keeps asking where they were when he needed them. He was still the same person then, after all. The stories, essays and books everyone is clamoring for are the same ones everyone previously rejected. The same Martin Eden who was starving to death then is the one getting all the dinner invitations now. He can’t figure it out, but is magnanimous and tolerant through it all.
Then the book sort of falls apart. I just can’t buy that someone as full of life and spunk and intellectual and emotional pizzazz as Eden would suddenly fall apart after he achieved what he fought for. Okay, people all around are acting like hypocrites, so what? Get over it already. You get dumped by a girl; okay, you mourn a while, maybe tie one on and move on. There’s an inner core that always wants to fight on through to victory. Martin Eden would be a much stronger book if he had somehow overcome. Here we get back to author’s prerogative. Who knows why Jack London gave the book that sort of ending? Tragedy is, after all, a valid art form. Many of my stories do not end happily, and might cause folks to wonder why not. That’s just the way it is sometimes, the way it comes out. When he wrote Martin Eden, Jack London was going through a rough patch. Obviously it rubbed off in the book.
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Even after I finished this essay and moved on to another reading project, the question of why London ended “Martin Eden” so negatively continued to haunt me. I would ponder it as I walked outdoors. After all, Jack London himself never really gave up. He got tired, yes, and his health bothered him. He was harassed by creditors, but that was his own fault because no matter how much he earned – and it was a lot according to the currency of the times – he always lived beyond his means. But he had a faithful wife and a huge ranch and money and fame and was doing the work he loved to do. So why throw such a fit of depression into poor Martin Eden? Then something Stephen King said came to me. I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s something like this: “I write about what frightens me.” I might be wrong; maybe someone else said it. But you get the idea. Part of what a writer does is purge out the inner demons. And maybe that’s what Jack London was doing when he wrote the end of “Martin Eden”: exposing one of his greatest fears, namely, that he would lose his great love of life, his vitality, his exuberance. Letting it happen to a fictional character instead of himself is a form of catharsis – a purging and purifying.
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