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The Personal Style of Jack London, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The Expression of a Universal Condition

Jack London is certainly one of the classic authors of the American canon. The reasons for the enduring potency of his stories could obviously be developed in multiple ways. In terms of literary form, London himself emphasized the necessity for a clarity of expression: “If you think clearly, you will write clearly; if your thoughts are worthy, so will your writing be worthy.” (1999, 8) Hence, London’s dedication to the clarity of expression informs his largely realist works, depicting an unpretentious view of the world. This is also demonstrated in terms of literary content, as it is arguably London’s individualist and personal style that makes him such an important figure. Certainly, this is an idea present in the academic literature addressing London. In literary theory, there is a tendency to approach the work of Jack London as commensurate with a form of autobiography. As Auerbach writes: “The pull toward biography in London studies has been so strong, in fact, that it is difficult to conceive of a way of critically interpreting his work that does not assume the concept of a personal career as the organizing principle of analysis.” (5) Despite Auerbach’s criticisms, this tendency is not without its logic. “The pull toward biography” can be understood as a result of the deeply personal nature of London’s writings, one that forged a bond with the reader according to its direct communication of the tales of an individual life. Anyone could relate to the personal travails of the characters London created, even in the cases when the lead characters are animals. With his very emphasis on the personal and subjective viewpoint, London created paradoxically universal characters, to which all could identify. Hence, it is London’s bold expression of his own individuality through his works that create a form of autobiography as fiction that captivates the reader through the re-telling of the personal struggles that constitute all our existences.

London’s 1902 novel Martin Eden is especially relevant to this thesis. The character of Martin Eden can be interpreted as mirroring London’s own experiences, particularly periods of his life that were plagued by self-doubt and depression, as Clarice Stasz observes: “[London] referred to this time as the “Long Sickness,” and modeled the tragic trajectory of the semi-autobiographical Martin Eden on this experience.” (100) Insofar as such a “modeling” implies that London’s own experiences consciously informed his writing, this defends the biographical readings of London’s work, and more specifically, the biographical reading of Martin Eden. Such an explicitness of biographical tendencies in  Martin Eden can be clearly summarized. The life trajectory of Martin Eden certainly suggests a clear instance of London employing his own subjective experiences as material for a novel. The most overt continuity between Eden and London is that they are both writers; furthermore, the path of Eden’s career is similar to that of London’s. Eden’s early struggles are emphasized by London, mimicking the rejections of his own early work. Comparing Eden’s publishing failures to a slot machine, London writes: “one slot brought checks and the other brought rejection slips. So far he had found only the latter slot.” (1993, 161) Such failure was not foreign to London. In an essay entitled “The Question of A Name”, London recalls, in a more universal sense, his own travails: “Every known writer was once an unknown, struggling in the crowded lists for a chance of recognition.” (1999, 19) The struggles of the writer to move from unknown to recognized is an experience endemic to every writer, and thus, to London himself; it is this experience of the writer – which London knew first hand – that he confers to Eden. Here, the lines between autobiography and fiction are clearly blurred, thus creating a private insight into an individual life that is appealing for the reader.

Yet for London, as for Eden, the anonymity of the writer eventually ends. Following the continuous string of rejections, Eden manages to publish a work “that precipitated the landslide in his favor.” (1993, 441) The suddenness of success after previous struggles – clear in London’s  comparison of the reversal of fortune to a landslide – can be compared in the swift success of London’s own breakthrough, The Call of the Wild, (1903) which after being published, as Walcutt notes, “was immediately declared a classic.” (13) Unbridled success, however, is not the end of the narrative for London or Eden. After such achievements, there is a period of radical self-questioning and self-doubt that haunts both London and his literary doppleganger. This doubt was a powerful force in the life of London, to the extent that it has been interpreted as a factor contributing to London’s prolific output. For example, Frederic Cople Jaher describes London’s continued writing as an attempt to “escape loneliness and self-doubt.” (212) Following Jaher’s premise, to the extent that London continued to write until his death, this suggests that such self-doubt was a constant in London’s life. The character of Eden is consumed by the same doubts. Despite Eden’s success, he continuously recalls his failures; that his previous work “had been rejected right and left by the magazines”, (London 1993, 441) and as London notes in an autobiographical tone: “Martin questioned the validity of his popularity.” (1993, 441) The successes common to London and Eden were followed both by the trace of self-doubt and the inability to ultimately come to terms with the latter. Such a doubt is clearly relatable to all people. The constant notion of self-criticism becomes a thematic which creates a universal character. It is not only the writer who questions himself – this doubt can be present in every form of occupation, study, and personal relationship. London’s detailed subjective recounting of these experiences thus transcend their very subjective boundaries.

Yet it is the dark nature of a work such as Martin Eden which expresses London’s brutal personal honesty to the reader, one which carries the audience away in its force of conviction. The end of the novel completes what London had termed the “Long Sickness.” Eden’s decision for suicide is the result of his reflection that “life was ill, or, rather, it had become ill–an unbearable thing.” (London, 1993, 480) The notion of an unbearableness of life expressed by Eden, and the consciousness of its illness was something shared by London. In his first-hand account of life in London’s East End, collected in The People of The Abyss, London displays both a sensitivity to, and a consciousness of, the rationale of suicide, to the extent that suicide can be conceived as a logical consequence of life itself: “with life so precarious, and opportunity for the happiness of life so remote, it is inevitable that life shall be cheap and suicide common.” (2007, 109) Furthermore, the mysterious terms of London’s own early death, at the age of forty, has often led to conjecture that he took his own life; there is a certain inclination to link suicide to the very figure of Jack London. The traumatic and brutal honesty of London’s communication of a certain emptiness of life captures the same doubts present in the mind of any sensitive reader. And it is precisely such sensitive readers that are drawn to literature. Despite the varied interpretations surrounding London’s death, London himself was clear that Eden’s decision for suicide represented a possible version of his own life. Stasz summarizes London’s response to the tragic conclusion of Martin Eden as follows: “When others criticized his ending his hero’s life so damnably, London replied that Martin lacked what he had: the “People” and the love of a woman.” (100) Although the fates of Eden and London differ, the suicide of Eden is wholly explained by London in terms of his own autobiography, yet according to a subtraction from this same biography: the absence of people and love. It is nevertheless the self-reflection that allows London to imagine Eden’s tragic death, and this is a self-reflection that the reader themselves can imagine. What would one’s life like be without acquaintances and love? The brutal simplicity of this question does not take away from the force of its content, as the nihilism of this question is easily grasped.Yet perhaps the genius of London lies in his ability to transmit personal feelings even in non-anthropomorphic forms. Here, the novels of Call of the Wild and White Fang are obvious instances of how London can communicate deeply personal viewpoints even from the perspective of animals. Hence, London’s descriptions of the young cub from White Fang become transcendental descriptions of all forms of life itself, presented from a radically personal perspective. The young cub’s early adventures leaving the cave are experiences of individual encounters with the new that are simultaneously applicable to all. The world outside the cave was “a new world to him. A scary world. As scary as it was, it fascinated him.” (London, 2011, 22) The Call of the Wild repeats this same remarkable mixture of personal experience from an animal perspective, however, one that is not limited by this perspective. The portrayal of the hunt is described in a manner so that we could substitute hunt with any other such transcendental feeling: “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living: this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” (London, 1903, 83) With his deeply personal style London goes beyond an account of human existence, but arguably outlines the experience of life itself.

Hence, the tendency in the academic literature to provide biographical readings of London’s work is not the result of any lack of rigour. Such an approach is certainly germane when comparing the character of Martin Eden to his creator Jack London. In the moments where there appears to be a discrepancy between Eden’s and London’s lives – particularly, that of Eden’s suicide – even this can be understood in terms of London’s own life and the utilization of the latter for literary material. However, in all his works the first-person personal perspective is so strong that London’s corpus could be provisionally categorized as representative of a genre of the fictionalization of biography, that is to say, the authorial technique of turning one’s own view of the world into a novel. Yet what is remarkable is that London can accomplish this without relying on a human subjectivity. With this very gesture London’s importance to American literature, and furthermore world literature, can be understood in terms of this radically personal form of writing, which lets the reader inside of forms of life constituted by anxieties, loves, and momentary bursts of optimism. At the same time, London creates from personal fiction a truly universal experience, showing not only a structure of the human condition possessed by all, but a structure of the living itself.

References

Auerbach, Jonathan. Male Call: Becoming Jack London. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

Jaher, Frederic Cople. Doubters and Dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885-1918. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964.

London, Jack. Call of the Wild New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1903.

London, Jack. Martin Eden. New York: Penguin, 1993.

London, Jack. “No Mentor But Myself”: Jack London on Writing and Writers. Ed. Walker, Dale L. and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

London, Jack. The People of the Abyss. Fairford, UK: Echo Library, 2007.

London, Jack. White Fang. Edina, MN: Calico, 2011.

Stasz, Clarice. Jack London’s Women. Amherst, MA: University of Massachussets Press, 2001.

Walcutt, Charles Child. Jack London. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1966.

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