Saturday, May 28, 2011

Martin Eden - Jack London

I've always had a secret fondness for eponymous heroes and heroines as well as some affection for Jack London. I read and enjoyed The Call of the Wild about ten years ago and his short story "To Build A Fire" blew me away back in high school. London's place in literary history as a Naturalist gave me that final push to finally read his semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden, which I found a copy of in my university's library.

Martin Eden, a rough and untutored 20-year-old sailor from the lower class in the San Francisco area, is admitted to the upper-middle class home of Arthur Morse, whom Martin has saved from a mugging. Awkward and ill-at-ease, he is dazzled by the vast array of books in the Morse home. Shortly after he has become acquainted with their library, he meets Arthur's sister, Ruth, and promptly falls in love with her. From that moment, Martin decides that to be worthy of this woman, he must get educated. Soon after that, he decides that his vocation is to become a writer.

Ruth is at first amused by this yokel, then she takes pity on him, suggesting some books that he might read and correcting his slang-ridden and grammatically incorrect speech. Martin is a born student, and as he improves, Ruth falls in love with him and they become engaged, although her parents don't approve of the match.

Ruth is insistent that Martin should finish high school then go to university. He explains that he doesn't have the money for that, and she doesn't know what else to suggest, since that's the only way she knows. She is dubious when he reassures her that he will handle his own education and make a success of it:

"Knowledge seems to me like a chart-room. Whenever I go into the library, I am impressed that way. The part played by teachers is to teach the students the contests of the chart-room in a systematic way. The teachers are guides to the chart-room, that's all. It's not something they have in their own heads. They don't make it up, don't create it. It's all in the chart-room and they know their way about in it and it's their business to show the place to strangers who might else get lost. Now I don't get lost easily. I have the bump of location...Some persons need guides, most persons do, but I can get along without them...and from the way I line it up, I'll explore a whole lot more quickly by myself. The speed of a fleet, you know, is the speed of the slowest ship, and the speed of the teachers is affected the same way. They can't go any faster than the ruck of their scholars, and I can set a faster pace for myself than they set for a whole schoolroom."

As Martin painstakingly educates himself, he begins to outgrow Ruth intellectually, but he still loves her. Ruth is frustrated that their wedding date is repeatedly pushed back because Martin won't give up his dream of being a writer and refuses to get "a real job". In addition, he develops his already innate philosophy of individualism, but since he has picked up the habit of railing against the bourgeoisie at the Morse's dinner table, Ruth's father decides that Martin is a Socialist and is embarrassed at and enraged with his future son-in-law.

Success doesn't come easily for Martin Eden. He is repeatedly rejected by even the most substandard publications, his family is not supportive and from Ruth, seldom is heard an encouraging word before she turns away completely. Martin nearly starves and his one good suit is in the pawn shop more often than not, but he perseveres and slowly starts to become noticed.

Martin's self-education and his infatuation with Ruth make the first few chapters of the novel a real slog. Luckily, he runs out of money and has to stop studying and go work in a laundry for a few weeks. The vivid description of his toil and his friendship with Joe the laundryman who decides to turn hobo was a nice counterbalance to all the intellectual and romantic palaver.

I admired Martin's singleness of purpose, but he often came off as too much of a superman type. No one was as strong or as sensitive and once he educated himself, he passed up everyone in the intellectual department as well. If this was meant to be an autobiographical novel, Jack London gave himself a terrific pat on the back.

The other characters in Martin Eden, whether they are kind or unsympathetic, are rather two-dimensional. Ruth hovers between one and two-dimensional as London portrays her in every possible shade of annoying. First she's Lady Bountiful, being kind to the handsome hick in her midst. Then she's the sweet but strict schoolmarm who cringes and grows faint every time Martin uses even mild slang, as when he repeatedly says he wants to "make good". Then she's the clueless virgin who has no idea why she wants to stroke Martin's neck all the time. After all, he's not their 'kind'! In quick succession, she becomes the uncomprehending girlfriend, the unsupportive fiancee and finally, the bourgeois harpy who turns from him, then back again.

No thanks to (practically) anyone, Martin finally makes good, hitting the big time with the fiction and essays that were routinely rejected only months before. Seemingly overnight, he is rich and feted, and everyone's arms are open to him. If his theme song up to this point was something along the lines of "My Way", it changes to "Is That All There Is?" as he bitterly ponders and analyzes the implications of his sudden fame. The bleak but powerful ending more than makes up for the author's self-indulgence earlier in the novel.

Martin Eden left me with an appetite for more Jack London, so I'm now reading his 1913 alcoholic memoir, John Barleycorn, which details his nearly lifelong love-hate affair with booze and examines the inevitable conditions that led him there. The book is both shocking and amusing. During the early chapters, it was exciting to perceive that direct and unbroken literary line from Mark Twain to Jack London to Ernest Hemingway. Fun fact: John Barleycorn contains the original usage of the term "Pink elephants" to describe the hallucinatory effects of extreme drunkenness.

1 comment:

Carrie#K said...

That's where "pink elephants" came from? Learn something every day.

From what I hear, JL was quite stuck on himself but Martin Eden & John Barleycorn both sound intriguing.