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Michigan State University SAM S. BASKETT Martin Eden: Jack London’s “Splendid Dream” Vividly embodying as it does the tangled strands of Jack London’s personal, cultural, intellectual and artistic experience, Martin Eden remains a readable, affecting work sufficiently complex to invite continued critical attention. The results of this attention, however, have been inconclusive. Some critics, pointing to the novel’s undeniable vitality, rank it as London’s best. Others, citing equally evident weaknesses of structure, expression, characterization and tone, all but dismiss it. More­ over, there are widely varying interpretations of the conclusion. What, indeed, are the implications of the abrupt suicide of the protagonist, the youthful, attractive, intelligent, sensitive, vital, successful — and auto­ biographical — hero? How does this action relate to the rest of the novel and to the author’s attitude toward the function of the novelist? Or, to put the question more radically, did London in fact really see the novel through, shaping his own raw experience into a coherent artistic expression? The most inclusive answer to these questions, I suggest, is that London attempts a more ambitious pattern than he fully accomplishes; and thus in a sense the novel, like the character and his creator, is ulti­ mately disappointing. On one level, Martin Eden, written at a crisis in London’s life, is a not altogether conscious confession of a variety of personal failures, including his failure to become the inconoclastic yet affirmative writer he had expected to be. On another level, it is a specu­ lation about the possible stance of an ideal modern American engaged in the effort to understand, to order and to interpret his experience from a center at once intellectual and emotional. In attempting to write an intensely personal work and at the same time portray the fundamental human condition as he had come to understand it, London incurs 200 Western American Literature considerable risk — as if Henry Adams in The Education had not heeded his own warning against Rousseauistic subjectivity, or Fitzgerald had written The Great Gatsby from within the title character rather than the more studied perception of Nick Carraway. The scope of London’s effort, however, transforms the impact of these and other obvious shortcomings, if we follow Faulkner in evaluating a writer on the basis of his “splendid failure to do the impossible,” by the way in which he “failed to match the dream of perfection.”1 The characterization of Martin Eden is an expression of London’s “splendid dream”2 and finally an admission that he had lost it. The nature of the dream and the failure, lx)th personally and objectively, is made clearer by the apparently audacious comparisons of Martin Eden with the two major American “fictions” just mentioned. It is scarcely necessary to document again what has been repeatedly established: Martin Eden’s experiences as a self-taught student, an impassioned lover and a determined writer closely parallel those of the author; as London remarked, “I was Martin Eden.” Moreover, the state of mind of the despairing hero at the end is much like that, internal as well as external evidence suggests, of the thirty-one-year-old writer contemplating his career. In his painstaking study of London’s short stories, James McClintock has convincingly traced “a recurring pattern that emerges from all of London’s fiction: he experienced an initial enthusiasm at having discovered a scientifically justifiable rationale for believing in humanly sustaining values; then a sober realization of human limitations coming from an awareness that death can be under­ stood but not conquered; and, finally, a bitter sense of futility to which he submitted.”3 And London was at just such a nadir when he was writing Martin Eden, the “long sickness” described in retrospect in John Barleycorn. The final tone of the novel thus emerges as London’s deepest expression of personal pessimism. But London’s plaint, to para­ phrase Jay Gatsby, was more than merely personal,4 as the pages of both 1New York Times Book Review, January 30, 1955, p. 4. 2Jack London, Martin Eden, ed. Sam S. Baskett (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1956), p. 71. Subsequent citations in text. 3James I. McClintock, White Logic...


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pp. 199-214
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