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R O B E R T B R A I N A R D P E A R S A L L University of Nevada Las Vegas Elizabeth Barrett Meets Wolf Larsen I A writer will commonly begin with a character, or else with an idea, and then either distill ideas out of the character or develop characters to demonstrate the idea. Jack London almost always began with an idea, and built up his characters as a system o£ demonstration. Thus The Sea Wolf (1904) was designed to show his familiar materialist determinism in violent conflict with “the idealist point of view.” Materialism would win at first, but idealism ultimately. “I elected to exploit brutality with my eyes open,” he wrote when the book was in progress, “preferring to do it through the first half and to save the second half for something better.”1 As the principal exponent of materialistic brutishness he had al­ ready created Captain Wolf Larsen, who wins all the points in the first half of the book. His “something better” was not yet worked out, but it was to be demonstrated by a girl and was to get its triumph at the end. Soon this “something better” had a name, Maud Brewster, and an occupation, lyric poet. Correspondence of the time does not suggest that Jack took more than a workmanlike interest in either Wolf or Maud. His household problems and love affairs and newspaper contracts occupied his mind. The excited public reception of the book based on these two characters quite startled him. Wolf Larsen had 4To George P. Brett, Sept. 2, 1903. Correspondence is quoted from Letters from Jack London, ed. ting Hendricks and Irving Shepard, New York, 1965. 4 Western American Literature exploded like a bomb in the generally tranquil literary scene of 1904. He was a nine days wonder to readers and critics alike, and has been stimulating minds and imaginations ever since. As Ambrose Bierce put it, Wolf Larsen was “a tremendous creation.” “The hewing out and setting up of such a figure is enough for a man to do in a lifetime,” he said. Maud Brewster, who had been given the victory part in London’s planning, was never a critical victory. Bierce called Maud Brewster a poor stick, a “sexless” heroine palpitating in “a love element with . . . absurd supressions and impossible proprieties.” He felt only an “overwhelming contempt” for her part of the story.2 Bierce liked to exaggerate, but it remains true that by com­ parison with Wolf Larsen, little Maud Brewster is not much fun. I shall not try to rehabilitate her. However, I should like to consider Maud under the special aspect of two flesh-and-blood female idealists who appear to have contributed to her development. The first of these is Anna Strunsky, who was London’s intimate friend from 1899 to 1903, and who was labeled by him “a genius of the spirit.” Several of Maud’s characteristics were attributed to Anna Strunsky by London’s friends, so there is nothing new in that attribution. But the strange half-sexual, half-intellectual connection between Anna and London produced some secondary effects which have not been noticed before. Briefly, Anna insisted that her friend revere both Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Elizabeth Barrett was then thought by all the world to be the champion genius of the spirit. The dark, fragile, rich, cultivated maker of sonnets who climbs wearily aboard the schooner Ghost is mostly Miss Barrett of Wimpole Street. For London, as he set about creating the Maud Brewster whose intellectual idealism and emo­ tional purity were to beat down Wolf Larsen, turned much more to Elizabeth Barrett than to Anna Strunsky for his model. II Anna Strunsky’s claim has some strength. Anna came into Jack London’s life when she was nineteen and he twenty-three. She was a not very successful Stanford student. Her home was in San Francisco, and she came of a family of moderately well off, moderately clever, moderately bookish Russian Jews. Anna and sBierce to George Sterling. Quoted by Franklin Walker, “Afterword," Signet Edition of The Sea Wolf, New York, 1964. Elizabeth Barrett 5 Jack were...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 3-13
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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