- Last Stands and Frontier JusticeIn Jack London’s Pacific and Ernest Hemingway’s Key West
Harry stood there at the bar looking at the nickel machine, the two dime machines and the quarter machine and at the picture of Custer’s Last Stand on the wall as though he’d never seen them.—Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not (123)
His was the golden touch, but he played the game, not for the gold, but for the game’s sake. It was a man’s game, the rough contacts and fierce give and take of the adventurers of his own blood and of half the bloods of Europe and the rest of the world, and it was a good game; but over and beyond was his love of all the other things that go to make up a South Seas rover’s life.—Jack London, “A Son of the Sun” (21)
Like the Wild West, the sea for London and Hemingway is a frontier of violence and vigilantism, where codes of ethics are tested, and natural and civil law are conflicted. Islands, boats, and the sea occupy spaces between the preand post-colonial piratical grab for territory and natural resources, and modern power struggles for money, commodities, and social status. These authors imagine strong outlaw characters that exhibit attributes of individualism, self-reliance, and physical prowess, as well as expert seamanship and skill as hunters or fishermen. In this essay, I look at London’s The Sea-Wolf (1904) and “The Devils of Fuatino” (1911), and Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), The Old Man and the Sea (1952), and Islands in the Stream (1970) through the lens of Custer’s Last Stand, a myth with unstable meaning, which has changed over time and according to perspective. For London, the Pacific is the last frontier, and the vulnerability of [End Page 23] these contested spaces allows his characters to take a stand in defense or conquest of cultural or material currency. The threshold of the frontier has already moved past Hemingway’s Key West, which is why the struggle of his characters to hold onto a threatened way of life is more futile and naturalistic than the more hopeful outcome for many of London’s characters, for whom justice and the rights of possession remain in flux.
In its simplest distillation, Custer’s Last Stand evokes a specific mythology of the Wild West—the romance of “winning the West” along with attendant fears that white America might not be able to protect its frontiers against Indians and immigrants. In the almost 150 years since the Battle of Little Bighorn, shifting public opinion of Custer “moved along a continuum from heroic Indian fighter to prima donna expansionist who got his come-uppance” (Caudill and Ashdown 233). Mentioned in several of Hemingway’s novels, Custer evokes questions of territorial rights and frontier justice, in which characters do not neatly align with the cavalry or the Indians. London does not implant the last stand so deliberately into his fiction, but these same questions frame ethical problems for his characters.
The idea of the last stand implies a correspondence between time and territory. With an implicit conservationist ethics in their shared admiration for Teddy Roosevelt’s ideal of the great outdoors, where men could pursue an endless supply of big game and big adventure, London and Hemingway dramatized the threat of civilization encroaching upon an idealized setting of sea and islands. Each responded to the social and literary climate of his time—London with a proto-modernist skepticism of race and gender ideologies, Hemingway with a modernist sense of psychological trauma in the wakes of world wars punctuated by the Great Depression. For London, the allure of the sea was romance and adventure. For Hemingway, it was solitude and the pull of a broad horizon that, unlike the changing landscape of the American West, seemed timeless: “[T]he Gulf Stream and the other great ocean currents are the last wild country there is left. Once you are out of sight of land and of the other boats you are more alone than you can ever be hunting...