Friday, May 17, 2013

The Mutiny of the Elsinore by Jack London

Don’t get on the boat
The Mutiny of the Elsinore is a novel by Jack London, first published in 1914. The narrator, John Pathurst, is a rich and famous author suffering from depression and ennui. To add a little adventure to his life, he decides to ride passenger on a sailing ship hauling coal from Baltimore to Seattle around Cape Horn. Pathurst soon discovers, however, that the days of the romance of the high seas are over, and sailors just ain’t what they used to be. Though the Elsinore is a fine ship, she is unfortunately manned by a crew of “idiots”, “cripples”, and “lunatics.”

The biggest problem with this novel is its unnecessary length. It’s as if London set out with the intention of writing a fifty-chapter novel, without a sufficient story to merit such an extensive treatment. There are forty-five men on the Elsinore, and London dutifully provides each with a name, racial pedigree, physical deformity, and psychological abnormality. These characteristics are examined and reexamined ad nauseam, yet the only character who really stands out as memorable is the brutal old first mate Mr. Pike. London does an admirable job providing a vivid description of what it’s really like to sail around the Horn, but regrettably it’s a voyage of tedium and misery. Twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five chapters go by and the reader wonders if he’ll ever come to the conflict promised by the book’s title. In the meantime here’s yet another chapter about a storm or a sunset. When adventure does arrive it’s too brief to justify the painfully slow buildup. Throw in a gratuitous romance with the captain’s daughter and cap it all off with an unsatisfying ending that leaves important questions unanswered, and what you’ve got is a novel best avoided.

London’s fascination with issues of race and class is quite evident in this book. The ship serves as a microcosm for the class structure of society; the officers and passengers represent the aristocracy while the crew represent the unwashed masses. Pathurst makes the observation that all those in command are fair-skinned, blonde-headed, and blue-eyed, while those who toil beneath them are all brunettes of the “swarthy races”. This observation in and of itself is not offensive, but when the assertion is continually made that those of Aryan descent are destined to rule and to govern, the book steps over the line and out of my comfort zone. Far from just a passing mention, this concept of white supremacy becomes one of the central themes of the book. Though having read much of London’s work and being familiar with his attitudes on race, this book may be the most overtly racist work of his that I’ve ever read, and I was surprised to find him clinging to such ideas so late in his career.

Due to London’s prodigious skills as an adventure writer, this is not a horrible book. It’s certainly not, however, a good book, and should be spared the time and effort of anyone but the most curious and enthusiastic of London aficionados.

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