The Sea Wolf

The Sea Wolf.  Illustration to the book by Jack London.

Jack London’s The Sea Wolf

The Sea Wolf.  Written by Jack London, and published in 1904, is a tour de force.  I’ve read it multiple times, and just completed it again here in Matapalo Samara, Costa Rica.

I came to Jack London early in life, as a boy, when my dad introduced me to Call of the Wild and White Fang.  London’s stories were heady stuff to an impressionable youngster. I read The Sea Wolf a few years later, with no less enthusiasm.

Over the years I have read virtually everything that London has written, with the possible exception of some of his newspaper and magazine articles.  Most works I have read many times over:  novels, short stories and essays.

As with any good work (literature, art, music or dance), appreciation improves with perspective.  The Sea Wolf, read as a child, was full of rollicking adventure; with an adult perspective, the story takes on aspects of a blueprint, outlining the confluence of complex human emotions and relationships.

The Sea Wolf delves into the insanity that is Wolf Larsen, the captain of an early 20th century sealing schooner.  His intellect is matched only by his brutality—a true sociopath with his own unique charm.  He is not an easy character to understand.  Because London writes about Man’s primal nature, I tend to think of his books as masculine.

London’s writing reeks of an authenticity gained only through personal experience.  And London did it all in real life—from sailing the high seas, to heeding the siren’s call for gold in the Klondike.  I have met London’s characters in my own life, from the passive-aggressive coward to the charming sociopath, from the sentimental idealist to the damsel in distress. They exist, they are real.

In his own time, London was roundly criticized for his overly dramatic view of life (the basic instincts of Man).  In my own experience, I find that his characters are sometimes subtle and understated, full of ambiguity.  Spend anytime at all with “men at war,” minus the feminine counterbalance, and you will witness firsthand Man’s ability to inflict brutality upon his fellow man.

These are the complex issues that London peels from the psyche, like the layers of a fat onion.  He is a master at it.  I find that John Steinbeck (another legend of American literature) shares this ability, as does Pat Conroy (best known for The Prince of Tides), a more recent addition to American literary genius.

I require this complexity in fine literature.  And I require the subtlety that allows for a change in perspective as one gains emotional maturity.  A case in point:  the one book I’ve read more times than any other is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (some critics  argue that this book was actually written by his wife Zelda, which might hold some merit, because everything else Fitzgerald wrote was crap in my opinion).

I first read this book in high school, and I thought it was mindless drivel.  But in its defense, I had very little life experience at that time.  In subsequent readings, at various times and stages in my life, it has gained a depth and complexity far beyond my imagination.  Not my favorite book by any means, but a perfect illustration for the point I’m trying to make.

Why this book review on the blog?  Why now?  Because I just read a disturbing article, posted on Facebook, where parents are once again trying to limit their children’s access to certain books.  In this case it was John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  This classic was being challenged, because as one parent claimed:  “It wasn’t a particularly good story, it wasn’t a page turner.  And it used profanity like bastard and god damn.”

John Steinbeck is one America’s best writers.  Like London, his works reek of the authenticity gained only through personal experience.  And like London, he has been criticized for writing about real life and real issues.  Of Mice and Men is an amazing story, full of life-lessons and pathos.  Limiting access to this book would be a sin.  It won’t happen, of course, but that someone would even want it to happen is an anathema to me.

It is a gorgeous day here Matapalo Samara, so it’s back to the hamaca for me, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (published in 1883).  A child’s book you say. Au contraire mes ami.  Written by an adult for adults.  You have to love Jim and the classic Long John Silver.  “Fifteen men on a deadman’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” 

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