- Jack London by Kenneth K. Brandt
"Multum in Parvo" would be an appropriate title for this review. Seldom have I read a scholarly book that provided so much useful content in so few pages. In view of Kenneth Brandt's established position in the world of Jack London, I'm hardly surprised: executive coordinator of the Jack London Society and editor of The Call, the Society's official magazine; coeditor (with Jeanne C. Reesman) of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack London (2015); plus multiple shorter publications.
Brandt states his approach in his opening chapter: "My study challenges the unexamined assumption that London's narrative accessibility consigns his work to thematic simplicity" (2). The following six chapters examine the extraordinary range of London's fiction from the Northland to the South Pacific with significant thematic variations in between: London's world-famous dystopian novel The Iron Heel, plus shorter Socialistic works like "Goliah" and "The Strength of the Strong"; the tragic consequences of "Individualism" in The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden; the "compatibilistic" resolution of free will vs. determinism in The Road and The Star Rover.
While selective rather than exhaustive, the representative works Brandt examines are truly exemplary. Beyond devoting considerable attention to popular novels like The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and The Sea-Wolf, he also includes careful readings of less-familiar works [End Page 452] like "Nam-Bok the Unveracious," "The Night-Born," "The House of Pride," "Mauki," "The Red One," and "The Water Baby." These last two stories are particularly noteworthy. Written during a period many critics have dismissed as creatively arid, they demonstrate the rich stylistic as well as thematic diversity of London's oeuvre. Brandt points out that while London was "adept at spinning a good yarn, [he] deliberately layered his fiction [and] ballasted his best stories with heftier motifs expressive of profounder implications" (15). Virtually unknown even by London fans for more than a half century, "The Red One" is arguably the most richly layered of all his stories. On one level it is an adventure tale about a modern scientist exploring the terra incognita of one of the Solomon Islands. Beneath this is the mystery of a sentient object apparently planted by some extraterrestrial force (think of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Deeper still, it dramatizes the universal human quest for the ultimate "Self" and "Truth." Finally, with its "wealth of allusions to the Bible and Greek mythology and English poetry," the story is comparable to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land in suggesting "a viable repository of cultural knowledge that may serve to mitigate modernity's malaise" (120).
"The Water Baby"—written shortly after his discovering C. G. Jung and less than two months before his death—is one of London's most revealing stories. Unlike most of his fiction, the physical action is minimal. Instead, tension is derived from a dialogue between two characters: John Lakana (London's Hawaiian name) and Kohokumu (Hawaiian for "tree of knowledge"). Lakana, a young Caucasian, as Brandt notes, "exemplifies Western rationality and the exhaustion of modernity" (121). Kohokumu, personifying Jung's archetypal figure of the Wise Old Man, is "an ebullient septuagenarian fully vitalized by the myth and lore of his native culture." In their argument, the elder character convincingly demonstrates that inner Truth transcends mere external Fact. "This I know," he tells Lakana, "as I grow old I seek less from the truth from without me, and find more of the truth from within me" (121). This remarkable story, his last, is eloquent testimony that London—ever the "seeker"—was still adventuring as he himself grew old. [End Page 453]
Throughout this critical study Brandt undergirds his own interpretive insights with references to other significant scholarly works. The final chapter, "Coda: Literary Legacy and Scholarship"—surveying the growth of serious London scholarship during the past generation—effectively corrects the distorted image of a hack writer who made his fortune by commercializing popular dog stories. Contrary to this stereotype, London's international status as "a prominent writer and...