No doubt about it, Jack London’s The Sea Wolf (my Journey to the Classics for 2015) starts with a bang. Or a call it a sudden sinking.
One very foggy day, Humphrey van Weyden, a pale, soft, middle-age book-critic (no one I would know), is ferrying across San Francisco Bay when his conveyance crashes into another vessel and sinks, dumping van Weyden into the cold, briny waters of the bay where, snared by the famous current, he’s swept out to the perilous sea.
Then, seconds before he drowns, he’s rescued by another ship. His troubles have only begun: The ship in question is The Ghost, a seal-hunting vessel bound for the South Pacific, its captain one of literature’s most ruthless, dangerous characters, Wolf Larsen.
From here on, there’s muscular adventure aplenty from one of California’s (and America’s) most celebrated authors as Humphrey, who’s known hardly a day of hardship, finds his life in constant peril from dangers natural and human, and by them is transformed.
Some readers may face different challenges. All good books are about more than one thing. In addition to its adventure, The Sea Wolf is also a didactic novel. Ideas—and ideals--collide in the Hegelian sense: A synthesis (civilized van Weyden) crashes into an antithesis (the Nietzschean Larsen) to eventually form a synthesis (which you can determine for yourself). From here most of the drama springs, creating a seagoing debating society, all issues laid out like the seal carcasses they hunt. At times the two men start becoming the author’s mouthpieces and start to flatten into table-pounding, finger-shaking stick people.
Larsen, the proto-fascist, runs his ship like a tin-tub dictator, much crueler than even Melville’s Captain Ahab, who I think, better knew how to manipulate and cajole his men, even gaining their admiration and sympathy during The Pequod’s doomed voyage.
Larsen hasn’t a mote of compassion and wants none. He is all Will to Power. His contempt for his entire crew is total, implacable, seething. He revels in the mutual hatred, singling individual members out for torture, seeking to reduce and degrade every man among them, descending to cunning murder. The only human interest he shows is for his castaway, Von Weyden, to whom he reveals his high-browed literary interests in those long, often interesting, sometimes tedious platonic dialogues.
Van Weyden is seduced by Larsen, just as readers have been seduced by Dracula over the years—all that grand, confident, compelling power, that terrible focus. The trembling narrator describes this brutish opponent with quivering terms: “. . . the eyes . . . while strong in themselves, unusually strong, seemed to speak an immense vigour or virility of spirit that lay behind and beyond and out of sight.”
There’s a lot of that and it gets pretty purple.
The narrative turns even more breathy once the love interest gets pulled aboard in the person of Maud, who, it so happens, Humphrey knows as a kindred poet. The novel turns quite mushy from then on, showing its age like an old soggy sponge as the two birds gaze breathlessly into each other’s eyes and Humphrey’s ripe verbiage balloons further into an overripe rose:
“’Hush!” she said, and laid her fingers lightly on my lips. I could have kissed them, had I dared, even then, in my rage, the touch of them was so sweet, so very sweet.”
Even after they escape The Ghost and become shipwrecked together on a cold desert island, the characters maintain an absurdly dainty Victorian chastity (remarkable considering they’re both Bohemians; unremarkable considering that London was aiming for a broader, more middle-class feminine readership.) The novel huffs and heaves with rosy risible melodrama in these sections. It might surprise those more acquainted with London’s roustabout image.
Even so, a hundred-plus years on from The Sea Wolf’s 1904 debut, there’s still plenty of vigor and vinegar in its storm-tossed pages, even with its dated style. Its air of muscular adventure and vividly detailed action remain exciting. London portrays life on board one of the last wooden ships with salty exuberance and pinpoint exactitude, often conjuring throat-grabbing suspense. A chapter concerning van Weyden’s first encounter with a violent storm at sea makes for a ripping thrill. The deck tilts under the feet. Reason enough to sign on.
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.