Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #144 Captain Battle

Magazine Review: High Adventure #144 Captain Battle edited by John P. Gunnison

This issue of the pulp reprint magazine has two stories by renowned adventure writer H. Bedford-Jones, both from the pages of People’s.  People’s was a Street & Smith publication that ran from 1906 to 1924 under varying titles, all of which had “People’s” in them.  It appears to have been a generic adventure story magazine, and notable for covers that were more picturesque than lurid, unlike many of the later pulps.

High Adventure #144: Captain Battle

“Captain Battle” has a main character whose name is both more and less unlikely at the same time.  His birth name is Captain Cathenach, the family one being an old Gaelic term for “battle.”  He’s investigating rum-running and other criminal activity in the Pacific Northwest towards the end of World War One.  The main villain of the story is “Yellow” Hearne, a criminal mastermind who has decided to get out of the rum-running business just as Prohibition is making it really profitable as he has even bigger plans.

What brings these men into direct conflict is that they both have an acquaintance with wealthy businessman Philip Nichols…and his beautiful daughter Faith.  Hearne wants to marry Faith, by hook or by crook, but would prefer she do it voluntarily, and as long as the manly Captain is around, that’s too much competition.   Hearne uses the implication that he is a government agent several times in the story to get his way.

Captain Cathenach is also in love with Faith, but has a number of secrets that get in the way.  First, he is actually a government agent undercover as a wealthy eccentric.  Second, under another name, he’s wanted for jewel robbery and murder.  Those he could probably clear up for Faith, but his third secret, the one that keeps him from revealing his true feelings to the maiden, is that he’s going blind!

There are a number of twists and turns, including a mid-story shocker when Cathenach gets a head wound and becomes a simple-minded amnesiac.

There’s some period racism in the story, with Cathenach being of the “my best friend is Chinese” type.  Sexism is more of the setting related type; Faith is plucky, but not expected to fend for herself in dangerous situations.

“John  Solomon-Retired” is another long story, this one featuring recurring character John Solomon, a Cockney ship’s chandler (a dealer in ship supplies and equipment.)   The hero of the story is Ralph Carter, an American salesman who finds himself at loose ends in Java.  Mr. Solomon  enlists Ralph in a favor the older man is doing a Chinese secret society.

It seems that Miss Wilhemina Bergen owns a spice plantation that hasn’t been able to sell its crop due to the Great War sapping trade.   Herman Stoppel, a “half-caste” (mixed race) trader, has been trying to gain control of the plantation for some reason as yet unknown.  Wing Fu, the secret society representative, went to college with Miss Bergen’s late brother, and has determined that Captain Stoppel thinks he can make two million American dollars from something on the plantation.  It’s unlikely to be the nutmeg, even if the American market is in dire need.

Mr. Carter is sent to the plantation to pretend to be a rival potential buyer, to see if he can figure out what’s going on and protect Miss Bergen’s interests.

Once again there are many twists to the story, with much of the later action taking place on John Solomon’s tricked-out ship, and then on Stoppel’s own craft.  There’s a series of plans and reversals until the final paragraphs.

Again, some period racism, though meaner to the mixed race people than to the Chinese person.  Miss Bergen has competence in her background, she’s been running the plantation for the last two years since her brother died, but has no action skills.  Stoppel turns out to want to marry Miss Bergen–and not to gain the money, either!  She is pretty racist in her response to that.

Both are exciting adventure stories with plenty of action and a bit of romance (somewhat more believable in the first story as the characters have known each other for some years.)   They are, however, products of their time and this may not appeal to some readers.

 

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