Friday, August 12, 2011

Adventure classics -- The author as super-man

The Sea-Wolf

by Jack London


In a letter to fellow writer Mary Austin, Jack London claimed to have written his 1904 novel, The Sea-Wolf, as “an attack on (Nietzsche’s) super-man philosophy.” But decades after I stayed up all night reading it, the character who stays in my mind is the amoral super-man Wolf Larsen, a character both London and his effete narrator Humphrey Van Weyden clearly both love and hate.

Perhaps that’s because, as short story author Edmund Gilligan wrote in his introduction to my 1962 edition, “I believe Wolf Larsen was London himself. In his own self London found the Wolf and Van Weyden. London divided his own personality and gave part to each.”

In my opinion, the sea captain Larsen got the better part, despite the ferocious cruelty that earned him the nickname Wolf. London blessed his anti-hero with strength both of body and character, courage and good looks -- all attributes denied, at least initially, to the “civilized” Van Weyden. Not satisfied with so many advantages, London added intellect to Larsen’s arsenal.

Although Larsen rescues Van Weyden from a wreck, his apparent altruism turns to tyranny when he presses him into servitude aboard his seal hunting ship. After a vicious kick from Larsen for a minor infraction, Van Weyden is sent to the captain’s stateroom to make the bed. “Against the wall . . . was a rack filled with books. I glanced over them, noting with astonishment such names as Shakespeare, Tennyson, Poe and De Quincey. . . There were scientific works, too, among which were represented men such as Tyndall,

Unable to reconcile such works with what he has seen of Larsen’s character, Van Weyden still doubts the captain’s ability to read or appreciate them.

“But when I came to make the bed I found . . . Dropped apparently as he had sunk off to sleep, a complete Browning, the Cambridge Edition. It was open at ‘In a Balcony,’ and I noticed, there and there, passages underlined in pencil.”

No wonder London sometimes signed his letters “Wolf.” Years later, when he was rich beyond the socialist dreams of his youth, he would name the mansion he built on his Sonoma County, California, “Wolf House,” only to see the 15,000-square foot stone mansion destroyed by fire two weeks before he and his second wife planned to move in.

In a modern sidebar, Texas author Rick Riordan used the ruins of Wolf House (now protected in the Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen, California) as a setting in his young adult novel The Lost Heroes. Riordan’s characters take advantage of London’s disputed parentage -- his birth records were lost in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake -- to claim, as whimsically as Larsen could, that London was an lost demigod.

For more about Riordan’s fantasy world and Jack London’s place in it, see

(Next Friday: It would be hard to imagine a sea captain more different from Wolf Larsen than Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander.)


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