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S U S A N W A R D St. Lawrence University Social PhilosophyasBest-Seller: JackLondon’s The Sea-Wolf Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, his second most popular book, is illus­ trative of a tension which plagued London throughout his creative life. In early 1903, after the publication of three volumes of Alaskan short stories, a first novel, and a juvenile tale, London was on the verge of becoming a popular success. He was also involved, as he had written earlier to his friend Cloudesley Johns, in “working out a philosophy of life.”1 Both his desire to voice his current philosophy and his drive for popularity affected the final form of the novel. London’s ideology in The Sea-Wolf, inconsistent in many respects, is nevertheless consistent with his own philosophic beliefs. Further, though both contemporary and modern reviewers criticized his attempt to graft an unrealistic love story onto an adventure plot,2 his comments before and during the writing of the novel suggest both plots were part of his ideological design from the beginning. At the same time, London chose these plots because he felt they would attract large numbers of readers and thus win him a place as a popular writer. ’Jack London to Cloudesley Johns, July 12, 1902 in Letters from Jack London, King Hendricks and Irving Shepard, eds. (New York: Odyssey Press, 1965), p. 136. 2Typical of reviewers’ remarks on this point was a note in the San Francisco Chronicle that “sentimentalism enters the book with the woman and seriously hurts it” and of more recent critics, Matthew Bruccoli’s remark that from the point of Maud and Van Weyden’s escape from the Ghost the novel “degenerates into romantic fan­ tasy.” San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 13, 1904, p. 8; and Matthew Bruccoli, “Intro­ duction” in Jack London, The Sea-Wolf 1904; (rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1964), p. xii. 322 Western American Literature The present essay examines the interplay between the popular and ideological elements in The Sea-Wolf. It suggests that the two plots serve the double function of embodying London’s ideology and securing his bid for popularity. I London’s earliest recorded comments about The Sea-Wolf occur in a letter to George Brett, his publisher at Macmillan, dated January 20, 1903. He wrote that he had abandoned plans for a sea novel which was to have been “a tragedy unrelieved by love, comradeship or anything else” and was at work on a new sea story which would have “adventure, storm, struggle, tragedy, and love.” His plan for the new novel followed: The motif . . . the human motif underlying all, will be what I may call mastery. My idea is to take a cultured, refined, super-civilized man and woman (whom the subtleties of artificial civilized life have blinded to the real facts of life), and throw them into a primitive sea environment where all is stress and struggle and life expresses itself, simply, in terms of food and shelter, and make this man and woman rise to the situation and come out of it with fly­ ing colors.3 The letter indicates London’s determination to woo the popular audience. His decision to abandon the “tragedy unrelieved” for a new novel con­ taining “adventure, storm, struggle, tragedy, and love” is a deliberate attempt to include more popular fiction elements in the novel. And his further assurance, in the same letter, that “[t]he love element will run throughout” and “will end happily” coincides with two often-repeated prescriptions of popular editors and publishers of the period. A letter written to Brett in September 1903, when he was halfway through the novel, again reveals London’s determination to achieve popular success. Referring to Century editor Richard Watson Gilder, who was negotiating with Brett over serialization rights for the novel, London wrote: “He has my full permission to blue pencil all he wishes.” He concluded in the same letter: “I should greatly like to see the novel serialized in the Century. It means much in the way of advertisement and of bringing me into the notice of the clique of readers peculiar to 3Jack London to George Brett, Jan. 20, 1903...


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