Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Human Drift and Other Stories by Jack London

An unimpressive collection of leftovers
The Human Drift is a collection of odds and ends by Jack London, originally published in 1917, shortly after his death. The title piece is an essay in which London summarizes many of his ideas on the evolution of mankind and civilization. He asserts that man’s progress has been entirely motivated by hunger. As food production has increased, so has population, but eventually population will overcome subsistence, and we will suffer from famine and disease, as Thomas Malthus predicted. While there’s nothing really wrong with London’s argument, and he expresses much of it in eloquent prose, there’s nothing terribly original or surprising about the essay either, and overall the impression it leaves on the reader is a resounding “Duh.”

“Small-Boat Sailing,” is an autobiographical essay celebrating the danger, excitement, and difficulty of handling small sailing craft. Rather than tell one complete story, London alludes to many brief anecdotes from his own experiences. In “Four Horses and a Sailor,” he details his struggle to train four horses to pull a wagon so he and his wife can explore the mountain country of California. The piece is part humorous remembrance and part travelogue, with the latter portion resembling the transcription of a road atlas. “Nothing that Ever Came to Anything” is a brief yarn about London’s attempts to buy jaguar skins in Quito, Ecuador. Unfortunately, the title describes the piece perfectly. The best piece in the book is “That Dead Men Rise Up Never,” a nautical ghost story of London’s youth. The tale is really well written and suspenseful until the end, when it is summed up in two clumsy paragraphs which deaden the excitement that came before. In these four autobiographical pieces, London comes across as a former master storyteller who has now run out of material and therefore must resort to dredging up any old memory in an attempt to craft some publishable anecdote out of it. Whether he’s discussing boats or horses, London often revels in the jargon particular to his subject, which can either have the effect of adding endearing local color to the story or unnecessarily confounding the lay reader.

The next piece, “A Classic of the Sea,” is a book review of the 1834 sailing narrative Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. London praises the work and adequately summarizes its contents. The collection ends with two plays. “A Wicked Woman” was originally a short story, published in London’s 1911 collection When God Laughs and Other Stories. In my opinion it’s probably the worst short story London ever published, so needless to say reading it a second time in the form of a one act play provided little pleasure. The punch line of this romantic comedy revolves around a naive young woman who is given the idea that she must marry the first man she kisses. Of all the great stories written by this man, why choose to elevate this disaster to the stage? The second dramatic offering included here is “The Birth Mark (Sketch),” which is not so much a complete play as a single scene, in which a woman masquerades as a man in order to gain entrance to an exclusively male athletic club. It’s nothing special either, and feels incomplete.

I’m a huge admirer of London, but having almost made my way through his complete works I can say with certainty that he did not unfailingly churn out masterpieces. I am not sure under what circumstances The Human Drift was published, but it wreaks of a posthumous collection cobbled together in order to insure some financial security to his widow. It will only be of interest to the most ardent London fans, who may find some interesting bits among the autobiographical details.

Stories in this collection:
The Human Drift
Small-Boat Sailing
Four Horses and a Sailor
Nothing That Ever Came to Anything
That Dead Men Rise Up Never
A Classic of the Sea
A Wicked Woman (Curtain Raiser)
The Birth Mark (Sketch) 

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