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J E A N N E C. R E E S M A N The University of Texas at San Antonio The Problem ofKnowledge in Jack London’s “TheWaterBaby” Modern American authors addressing the issue of knowledge tend to reject the closure of what philosophers call “epistemological” knowledge (knowledge as an objective, single truth) in favor of “hermeneutics” (knowledge as an interpretation amongst other interpretations), in order to invoke the value of freedom for authors, narrators, and heroes as well as readers (R ortv). While Jack London repeatedly demonstrated his preoccu­ pation with different approaches to knowledge and thus identity— as in, notably, “To Build a Fire” and Martin Eden— his late South Seas stories offer his most complex statement concerning the problem of knowledge, and in particular self-knowledge. Interestingly, both Martin Eden and “To Build a Fire” (both pub­ lished in 1907), as w'ell as the late South Seas stories (composed in 1916 and published in 1918-1919), were begun during visits by London to Hawaii. Hawaii seems to have been a uniquely productive environment for him ; the last South Seas stories, for instance, were written after a five-year lapse in short story writing. Certainly Hawaii’s gentle beauty and relaxed pace soothed him. But London was not idle in paradise; there, in 1916, he experienced what one London expert calls a “dramatic, almost traumatic shock of recognition” (Labor, letter to author) upon studying the recently published work of Carl Jung, in particular an edition of Psychology of the Unconscious. Jung provided London with a theory of knowledge towards w'hich he had apparently been striving throughout his career. In the summer of 1916, after his intensive reading and discussion of Jung, London told his wife, “ ‘ . . . I tell you I am standing on the edge of a world so new, so terrible, so wonderful, that I am almost afraid to look over into it’” (Charmian London, The Book of Jack London, II 322— 23). Just 202 Western American Literature before his untimely death in November, London did look into that “new world.” Through his new Jungian perspective, he began to see the troubled paradise of America’s last western frontier in terms of ancient myths. These myths, he came to feel, accurately described his own life as well as the lives of all Americans and indeed of all people. This fresh way of thinking, which, tragically, he worked with in his fiction for only a few months, gave him some of his greatest stories. Of all these late stories (collected in On the Makaloa Mat [1918] and The Red One [1919]), his very last short story, “The W ater Baby,” most dramatically demonstrates London’snew Jungian answers for his life-long preoccupation with the problem of knowing the self and its place in the collective life of all humankind. “The W ater Baby” may be termed a “hermeneutic” story not because it simply furnishes an alternative to “epistemological knowledge” in Lon­ don’s career, but because, like the other Jungian South Seas tales of 1916, it questions all the previous approaches London had developed for explor­ ing self-knowledge. Perhaps London never fully resolved his conflicting beliefs in individualism and socialism nor fulfilled his longing for psycho­ logical and spiritual peace, but these late tales peopled with myth-making Hawaiians find London more at ease with the contradiction and complexity of his ideas and identity than ever before, as well as giving us some of his best writing. London had earlier explored the possibilities of the unconscious as atavism and spiritualism in his Before Adam (1907) and The Star Rover (1915), as well as in the early South Seas tales of The House of Pride (1912). These pre-Jungian psychological stories themselves furnish one of the best arguments for the importance of Jung to London’s quest for the meaning of selfhood— while they attempt psychological themes (The Star Rover and The House of Pride more successfully than Before A dam ), they clearly lack the richness and complexity of the late tales of The Red One and On the Makaloa Mat. This contrast is due, I contend, to London’s summer 1916 reading of Jung. There...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 201-215
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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