Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Canvas and Steam: Historical Conflict in Jack London's Sea-Wolf

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Canvas and Steam: Historical Conflict in Jack London's Sea-Wolf

Article excerpt

Jack London's Sea-Wolf (1904) is one of America's best known sea tales. The novel, inspired in part by London's own experience on a sealer at the age of seventeen, is set aboard a sealing schooner called the Ghost in the Northern Pacific at the turn of the century. The novel's plot chronicles the transformation of a bookish shipwreck victim into a strong and able sailor at the hands of a cruel but intellectually brilliant skipper, Wolf Larsen.

Humphrey Van Weyden, or Hump--the castaway--is plucked from the foggy, waters of San Francisco Bay by the outward-bound Ghost following the wreck of a cross-bay ferry, the Martinez, on which he was a passenger. Short one man because of the untimely death of a crewman who had the audacity, or perhaps the luck, to die at the very start of the ship's voyage, Larsen orders Hump pressed into service as a cabin boy, despite his protests, instead of ferrying him back to shore.

From this point on, the literate Van Weyden serves as a foil for Larsen, a self-taught philosopher taken by the current intellectual trends of his time, most notably the rise of Social Darwinism. Larsen shares with Melville's Ahab a perverted passion for the ideal, and each is finally rendered a "grotesque," to quote from Sherwood Anderson's "Book of the Grotesques," by their distorted pursuit of personal truths. In Larsen's ease, this perversion of thought is portrayed metaphorically by the brain tumor that ultimately destroys him. Until that time, the novel's plot revolves in good part around the struggle between Wolf Larsen and Hump over whose philosophy of life is correct. Paradoxically, the struggle manifests itself through repeated physical conflict in which Hump is forced to develop his own physical powers. As an added mist, engineered to satisfy popular readers, Hump and Wolf also compete for the affections of Maud Brewster, a woman survivor from the Martinez hauled aboard soon after Hump. In the end, Wolf dies of illness, the Ghost is wrecked, and Hump and Maud are rescued.

It is the contest between Wolf and his brother, Death, also the skipper of a sealer, which is the focus of this essay. The historical conflict between sail and steam, played out in the contest on the sealing grounds between Wolf's schooner and the steamship Macedonia, captained by Death, has until now been overlooked. However, when looked at closely this battle, which ends with the triumph of the Macedonia, can be said to both eclipse and undermine the novel's apparent primary concern with the ideological struggle between Van Weyden's idealism and Larsen's Social Darwinism, of which so many critics have made note. London himself, quoted from a letter to Mary Austin in Phillip S. Foner's Jack London: American Rebel, referred to The Sea-Wolf as an "[attack] on Nietzschean philosophy" (63). But a careful exploration of the contest between the Ghost and the Macedonia will illustrate how this seemingly minor thread in the narrative actually betrays the novel's deeper preoccupations.

The Sea-Wolf was published in 1904, when the era of sail was coming to a close in terms of commercial enterprise. In a very real sense it was already past. Though large numbers of vessels in the maritime continued to carry sail, the steamship had already laid irrevocable claim to the high seas, and the next decade or so would see large numbers of sailing vessels scuttled or converted to steam. The reasons for this are simple: steamships traveled faster, were more dependable, and required much smaller crews. In the sealing industry, where profits often approached forty per cent, the vessels of choice were schooners and sloops, boats easily "managed by one or two men" while the hunters were out on the sea (Busch, 137, 140; Chapelle, 220). Still, some sealers were converting to steam as early as the 1880s. Because the sealing industry as a whole, at least in the north Pacific, was effectively finished by the end of the nineteenth century, complete dominance by the steamship was never achieved, and most sealers remained sailing vessels. …

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