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  • Crafting the Sea:Romance and Realism in Jack London’s Martin Eden
  • Anita Duneer

When he looked back now from his vantage-ground, the old world he had known, the world of land and sea and ships . . . seemed a very small world; and yet it blended in with this new world and expanded. His mind made for unity, and he was surprised when at first he began to see points of contact between the two worlds.

Jack London, Martin Eden, in Jack London: Novels and Social Writings1

Published between Jack London’s sea novels, The Sea-Wolf (1904) and The Mutiny of the Elsinore (1913), the autobiographically-inspired novel Martin Eden (1909) is not set at sea—with the exception of Martin’s suicide in the last chapter. Perhaps since the novel is primarily set on land, the importance of the sea to the artistic identity of London and his character Martin have generally been overlooked. The novel is flooded with language and imagery of the sea. The sea colors Martin’s imagination, the narrator makes frequent use of nautical metaphors, and the conventions of maritime literature inform the overall structure of the novel. Martin Eden reflects the sea’s influence on London, who was an avid reader of maritime literature and a seasoned sailor. London had sailed in San Francisco Bay in his youth as an oyster pirate and member of the California Fish Patrol, and as a young man on a sealing expedition aboard the Sophia Sutherland, an adventure that provided raw material for The Sea-Wolf. Martin Eden was composed at sea, begun during London’s voyage to the South Seas on his fifty-seven-foot ketch the Snark with his wife Charmian, and completed on the Mariposa, the steamship that transported the Londons back to Tahiti where they had left the Snark during a business trip to San Francisco. The sea is as integral to Martin’s character as it is for London’s self-identity. Thus by reading Martin Eden as a novel of the sea, we can better understand London’s social and aesthetic navigation of romance and realism, in a work both influenced by and contributing to the maritime literary tradition.

Although to date there has been no sustained reading of the centrality of the sea in Martin Eden, scholars have noted that it is a prominent feature. In Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present [End Page 250] (1988), Bert Bender names Martin Eden as one of several of London’s works “shaped significantly by the sea.”2 Earle Labor had previously recognized the “ocean metaphor, usually set forth in nautical imagery, [which] recurs throughout and serves to unify the novel,” and the sea as key to the novel’s “structural pattern,” in which “the hero emerges from the sea at the outset and returns to the sea at the end.”3 Thus both scholars invite a more detailed reading of Martin Eden through the lens of maritime literature, an approach yet to be taken. Most scholarship reads Martin’s vocation as a sailor primarily as an indication of his working-class identity in a rags-to-riches success story that ends in tragic disillusionment. It is generally seen as a Künstlerroman that mirrors London’s own education and development as a writer. Martin’s success is a credit to an American work ethic and an undaunted determination to hone his craft, through what James Williams calls “the craftsman model,”4 until he earns the respect and economic recompense of the reading public. The novel has elicited a number of critical approaches concerned with social class. In an article that firmly establishes Martin Eden as the “blueprint” for a “sub-genre of U.S. working class literature,” Renny Christopher coins the phrase, “narratives of unhappy upward mobility,” which “might well be named ‘Martin Eden stories.’” He argues that, in this sub-genre, the novel’s ultimate disillusionment implicitly critiques the potential for the American Dream that is viewed more positively in the “authentic Horatio Alger story [which] always ends with the protagonist on the rise.” What Martin loses when he reaches “Success” (London...