Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Kempton-Wace Letters by Jack London and Anna Strunsky

A dreary dialogue between romance and reason
The Kempton-Wace Letters, originally published in 1903, is an epistolary novel, meaning it is written entirely in the form of letters between fictional persons. The book is a collaborative work by Jack London and Anna Strunsky, who each write in the guise of one of the two titular characters. Strunsky takes the part of Dane Kempton, an elder poet and man of letters residing in London. The words of Herbert Wace, a young sociologist in Berkeley, California, are penned by Jack London. When Wace informs his mentor that he is going to be married, Kempton expresses dismay that the young man has not waxed more rhapsodically over the merits of his future wife. Kempton feels that marriage should be founded on an all-consuming romantic fervor, while Wace holds the more practical view that marriage should only be undertaken with a well-chosen, compatible mate who will make a good life companion and mother for his children. The book consists of the dialogue between these two gentlemen, Kempton championing romantic love while Wace advocates the importance of reason in forming a successful relationship. Their debate could easily be summed up in a few paragraphs, but London and Strunsky stretch the conversation out to book length for the sole purpose of indulging themselves in flowery language and literary allusion. This exercise in pointless verbosity results in a book only a hundred-year-old poet could love.

Habitual readers of London will recognize some of the familiar Darwinian themes that often show up in his works. Some of his more scientific passages, in which Wace explains love as the end result of millions of years of behavioral evolution, are really quite well-argued. He takes his rampant rationalism too far, however, when he suggests concepts that come uncomfortably close to eugenics, like “when we [mankind] come scientifically to breed the human.” Though at times London’s letters contain a kernel of scientific insight, the contributions of Strunsky are almost unintelligible. Kempton’s arguments for romantic love could charitably be called philosophical, but for the most part are merely sentimental. Kempton responds to Wace’s evolutionary theories with poetic paeans to the love-muse. The two aren’t even speaking the same language, resulting in bewilderment and boredom for the reader.

The two correspondents spend so much time referencing philosophers and poets that only a few fuzzy details are given regarding their personal lives, which makes it even more difficult to care about them or what they have to say. Kempton is described as a father figure to Wace, a former friend of his parents, and possibly his former professor. Wace has a sister, Barbara, who apparently lives in London with Kempton. She is married to a man named Earl, who is so briefly mentioned it’s as if the reader is expected to have prior knowledge of his existence. It’s frustrating for the reader to try to ascertain the ambiguous relationships between the characters based on the sparse, tiny crumbs of information occasionally tossed out by the authors.

In real life, London was in love with Strunsky and proposed marriage to her, though she turned him down. Whether or not a marital collaboration between the two would have been successful is debatable, but the book they coauthored can definitely be declared a failure. Even the most enthusiastic followers of London and his literature will find no pleasure in this tedious book.

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