Monday, August 25, 2014

The Novels of Jack London

A career overview
Anyone who follows this blog knows I’m a big fan of Jack London. He is by far the most reviewed author here at Old Books by Dead Guys. Last Christmas I did a post listing my picks for his Best Short Stories. Today I’m going to focus on London the novelist.

Despite the fact that London was a prolific novelist, having written 22 novels over the course of a decade and a half, he is primarily known these days as a master of the short story. His novels have largely faded into obscurity, with three notable exceptions. Walk into any bookstore in America and you’ll find copies of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf. Of these three household names, only The Call of the Wild is truly worthy of its lasting notoriety. It’s a masterpiece that deserves to be on any top ten list of American novels. White Fang, on the other hand, is a flawed book that has ridden the coattails of its far superior predecessor. Likewise, The Sea-Wolf is a good book, but not a great one. Both novels start out as potential masterpieces, but end as disappointments.

Two excellent books far more deserving of a space on the shelf beside The Call of the Wild are The Iron Heel and Martin Eden. The former is a brilliant sci-fi masterpiece that should be read by all the high school students who are currently reading 1984 or Brave New World. Unfortunately that’s unlikely to happen, at least in London’s homeland, because the book is also a piece of Socialist propaganda. The semi-autobiographical Martin Eden is London’s most literary of novels, a deep and moving work with the power to inspire and change lives. It is the one work that most transcends the category of adventure fiction to which London is so often unfairly confined.

London began his career writing adventure fiction, and even after earning serious respect as an author, he continued to write adventure fiction until the day he died. Critics often regarded the genre as if it were a literary ghetto, and London merely its most uppity inhabitant. London, rather than departing the ghetto once he had struck it rich, chose to stay and renovate it. Although he referred to some of his more shallowly entertaining stories as “hack work,” for London there really was no boundary between high and low culture. He wrote for a popular audience, yet he expected a lot from that audience intellectually. His deeper, more philosophical works are often dressed with the trappings of the adventure genre, while his fun crowd-pleasers were frequently vehicles for a political, philosophical, or scientific message. For example, The Call of the Wild and Before Adam both deal with the topic of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but while the former is a novel of great philosophical depth, the latter is simply a really entertaining piece of pulp fiction. Both books are superb in their own way. This dichotomy is one of the qualities that makes London’s literature a joy to read; it can be appreciated on so many different levels. 

Glancing through the brief overview below will give you an inkling of the wide breadth of London’s thought as expressed through his 22 novels. Click on the titles below to read the complete reviews.

A Daughter of the Snows (1902)
After an education in Europe and the U.S., a Yukon-born maiden returns to her old stomping grounds and proves she can handle the rugged wilderness and fatally cold temperatures just as well as the most grizzled of prospectors. London’s first novel might pass for a Jane Austen novel set in the frozen North, if it weren’t for all the uncomfortable conversations about race. (2.5 stars)

The Cruise of the Dazzler (1902)
This novel aimed at adolescent boys tells the tale of young Joe Bronson who, after getting in trouble with his parents for poor performance in school, runs off and joins the crew of a ’Frisco Bay sloop. It’s based on some of London’s own boyhood experiences. Today grown-up readers will enjoy it even more than their kids. (4 stars)

The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903) co-authored with Anna Strunsky
This is an epistolary novel, written in the form of a series of letters between two men debating the nature of love. Wace is a practical man who thinks one should choose a mate based on compatibility and her motherhood potential. Kempton is a romantic who feels love should be an all-consuming passion. Boring, pretentious, and at times unintelligible. (1 star)

The Call of the Wild (1903)
Buck, a domesticated dog, is stolen from his master and forced to work as a sled dog in the Klondike. Thrust amid this harsh environment populated by brutal humans and savage dogs, Buck must listen to his prehistoric instincts and rediscover his own wild nature. London takes Darwin’s theory of evolution and crafts a stirring adventure tale that’s both exciting and philosophically deep. A masterpiece of American literature. (5 stars)

The Sea-Wolf (1904)
A mild-mannered literary critic is “rescued” from drowning by the brutal captain of a sealing schooner, who forces him to work as a member of his crew. In accordance with the sadistic captain’s wishes, the code of conduct on board is strictly “survival of the fittest,” and the captive gentleman must fight for his life. This book brings to light some intriguing philosophical ideas, but ultimately doesn’t do enough with them. (3 stars)

The Game (1905)
A prizefighter promises his fiancée that he’ll only fight one last bout before their wedding. The girl, simultaneously disgusted and aroused by her boyfriend’s chosen profession, sneaks into the arena to watch him at work. Thus in London’s able hands, the boxing ring becomes a laboratory for Darwinian sexual selection. A skillfully crafted and entertaining read. (4 stars)

White Fang (1906)
In a reversal of The Call of the Wild, a wolf-dog is born amid the harsh wilderness of the North. When he encounters mankind, a long and painful process of domestication begins. The beginning of the novel is excellent, with beautiful descriptions of nature, but as the dog gets tamed it’s the novel that suffers. The final chapter is an absolutely terrible piece of writing. (3 stars)

Before Adam (1907)
A 20th-century man experiences the ancestral memories of a distant progenitor. In his dreams he lives the life of a prehistoric hominid, a missing link between ape and man. London depicts the lives of this primate and his companions with surprising drama and excitement. This mixture of evolutionary science and sci-fi imagination is no literary masterpiece, but it sure is a fun piece of pulp fiction. (5 stars)

The Iron Heel (1908)
London’s best novel, a dystopian vision of the future, depicts the breakout of a civil war between the oligarchy of wealthy capitalists who rule the world and the revolutionary socialists who oppose them. The main narrative is accompanied by commentary from a historian living 700 years in the future. Part science fiction, part political propaganda, part wartime adventure—this book is a true masterpiece that deserves to be widely read. (5 stars)

Martin Eden (1909)
For the love of a woman, a working-class sailor resolves to educate himself, transcend his humble beginnings, and make his mark in the world as a man of letters. But if he achieves his goal, will this self-made man be happy with the man he’s made? One of London’s best novels, it deserves a distinguished place in America’s literary canon. (5 stars)

Burning Daylight (1910)
An ex-gold miner from the Yukon decides to try his hand at big business in California, applying the same shrewdness, strength, and tenacity that kept him alive on the sled-dog trail to the world of high finance. Along the way his life becomes complicated by love. A little too light-hearted and rosy to be realistic, but not a bad adventure story centered around a likeable character. (4 stars)

Adventure (1911)
An Englishman manages a coconut plantation on the island of Guadalcanal. He rules over his native laborers with an iron hand. They, in turn, are constantly trying to kill him. Then into his life floats a spunky American woman who irritates him with her independence and proto-feminism. Could there be a less appropriate setting for a romantic comedy? (3 stars)

The Scarlet Plague (1912)
A sci-fi novel set in a post-apocalyptic future where a devastating epidemic kills off the vast majority of the world’s population. The survivors are left to create a new civilization. There’s some great potential here, but its way too brief. None of the ideas are fully developed, so it ends up feeling half-baked. (3 stars)

The Abysmal Brute (1913)
A proverbial babe-in-the-woods is plucked from the wilderness to embark on a big-city boxing career. Though he possesses an almost supernatural talent for pugilism, his poetic soul holds little interest for the sport. London’s enthusiasm for and encyclopedic knowledge of boxing is quite evident in this fun, entertaining, and well-crafted tale of the ring. (4 stars)

The Valley of the Moon (1913)
A boxer and a laundress turn their backs on their urban life of poverty and violence to tramp the California countryside in search of their own little slice of bucolic paradise. The story is not quite the working-class epic London intended, but it does have some valuable things to say about Americans’ views on race and class in the early 20th-century. (3.5 stars)

The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1914)
An author seeking adventure boards a steel sailing ship on a voyage around Cape Horn. The motley crew and the violent life on board fall far short of his expectations of romance on the high seas. This may be London’s most racist work of fiction, with plenty of praise for the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. It’s also far too long and mostly boring. (1.5 stars)

The Star Rover (a.k.a. The Jacket) (1915)
A straitjacketed inmate in San Quentin develops the skill of astral projection, transporting himself through time and space to experience past lives. This gives London the opportunity to try his hand at historical fiction in a variety of unusual settings. An ambitious and innovative work, at times quite inspirational and at others just plain bizarre. (4 stars)

The Little Lady of the Big House (1916)
A love triangle develops when a wealthy California landowner and his wife are visited by an old friend. London spends most of the book crafting his three leads into his idea of perfection, and the story itself is mostly an afterthought. Casual readers will have little use for this strange book, but avid fans of London may be interested in what it reveals about the author. (3 stars)

Jerry of the Islands (1917)
An adventure story set in the plantations of the Solomon Islands, which just happens to be told through the eyes of an Irish terrier. Jerry is the mascot on a “blackbirding” vessel which recruits indentured laborers from among the native islanders. Manages to be not only politically incorrect, but also a bit silly and rather dull. (2.5 stars)

Michael, Brother of Jerry (1917)
Another Irish terrier, born in the South Seas, is stolen from his master and forced to participate in a trained animal act, thus giving London the opportunity to pen an exposé on the issue of animal cruelty. Michael’s book is much better than his brother Jerry’s, though by no means one of London’s best. (3.5 stars)

Hearts of Three (1918)
This abysmal offering is London’s novelization of someone else’s idea for a film serial. Two cousins, a rich New York playboy and a laid-back beach comber, team up for an Indian Jones-style treasure hunt in the jungles of Panama. A terrible, meandering story with lots of racist content. Easily London’s worst book. (1 star)

The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. (1963) completed posthumously by Robert L. Fish
The title refers to a shadow organization of respected intellectuals who moonlight as contract killers, assassinating individuals they deem harmful to society. London attempts, somewhat successfully, to combine a crime thriller with ethical philosophy. The ending by Fish actually improves upon London's half-finished work. (3.5 stars) 

I’m about two or three essay collections away from finishing London’s complete works, so look for an overview of Jack London’s nonfiction in the near future.

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