Monday, January 21, 2013

The Cruise of the Snark by Jack London

A disappointing voyage
In 1907 Jack London departed San Francisco for a trip around the world. For this voyage he commissioned the construction of a 45-foot yacht he dubbed the Snark. Taking along his wife Charmian, a small crew, a library of books, and a typewriter, he set off for the South Pacific. Along the way he wrote the series of articles that make up this book.

I have read most of Jack London’s works, and this is one of my least favorites. Given the subject matter, you’d think this account would be loaded with exciting adventures, but much of the book lacks interest. Essentially it’s a series of essays about an aging millionaire and his wife who travel around the world on their yacht. Everywhere they go they’re treated like visiting dignitaries. It’s a far cry from the gritty, perilous exploits one finds in London’s fiction. Many of the chapters concentrate on the mundane, technical aspects of the seafaring life. This detracts from the more worthwhile discussions of the exotic destinations that were visited. There are a few good pieces of travel writing here and there. London learns to surf at Waikiki, visits the leper colony of Molokai, and encounters a prototypical American hippie in Tahiti. In the Marquesas he visits the sight of Herman Melville’s Typee, but instead of finding a thriving civilization of noble savages he finds an abandoned jungle sprinkled with a few sickly inhabitants. This letdown is indicative of the book as a whole. In The Cruise of the Snark, the romance of the South Seas proves to be a disappointing illusion.

If you happen to be a sailor or a boat enthusiast you may enjoy this book more than the average reader. The text is peppered with sailing jargon, and at times London details his nautical maneuvers to the point of tedium. Resolving to teach himself celestial navigation en route, he devotes a few chapters to his trial and error in this arcane craft, which will bore the tears out of the typical landlubber. Sailing a small craft on the open ocean for months on end is a daring feat, but most likely the greatest peril faced by the travelers on this voyage was the possibility of getting lost in the empty seas due to a mathematical error on the part of the author.

The original edition contained over 100 photos London took during the trip. Though he was a skilled photographer, in the printed editions I’ve seen the images are too small and murkily reproduced to be of much value. These photos are absent from the Kindle edition, but they’re no great loss.

Jack London wrote many excellent books, both fiction and nonfiction. The Cruise of the Snark is not one of them, and should not be high on your reading list. If you’re looking for South Pacific adventure, I would suggest his short story collections On the Makaloa Mat and South Sea Tales.

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