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An exciting novel full of memorable characters and surprising plot twists, Jack London’s The Sea Wolf contains all the elements of the thrilling genre of seafaring literature: abduction at sea, a domineering captain, mutinous crew members, and a daring escape. Moreover, the vivid language in the novel shows Jack London at his creative best, writing his own tale of literary naturalism infused with his views on social philosophy and individual responsibility. In Wolf Larsen, Captain of the seal-hunting schooner Ghost, London created a brutal, overpowering, and authoritarian leader whose ferocity led to obedience from his crew, but also to his own debilitating isolation. In Humphrey Van Weyden, London presents an intriguing oppositea cultured but frail literary critic who, prior to his abduction from the San Francisco Bay by the crew of the Ghost, had eschewed physical exertion in favor of intellectual pursuits. In need of a replacement cabin boy, and seeing Van Weyden’s physical weakness as needing repair, Larsen keeps him on board, telling him it is for his “own soul’s sake” so he “might learn in time to stand on [his] own legs.” Compelling for both its story and its characters, The Sea Wolf has been called one of London’s best novels, as its gripping narrative simultaneously entertains and forces analysis of the complex interaction between individuals under stress.
Although Jack London would become a best-selling author, progressive ranch-owner, and spokesman for Socialist causes world wide, his early life certainly did not suggest the literary achievement and international recognition he would come to realize. Born in San Francisco in 1876 to Flora Wellman, Jack and his mother were quickly abandoned by his father, astrologer William Chaney. Not long after his departure, Flora married recent California arrival John London, and it was from him that John Griffith London (Jack) took his surname. The family moved from San Francisco and finally settled across the bay in nearby Oakland. In his teens, London worked briefly as an oyster pirate before “changing sides” to catch those same pirates as a member of the Fish Patrol. Looking for adventure and a break from his life of waterfront fights and heavy drinking, London left California on the seal-hunting ship Sophie Sutherland in 1892. The experience provided London with much of the material for The Sea Wolf. After a brief period as a student at the University of California, London again sought adventure, and in 1897, he traveled to Alaska to join the rush of gold-seeking prospectors. He returned impoverished, but with a surplus of creative material for many of his successful later works. After his return from Alaska, London began his meteoric rise as a writer. In 1899, he published two stories in the west coast’s most prestigious literary magazine, The Overland Monthly. More commercial and critical success followed with publication of his first-hand critique of capitalism in The People of the Abyss (1903) and his best seller The Call of the Wild (1903), which brilliantly applied literary naturalism to the animal world. His later novels also received critical and popular admiration, including the autobiographical Martin Eden (1909) and his critically acclaimed discussion of his own alcoholism, John Barleycorn (1913).
First published in 1904, The Sea Wolf was a commercial success that was also well-received by a number of literary critics. By 1905, the novel had climbed to the top of the American best-seller list, and this success helped to solidify London’s place as an international literary sensation. Central to this reception is that the novel’s plot immediately engages readers in the milieu of nineteenth-century seafaring adventure. Traveling across San Francisco Bay on the ferry Martinez, literary critic and “gentleman” Humphrey Van Weyden is lost overboard after a collision with another boat in heavy fog. Adrift in the chilling January waters of the Golden Gate Strait, Van Weyden is sighted and brought aboard the outgoing seal-hunting ship, the Ghost. Immediately, Van Weyden hopes to use his considerable financial means to convince the captain to return him to San Francisco, announcing “I shall pay you whatever you judge your delay and trouble to be worth.” The captain scoffs, and Van Weyden realizes that he is no longer in a world where wealth and social standing carry weight. In need of crewmembers, the captain of the Ghost has taken Van Weyden prisoner, setting the stage for a conflict between the two men who represent opposing backgrounds, and widely disparate philosophies.
Readers of The Sea Wolf have been captivated by the Ghost’s brutal and intriguing captain, Wolf Larsen. Combining harsh physical domination of others with unexpected knowledge of writers ranging from John Milton to Herbert Spencer, Wolf Larsen is an enigma. Through this intriguing character, however, London could explore social philosophy and questions about what made an individual’s life valuable. London’s model for Wolf Larsen was another captain he heard about while serving aboard the Sophie Sutherland named Alexander McLean, who was noted for physical violence towards his crew.[i] Philosophically, Larsen represents both London’s interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche, and his affinity for the literary mode of naturalism. Naturalism refers to a movement during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with roots in the work of French writer Emile Zola, who viewed writers as observers of human nature describing the shaping forces from a scientific perspective. Donald Pizer has argued that the “ideological core” of American naturalism is that “man is more circumscribed that generally acknowledged” and that in naturalistic works, the powerful hold dominion over their weaker counterparts.[ii] Breaking from the more genteel form of literary realism, naturalism questions moral certainty, and examines the role of determinism and environment in shaping individuals. Naturalism often dramatizes the concept of “survival of the fittest,” termed Social Darwinism, and in Wolf Larsen, London gave voice to many of his own views regarding this popular social theory. Drawing its framework from Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859) and the philosophy of British sociologist Herbert Spencer, Social Darwinism advocated that human life had historically been a competition for resources, and that the “fittest” were those who survived to rise socially and accumulate wealth. This competitive philosophy is especially appealing to Larsen, who asserts: “Might is right, and that is all there is to it. Weakness is wrong.” Larsen’s behavior in many instances also illustrates this cutthroat philosophy, whether he is fighting his way through seven men, or choking Van Weyden until he is unconscious. Quick to fight and eager to succeed, Wolf Larsen represents both the egalitarian and the destructive aspects of Social Darwinism. He rose from poverty in Norway to take on progressively greater responsibility on each ship for which he worked. Through his own determination, work ethic, and intelligence, Larsen achieves self-mastery as captain and ship owner, illustrating the rise of the individual in a Darwinian system. However, Larsen also embodies the worst aspects of Social Darwinism. Treating others merely as pawns in his own game of mastery, Larsen views domination and control of capital as paramount, since they are the means of maintaining hegemony over his own shipboard microcosm of society. His methods cause him to sacrifice any connection to others, though, and the result is the loss of his own humanity in the process.
In contrast to Wolf Larsen, Humphrey Van Weyden represents the world of genteel literary realism seen in the works of novelists such as Henry James and William Dean Howells. Initially, as a “gentleman” with an “income,” who is “not strong,” Van Weyden is unable to adapt to rigorous life aboard the Ghost and is subjected to physical and verbal abuse from Larsen and the crew. In Van Weyden, London expresses his concern for the limitations brought about by a highly specialized society that had begun to divide workers and their work into discrete, manageable components. Admiring the skillful piloting done by the crew of the Martinez, Van Weyden praises “this division of labor which made it unnecessary . . . to study fogs, winds, tides, and navigation.” At the turn of the century, such specialization was promulgated as key to increased productivity, particularly in the writing of engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who developed a theory of worker efficiency standards, presented in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911). As a highly specialized literary critic, Van Weyden represents London’s critique of the personal limitations of specialization, and may additionally express London’s distaste for those he met during his time at the University of California who, though highly educated, had little of London’s worldly experience. Moreover, it is only through learning all aspects of life aboard ship and adapting to the world of the Ghost that Van Weyden is able to transcend his intellectual and highly circumscribed existence. While moving up in rank to become mate, Van Weyden develops both physically and psychologically under the unorthodox tutelage of Wolf Larsen, eventually removing beyond his own narrow range of scholarly skills.
While Van Weyden’s experience aboard the Ghost leads to a gradual personal transformation, the most dramatic change on the novel is affected by the appearance of the poet Maud Brewster. It is, of course, an unusual twist of circumstances that delivers Maud to the Ghost in a lifeboat with four menall having escaped from the wreck of a steamship lost in a typhoon. Due partly to their mutual interest in the literary world, and partly to their burgeoning affection for each other, Van Weyden and Maud immediately form a bond, with Van Weyden confessing that “‘Seven of your thin little volumes are on my shelves,’” and Brewster calling Van Weyden “‘the Dean of American Letters, the Second.’” But it more than simple admiration that pushes Van Weyden to become a man of action in Maud’s presence; it is the threat to her safety posed by Wolf Larsen. Since publication, though, critics have questioned Maud’s place in The Sea Wolf. Biographer Irving Stone echoes a persistent critique, writing: “Toward the end of the book Jack introduces its only woman character and thereby marred what was, and is still, a nearly perfect example of the novelist’s art.”[iii] Bringing a woman into the highly masculinized world of seafaring, a task not attempted by earlier writers in the genre such as Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast (1840) or Herman Melville in Moby-Dick (1851), was certainly unusual. However, Maud’s appearance in the novel can be explained and understood by drawing parallels with London’s own life. In 1903, growing disheartened with his marriage to Bess, London began an affair with Charmian Kittredgea relationship that seemed to satisfy him both physically and intellectually. Their association began while London was in the process of writing The Sea Wolf, and as a woman who enjoyed literature and intellectual discussion, Charmian would become a model for Maud Brewster. In late 1905, Jack and Charmian married, mirroring what we might expect of Maud and Humphrey after their rescue in The Sea Wolf. London biographer Alex Kershaw writes of the introduction of Maud: “What might have been a gripping tour de force collapses into sentimental romance . On beginning his affair with Charmian, Jack had abandoned the forceful style which had made his name, and had thereby squandered the gritty promise of the first half of The Sea Wolf.”[iv] Nonetheless, London would feel compelled to defend the parallels between the two women, writing: “I was in love with a woman, and I wrote her into my book, and the critics tell me that the woman I love is unbelievable.”[v] Despite concerns over Maud’s place in the novel, the bulk of the critical reviews praised the excitement and fascinating characters of The Sea Wolf. Even critic Ambrose Bierce, known as “The Wickedest Man in San Francisco,” praised The Sea Wolf as “a rattling good story” and extolled Wolf Larsen, saying: “If [he] is not a permanent addition to literature, it is at least a permanent figure in the memory of the reader. You ‘can’t lose’ Wolf Larsen.”[vi]
As physically powerful a character as he is, Wolf Larsen nonetheless suffers physical breakdown by the end of the novel. Lee Clark Mitchell notes that as a captain, Larsen “speaks out for the development of a self-sufficient, coherent individual, proposing to train Van Weyden as a seaman.”[vii] Though Larsen succeeds in training his chargeso well that Van Weyden is able to manage a small ship in extreme conditions single-handedly, and refit the Ghost after it is has been damagedhe is less successful in maintaining himself. He dies alone, and in a dramatic reenactment of one of the opening scenes, Van Weyden unceremoniously tosses Larsen’s body into the sea. One possibility for why Van Weyden survives while Larsen does not can be found in Maud Brewster. By embracing Maud as an equal and bonding with her under duress, the novel suggests the need for cooperation between characters. The love that develops intimates that Van Weyden’s life as an intellectually specialized bachelor was far less fulfilling than his new life as man of experience, accomplishment, and partnership. Larsen, on the other hand, reveals the limits of a Darwinian philosophy of extreme materialism. In need of the assistance of others as his condition worsens, he is abandoned by his crew in the Pacific. James A. Papa argues that Larsen’s “distorted pursuit of personal truths . . . is portrayed metaphorically by the brain tumor that ultimately destroys him.”[viii] No one, the novel posits, can successfully live in the kind of brutal isolation that Wolf Larsen embraces.
The Sea Wolf, then, stands as one of Jack London’s most significant literary achievements. In addition to continuing his commercial success as a writer, the novel facilitated his exploration of central issues in early twentieth-century America. London’s consideration of society’s personal and philosophical underpinnings resonated in 1904, and continues its relevance for readers today. While The Sea Wolf never reached the commercial success of The Call of the Wild, it did articulate similar themes of socialization and individualism. As a gripping seafaring tale, The Sea Wolf continued the tradition of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover (1828) and Melville’s Typee (1846). Moreover, London’s work would suggest explorations of the isolated individual that would follow in novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926). Because of its narrative power, it is understandable that The Sea Wolf has captured the imagination of audiences for over a century. In fact, The Sea Wolf is the most-filmed novel in American cinematic historya testament to the depth of its characters and its timeless themes.[ix] Through the combination of philosophical inquiry and high-tension adventure, The Sea Wolf provides a valuable link to an earlier time in American history, and offers a way to reflect on the nature of individualism that is strikingly resonant today.
Christopher McBride has taught writing and literature at a number of colleges and universities. He holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from The Claremont Graduate University. His book, The Colonizer Abroad, was recently published by Routledge.
[i] Kershaw 26.
[ii] Donald Pizer, The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism. (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1993), p. 20.
[iii] Irving Stone, Jack London: Sailor on Horseback. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1938), p. 205.
[iv] Kershaw 151–2.
[v] Qtd. in Stone 205.
[vi] Qtd. in Kershaw 152
[vii] Lee Clark Mitchell, “‘And Rescue Us from Ourselves’: Becoming Someone in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. American Literature 70 (June 1998), p. 329.
[viii] James A. Papa, “Canvas and Steam: Historical Context in Jack London’s Sea-Wolf.” Midwest Quarterly 40 (Spring 1999), p. 274–84.
[ix] Alex Kershaw. Jack London: A Life. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), p. 152.