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  • Native EncountersExamining Primitivism in Hemingway and London’s Short Fiction
  • Gina M. Rossetti (bio)

For two of the more preeminent twentieth-century American authors, Hemingway and London share an interest in examining the limits of primitivism, particularly as they come to delineate the impact of race privilege. In Hemingway’s stories, for instance, we see two distinct evocations of the primitive: on the one hand, in “Indian Camp,” “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” and “Ten Indians,” we witness white, western culture impose itself on the Native American community, revealing a paternalism that marks these encounters; on the other hand, “Big Two-Hearted River” suggests the psychological impact of this privilege where Nick believes that a primitive setting might restore his peace of mind. In these examples, the more privileged character assumes that the primitive setting or character acts as a foil meant to reflect back to him an image of his own greatness. What these stories suggest, however, is that the opposite happens: it is by these very depictions that Hemingway challenges this frame of reference. For London’s “Keesh, the Son of Keesh,” “Law of Life,” “The League of the Old Men,” and “Nam-Bok the Unveracious,” the encounter between the Caucasian character or Caucasian expansionism into Native American lands is one that leaves readers with images of death. For these particular stories, the so-called primitive characters represent either those who have embraced assimilationism, which has placed them in tension with their tribal communities, or these characters come to symbolize the end of their tribal nations, suggestive that no place exists for them in modern society. By examining these selected texts, one might understand how Hemingway and London call attention to the erasure of a people and a way of life and offer shared critiques of white privilege. [End Page 55]

Primitive Implications: London

Over the span of his body of work, London’s focus on primitivism is both extensive and complicated. At times, he uses primitivism to distinguish between a more privileged Anglo-American identity versus those some might label as “low-born” characters, whether these characters are ethnic/racial minorities or the urban poor. At other times, London’s primitivism suggests a time known as pre-civilization, depicting different kinds of so-called noble savages, such as what we find in his 1906 novel Before Adam, or even perhaps in his depiction of Native Americans or pacific islanders. What is important to note, however, is that London’s depiction of Native American characters is far more sympathetic, and as Jeanne Reesman notes in Jack London’s Racial Lives, London “saw the terrible results of greed for gold and the effects of white expansion upon the Indians” (58). Reesman indicates that London’s journal from his Yukon River trip reveals that the author “wrote of his admiration and pity for the Natives he encounters, many of them with barely enough to eat or shelter to warm them, suffering in large part because of the changes white invasions caused” (60).1

This sense that time has run out for indigenous populations is apparent in London’s short story “The Law of Life.” In this story, Nature is the arbiter, judging whether or not a species survives. As a result, London establishes Nature’s law as supreme, suggesting that “She had no concern for that concrete thing called the individual. Her interest lay in the species, the race” (16). Here, London problematizes nature’s so-called objectivity; by erasing not only Old Koskoosh, but also his tribal nation, the Law furthers the interests of white expansionism:

the tribe of Koskoosh was very old. The old men he had known when a boy, had known old men before them. Therefore it was true that the tribe lived, that it stood for the obedience of all of its members, way down into the forgotten past, whose very resting-places were unremembered. They did not count; they were episodes.


Old Koskoosh’s death is a microcosm of the tribe’s inevitable erasure; indeed, for the former leader and the tribe itself, the wolf is literally at the door in the closing scene:

Why should he cling to...


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pp. 55-68
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