|Home :: Biography :: Ranch Album :: Writings :: Links|
|« View Series Index||Read Stories »|
Part XVI of a Series
by Dale L. Walker
NOTE: This segment of the series on Jack London's short fiction will complete those stories written in 1908.
"Aloha Oe" (Lady's Realm [London], December, 1908) is a very slight romance taking place at Honolulu where a great transport ship is preparing to depart with a thousand people on her decks including a number of khaki-clad, bronze-faced soldiers heading home from three years campaigning in the Philippines. Five thousand people line the wharf where the Royal Hawaiian band plays "Aloha Oe" and on the promenade deck stand several senators, a junketing party, with their wives and daughters, all bedecked with flowers.
Among the junketers is Senator Jeremy Sambrooke who sees only labor power, factories, railroads, and plantations and is too busy with these daydreams to notice his fifteen-year-old daughter, Dorothy, whom he had brought to Hawaii when she was a girl and was taking home, now a woman.
“. . . a bronzed god of the sea.”She had abandoned her books and her pale skin browned as she had climbed volcanoes, surf swam and rode horses in company with one Stephen Knight, athlete, surf-boarder — a "bronzed god of the sea." Dorothy "was herself strangely bewildered and excited" about Knight, who had been one of the committee of entertainment for the senators and their families when they came to Honolulu. He gave them an exhibition of surfing at Waikiki Beach, then at the open-air feast at Hamakua he taught her the words of "Aloha Oe" — My love be with you till we meet again.
It was at a tea that Dorothy learns about the hapa-haole, the half-caste, and asks her father if Stephen Knight ever came to the United States "may'nt he come and see us?"
Says the senator, "Certainly not. Stephen Knight is a hapa-haole. . ."
And so, as the ship is departing and passengers fling their garlands to friends on the dock, she finds Knight waiting below. Her garland is tangled in a string of pearls and her father is aghast as she snaps the string and "amid a shower of pearls," the flowers fall. Tears blind her as she buries her face on the shoulder of Jeremy Sambrooke; the crowd sings on, the song growing fainter in the distance,
Aloha oe, Aloha oe, e ke onaona no ho ika lipo. . .
Hawaii's lepers suggested many plot-lines to London, many of them repetitive and melodramatic, as is the case with "Good-by Jack" (Red Book, June, 1909). Here we learn from the narrator of the "Missionary Crowd," . . .etc. the humble New Englanders who arrived in the islands in the 1830s for the lofty purpose of teaching the kanakas the true religion. This history leads to talk of Jack Kersdale, who came of missionary stock on his grandmother's side, his grandfather a Yankee trader selling cheap whiskey and square-face gin. He is several times a millionaire, a sugar king, coffee planter, rubber pioneer, cattle rancher, society and club man, yachtsman, bachelor, Yale-educated, and at age sixteen took part in the "last revolution, when the native dynasty was overthrown."
It happens that Kersdale is interested in leprosy, has an encyclopedic knowledge of it and is an ardent defender of Molokai, insisting that the lepers there are happy and the horrors bandied about are poppycock. Nor is he afraid of the disease although one of his school chums contracted it, went to Molokai and died there. He speaks of the bacteriological test that is infallible in diagnosing the disease.
Kersdale takes the narrator to Kalihi, the receiving station where those suspected of having the disease are examined and confirmed lepers are marched to the little steamer Noeau and conveyed to Molokai. At the wharf are forty "sad wretches" with their mats, blankets and luggage awaiting the steamer and among the deportees is a beautiful woman, pure Polynesian. She is "just beginning to show the amplitude of the women of her race." (Whatever that means.) She is Lucy Mokunui, the "Hawaiian nightingale," who toured America with the Royal Hawaiian Band.
“My God! My
Kersdale hears the cry, is overcome by a crushing fear, his face white. "My God! My God!" he cries, then controlling himself says, "Good-by, Lucy! Good-by!" and calls for his carriage, half-running toward it and ordering the driver to whip the horses. He has to make a quick visit to Dr. Hervey, a leprosy specialist who has developed a certain infallible test . . .
Neither Jack London, Ninetta Eames — Charmian London's aunt — nor Jack's London agent could find a magazine to publish the gruesome little story "The 'Francis Spaight'" (in When God Laughs & Other Stories; New York: The Macmillan Co., January,1911). The story, of murder and incipient cannibalism and bearing the epigraph "A True Tale Retold," was submitted to Cosmopolitan, Collier's, Outing, Associated Sunday Magazines, McClure's, American, Appleton's, Woman's Home Companion, Everybody's, Saturday Evening Post, Youth's Companion, Century, Harper's Weekly, Harper's Monthly, Lippincott's, Success, Weekly Examiner, Pacific Monthly, Red Book, Black Cat, Story Book, Sunset, and Base Ball Magazine. Especially inappropriate markets, one would think, were Outing, Red Book, and especially Base Ball Magazine, a weird scrape at the bottom of the barrel.
The Francis Spaight, with a lumber cargo in the North Atlantic and an inexperienced crew, is struck by high seas during which the helmsman turns loose of the wheel. Within an hour the vessel is on her beam ends and only two men, Mahoney, a Belfast man, and a Limerick lad named O'Brien, have the presence of mind to cut away the fore and main masts. The ship rights itself with thirteen men alive, no food and only rainwater caught in a tureen or soaked up in handkerchiefs.
After four days of hunger, the crewmen begin maltreating the weaker of the survivors, the boy O'Brien a particular target. After sixteen days starving the captain calls a meeting on the poop and announces, "There is a serious question to consider: whether it is better for all to die, or for one to die. . . .If one of us dies, the rest may live until a ship is sighted." It is agreed that one of the ship's boys will be sacrificed since the boys have no families to support.
O'Brien draws the short stick and Gorman the cook fetches the tureen and with the captain's dull penknife saws through O'Brien's wrist. When no blood comes forth the boy, screaming for mercy, is bent backward to the deck, the tureen cover under his neck as Gorman cuts the lad's throat. The men hold him till his struggles cease and he is laid upon the deck. They urge Gorman to hurry with the preparation of the meal.
Just then, to the windward a full-rigged ship bears down on them, "the brightly coppered forefoot parting the water like a golden knife, the headsails flapping lazily. . ."
The captain of the Francis Spaight orders a tarp thrown over O'Brien's body as a boat is lowered and pulls toward them. Gorman laughs, "softly at first, but he accompanied each stroke of the oars with spasmodically increasing glee. It was his maniacal laughter that greeted the rescue boat as it hauled alongside and the first officer clambered aboard."
Completed in July, 1908, while anchored off Pennduffryn Plantation, east coast of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands (according to Russ Kingman's valuable if amusingly titled Jack London: A Definitive Chronology [Middleton, CA: David Rejl, 1992]), "The Whale Tooth" (The Bournemouth Visitor's Directory, December, 1909), originally published as "The Mission of John Starhurst," is another cannibalism story, back-to-back with the ordeal aboard the Francis Spaight.
In the early days in Fiji missionary John Starhurst announced at Rewa Village that he intended carrying the Gospel throughout all of Viti Levu (the "Great Land," largest island in the Fiji group) and wherever the natives "had a distressing habit of backsliding in order to partake of the flesh of some favorite enemy." Over the cries of his friends, Starhurst was determined to penetrate the fastnesses of the Great Land to the headwaters of the Rewa River, this despite warnings that the mountain dwellers there would surely "kai-kai" (eat) him. One man alone encouraged him: Ra Vatu, an incorrigible heathen whose enmity for Starhurst began when the missionary objected to the heathen bringing his four wives to the church.
Starhurst journeyed up the Rewa accompanied by Narau, a native teacher, with another canoe following an hour astern. In it was Erirola, Ra Vatu's first cousin, and in a basket Erirola had a whale's tooth, six inches long, yellowed and purpled with age, the property of Ra Vatu. In Fiji, such a tooth was invested with a strange power: Whoever accepted it could not refuse the request that might accompany it.
“Why should any man kill me? . . .”After several village chiefs refused the tooth, Buli of Gatoka, deep in the mountains, accepted it. Erirola told him of the white man coming and that his request was for the man's boots, with the feet in them, for Ra Vatu. Then, when Starhurst and Narau reached the village and Gatoka displayed the whale tooth, the missionary pleaded, "I am John Starhurst. I have labored in Fiji for three years, and I have done it for no profit. I am here among you for good. Why should any man kill me? To kill me would not profit any man."
But finally he stood alone, wiping his spectacles, knowing that his death was at hand.
"I met him first in a hurricane. . ."
Thus begins one of London's mightiest and most popular tales, "The Heathen" (London Magazine (September, 1909), completed on July 14, 1908, while the Snark was anchored off Guadalcanal. (Coincidentally, the even mightier and more popular story, "To Build a Fire," was published in The Century Magazine less than a month later.)
"The Heathen" is Otoo of Bora-Bora and the story is of Otoo and the narrator, Charley, a pearl-buyer and passenger on the Petite Jeanne, a seventy-ton trader sailing from Rangiroa to Papeete, Tahiti. After a prosperous pearling season in the Paumotus the vessel is jammed with pearl-shell and copra plus a crew and ninety passengers — Paumotans, Tahitians, men, women and children.
Overcrowding becomes the least problem when smallpox fells an Easter Islander aboard. Charley and some other passengers bring up all the scotch whiskey from the stores and stay drunk to ward off the smallpox germs but there is no stopping the plague aboard the Petite Jeanne. Steam rises from the soaked decks, "a vapor of death, freighted with millions and millions of germs," and the dead are hove over the rail to the awaiting sharks.
“How can one describe a nightmare?”Now, too, the barometer begins to fall: the Petite Jeanne is in the direct path of a hurricane. Charley remembers the wind: "Wind? Out of all my experience I could not have believed it possible for the wind to blow as it did. There is no describing it. How can one describe a nightmare? It was the same with that wind. It tore the clothes off our bodies. I say tore them off, and I mean it. I am not asking you to believe it. I am merely telling something that I saw and felt. . . .It was a monstrous thing, and the most monstrous thing about it was that it increased and continued to increase."
Then the seas strike again, maniacal eighty-foot waves over the mastheads. "It was no ocean any man has ever dreamed of, that hurricane centre. It was confusion thrice confounded. It was anarchy. It was a hell-pit of sea water gone mad." As a result the Petite Jeanne is torn to kindling by midday, Charley surviving on a hatch-cover in a driving rain. Then voices and 20 feet away another hatch-cover with Oudhouse, the skipper of the late Petite Jeanne, and the heathen clinging to it, the captain naked except for his brogans with which he was trying to kick the heathen off. Charley calls the kanaka to swim over to him.
For two days and nights they floated, Charley delirious, Otoo babbling in his native tongue, but in the end they wash ashore on an atoll, the only survivors of the Petite Jeanne. They live with the natives for a week until rescued by a French cruiser and taken to Tahiti. There they exchange names, a South Seas ceremony of blood-brothership.
They are together 17 years, ranging the Pacific from Hawaii to Sydney Head, from Torres Straits to the Galapagos, black-birding in the New Hebrides and the Line Islands westward through the Louisades, New Britain, New Ireland, and New Hanover. They are shipwrecked thrice, in the Gilberts, the Santa Cruz Group and the Fijis, trade pearl and pearl-shell, hawkbill turtle-shell, stranded wrecks, and bêche-de-mer.
On the east coast of Guadalcanar in the Solomons, Otoo persuades Charley to buy anchorage land from an old chief for 10,000 sticks of tobacco, ten bottles of square-face (gin) and a Snider (rifle), a hundred dollars worth of goods. Charley follows through and also buys 20,000 acres of grasslands on Guadalcanar, selling it ninety days later for "half a fortune."
Charley marries and has children, and Otoo "remained the same old-time Otoo, moving about the house or trailing through the office, his wooden pipe in his mouth, a shilling undershirt on his back, and a four-shilling lava-lava about his loins." Charley's children worship Otoo. He teaches them to walk, nurses them when they are sick, makes them amphibians when they are mere toddlers.
The end comes at Savo in the Solomons where Charley and Otoo run in to trade for curios. Charley, in a tiny overloaded native canoe capsizes a hundred yards from the schooner and starts to swim ashore when a sixteen-foot shark scrapes his arm from elbow to shoulder. He is about to give up hope then sees Otoo pass between him and the shark.
Charley grabs a line at the schooner. At first he sees no sign of Otoo, then, "The next instant he broke surface. Both hands were off at the wrist, the stumps spouting blood. . .
And so passed Otoo. . ."
Charley says in retrospect, "We met in the maw of a hurricane, and parted in the maw of a shark, with seventeen intervening years of comradeship, the like of which I dare to assert has never befallen two men, the one brown and the other white. If Jehovah be from His high place watching every sparrow fall, not least in His kingdom shall be Otoo, the one heathen of Bora Bora."
(NOTES: Bêche-de-mer is the trepang, sea-slug or sea cucumber, a marine animal related to starfish and sea urchins, found in the south Pacific and Indian oceans. It is dried or smoked for use as an ingredient in soup, especially in China and Indonesia where it has been treasured for centuries as a disease prevention aid and longevity tonic.
Guadalcanar = Guadalcanal. The island, discovered by Spaniards in 1568, was named variously Guadarcana, Guarcana, and Guadalcanar. It later became part of the British Empire and in 1932 the British changed the spelling to Guadalcanal. It is, of course, the site of the WW2 battle, fought between August 7, 1942, and February 7, 1943, against Imperial Japanese forces. The island is mentioned as Guadalcanar in "The Terrible Solomons," "Mauki," and "Son of the Sun," and as "Guadalcanal" in "The Red One.")
Copra, from a Malaysian word, is the dried "meat" or kernel of the coconut from which coconut oil is extracted; sandalwood is a fragrant wood of trees found in Nepal, India, Indonesia, Hawaii, and the South Pacific islands. It is an ancient and vital ingredient in Japanese incense and is used as fragrance in perfume.
"The Terrible Solomons" (Hampton's Magazine, March, 1910), among the stories quoted as a demonstration of the author's racism, is a vaguely amusing practical joke tale taking place on that "hard-bitten bunch of islands" of the title, with their loathsome diseases, poisonous air and cannibalistic, head-hunting natives.
A white man in these islands, the reader is told, needs to be both careful and lucky: "He must have the hall-mark of the inevitable white man stamped upon his soul. He must be inevitable. He must have a certain grand carelessness of odds, a certain colossal self-satisfaction, and a racial egotism that convinces him that one white is better than a thousand niggers every day of the week. . ." Not only that but, London writes with patent tongue-in-cheek and transparent irony, "he must not merely despise the lesser breeds and think a lot of himself; he must also fail to be too long on imagination. He must not understand too well the instincts, customs, and mental processes of the blacks, the yellows, and the browns; for it is not in such fashion that the white race has tramped its royal road around the world."
Bertie Arkwright, sensitive, finely strung, is traveling in the Solomons with a five-week layover between steamers. He is there because "he would satisfy the call of the primitive he felt thrumming the strings of his being." It is his fate that a certain Captain Malu, who had wrested millions from the islands in bêche-de-mer, sandalwood and copra, decides to give Bertie "an insight into the rawness and redness of life in the Solomons" and enlists several of his employees for the ruse.
Bertie is fed horror stories about how white men are kai-kai'd on Guadalcanar; he is given to understand that the cook on board his ship is stewing human flesh on the galley fire; he learns of the value of white men's heads; and at Reminge Plantation on Guadalcanar is fooled into believing he had been poisoned by native substances, incurable except by drinking large amounts of gin.
After this ordeal, Bertie insists on sailing immediately away from Guadalcanar and, until a steamer arrived is said to have stuck closely to the Commissioner's house.
NOTE: Hampton's Magazine had a circulation of 13,000 in 1906 and 444,000 in 1911. At its peak of popularity its authors included Jack London, O. Henry, Damon Runyon, and P.G. Wodehouse. Four of London's stories appeared in it: "Flush of Gold" (in the earlier incarnation, Hampton's Broadway Magazine), "The Terrible Solomons," "Mauki," and "The Strength of the Strong."
Another bitter Solomon Islands story, "Mauki" (Hampton's Magazine, December, 1909), is the tale of a son of a chief and "half-amphibian" from the Port Adams area of Malaita. This island is the most savage of the Solomon chain, the stamping ground of "blackbirders," labor recruiters who enslave natives to toil on plantations for a wage of $30 a year.
Mauki is 110-pound plum-black native with ears pierced for such items as a clay pipe, wooden plugs, rifle cartridges, horseshoe nails, braids of sennit, and the like. At age seven he was kidnapped by bushmen and became a slave in Malaita's bush villages, then when he was seventeen was turned over to a blackbirding gang for a half case of tobacco, some knives, axes, calico and beads, and taken aboard a schooner to toil three years on the plantations of the Moongleam Soap Co. on New Georgia, clearing jungle and cutting cane grass. He learned bêche-de-mer English (a type of pidgen), lived on sweet potatoes, and learned the ways of white men.
Mauki runs away, over and over, hoping to return home to Port Adams, but is always recaptured with time added to his labor sentence. He has over eight years of labor ahead of him when he is sent to Lord Howe, an atoll with a Melanesian populace of 5,000 ruled by a 200-pound, yellow-bearded German named Max Bunster, billeted there because the Moongleam Company does not know how to get rid of him.
Bunster is semi-mad, a bully and a coward, "a thrice-bigger savage than any savage on the island." The natives fear and hate him, even dogs and pigs get out of his way. Two of his wives are buried on the atoll from beatings he had given them.
Mauki must work for this degenerate brute as a cook and house-boy and from the start Bunster delights in his cruelty toward the native — striking him with his fist, burning him with a cigar, ripping the china cup handle from Mauki's nose, scalding him with hot coffee, using a mitten made from the skin of a rayfish (employed as a rasp to smooth down canoe braces and paddles) to rake the hide off Mauki's arms, trying to force him to betray his tambos (taboos), then beating him when he refuses.
Mauki begins planning on the day he will have his revenge and the time comes when the German falls ill with black-water fever. Mauki calmly packs his trade box with his few trinkets and places the rayfish-hide mitten on his hand.
“...a hideous, skinless thing...”"Bunster's first warning was a stroke of the mitten that removed the skin the full length of his nose," then Mauki flays the German alive for an hour of more as Bunster screams with each stroke. When finished, Mauki carries a boat compass, rifles and ammunition down to the cutter and "It was while engaged in this that a hideous, skinless thing came out of the house and ran screaming down the beach till it fell in the sand and mowed and gibbered under the scorching sun. Mauki looked toward it and hesitated. Then he went over and removed the head, which he wrapped in a mat and stowed in the stern-locker of the cutter."
At Port Adams he pays off his 8-1/2 year debt to the Moongleam Soap Co. for $750 in gold. As he waxes older and fatter and takes four wives, Mauki is especially proud of his collection of heads, including the one with sandy hair and yellowing beard kept wrapped in the finest of fibre lava-lavas. "The head is esteemed the most powerful devil-devil on Malaita, and to the possession of it is ascribed all of Mauki's greatness."
Another inevitable white man tale featuring an anonymous narrator is "Yah! Yah! Yah!" (Columbian Magazine, December, 1910) about a small, withered, 90-pound, cantankerous, whiskey-raddled Scotchman named McAllister of Oolong Atoll (at four degrees south latitude) who seldom drew a sober breath. This "cinder, a bit of a clinker of a man" ruled the atoll and its 5,000 inhabitants with an unheard-of power. The natives hated him and tried in vain to pray him to death with their devil-devils. He was never sick, never caught a fever or any of the vile skin diseases of the islands. "He must have been so saturated with alcohol as to defy the lodgment of germs," the nameless narrator says. "I used to imagine them falling to the ground in showers of microscopic cinders as fast as they entered his whiskey-sodden aura."
What was the secret of McAllister's rule? Oti, a native speaking bêche-de-mer English explains, telling of a time when his people were very proud, fought the white man many times and beat them; then 20-25 years past, a schooner came into the lagoon with five whites and forty blacks from New Guinea and New Britain, and Oti's people massacred them. But other white men came, these with dynamite, guns, and a mate that yelled "Yah! Yah! Yah!" as the whites rampaged through the villages, killing pigs and chickens and every man they saw, blew up their canoes, burned every house, and defiled the wells with dead bodies.
The natives were warned by the invaders that they would send a devil-devil so that the natives would never again feel like harming a white man. The devil-devil was in the form of six men who came ashore with measles and the disease spread until only 3,000 Otoo Atoll natives remained of the 25,000 before the inevitable white man came.
NOTE: Columbian Magazine (not to be confused with the 18th-century magazine, or that of the 1840s, bearing the same name) was a short-lived fifteen-cent New York monthly. The January, 1911, number, marked Vol. III, No. 4, seems to have been the penultimate issue. This story was London's only appearance in Columbian Magazine.
As inevitable as McAllister of Oolong Atoll is John Saxtorph of "The Inevitable White Man" (Bristol [England] Observer, May, 1910). This tale, employing one of London's favorite narrative devices, is told by a narrator who heard it from somebody else.
The story is told by Captain Woodward, skipper of the Savaii, a big steamer recruiting labor for the German plantations on Samoa. In the parlor of Charley Roberts's pub in Apia (capital of Samoa, located on the northern coast of Upolu Island), Woodward tells the tale to the narrator and Charley as they drink Abu Hameds prepared by Roberts "who claimed the recipe direct from Stevens. . .the Stevens who was responsible for 'With Kitchener to Kartoun,' and who passed out at the siege of Ladysmith."
(NOTE: The reference is to George Warrington Steevens, with three "e"s [1869 – 1900], a war correspondent who died of enteric fever during the siege of Ladysmith in the Boer War. His most famous book was With Kitchener to Khartoum (with an "m"). Abu Hamed, for which Charley Roberts' drink was named, was a town in the Sudan some 350 miles north of Khartoum.)
Woodward's story is of the time twenty years past when he was a mate on the big 150-ton blackbirding schooner Duchess out of Apia. On the schooner he met John Saxtorph, "a sandy little man, hair sandy, complexion sandy, and eyes sandy, too." He was, Woodward avows, "the stupidest man I ever saw, but he was inevitable as death."
Saxtorph was taken on the Duchess as a common sailor and failed at every task but was always cheerful, never seasick, willing but uncommunicative. His single talent was shooting and in this he defied belief.
At Malu in the Solomons the Duchess was attempting to recruit for the Samoan plantations and the schooner was swarming with natives. After the fifth day two boats left for shore leaving fifty natives loafing and smoking on deck with Saxtorph, Woodward and four other sailors aboard. Then gunshots echoed from shore, Woodward was knocked on the head and the natives on board began attacking the Duchess crewmen, hacking one to death and taking his head. Those in the boats were presumed dead. Woodward was about to be dismembered by a native with a cleaver when the attacker fell to the deck, blood gushing from his mouth.
Saxtorph was in the crosstrees with Winchester rifles and cartridge belts and banging away with an amazing rapidity of fire, never missing a target, making an appalling slaughter, killing natives on the deck, in the water as they tried to escape, and long shots picking off those reaching the shore.
In the end, Woodward said he and Saxtorph were the only crewmen left alive on the Duchess and managed to get the schooner to Sydney. He summed up his story: "Anyway, those niggers of Malu learned the everlasting lesson that it is not good to monkey with a white man. In their case, Saxtorph was certainly inevitable."
A socialistic parable set in prehistory, "The Strength of the Strong" (Hampton's Magazine, March, 1911), was composed in January, 1909, in Tasmania. London wrote Ninetta Eames (whom he addressed personally as "Mother Mine," and to magazine editors as "My California agent") that he had sent this story to Collier's Weekly as "a reply to Kipling's 'The Adventures of Melissa' which was published in Collier's and which is an attack on socialism." London's "reply" was submitted to Collier's, which apparently rejected it, then sent to Harper's, McClure's, Saturday Evening Post, Success, Everybody's, Cosmopolitan, Woman's Home Companion, Century, Red Book, American, Atlantic, Outing, Outlook, and twice to Hampton's. Finally Hampton's accepted it on January 28, 1911, paying the author $200.
The Kipling story London mentioned was originally titled "The Mother Hive" and appeared in the November 28, 1908, issue of Collier's and as "Adventures of Melissa" in the December, 1908, issue of the British Windsor Magazine. The story is a fable taking place in a beehive (melissa is Greek for honey bee) which, as Kipling authority John McGivering, co-author of A Kipling Dictionary (London: Macmillan, 1967), states, "preaches the need for steadfast disciplined defense against false 'progressive' ideas which endanger the very existence of the realm."
James I. McClintock, in Strong Truths (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1997) says London's parable depicts the rise of capitalism and predicts its fall, thereby attacking Kipling's defense of capitalism.
The parable (an allegorical story, usually brief, which teaches a religious lesson, moral lesson, or simple truth) is probably the least commercial prose literary form, explaining why, after publishing Kipling's beehive story, Collier's was not interested in following it up with London's "The Strength of the Strong." Parables are often boring, scarcely suitable for magazines of popular fiction; there have been few really good ones since the Biblical stories of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son.
In 1915, London wrote to Mary Austin, his writer-friend from Carmel days, telling of certain of his works that "failed to get across." Among these were The Sea-Wolf, Martin Eden, and "The Strength of the Strong. . . .an attack on ideas brought forth by Rudyard Kipling." Of this latter work, he wrote, "No one was in the slightest way aware of the point of my story."
It might be said that without guidance even fewer people today would in the slightest way get the point of the story.
The tale has Old Long Beard, eating bear meat in front of the cave of his people, telling his grandsons Deer-Runner, Yellow-Head, and Afraid-of-the-Dark, the history of their tribe from the time they moved from the cave to the tree in the Sea Valley, a time when "We were a very foolish crowd. We did not know the secret of strength."
There were thirty Fish-Eater families, he relates, with no combined strength, each living for itself in grass houses in the treetops with a pile of rocks to throw down on intruders such as the Meat-Eaters who lived across the divide. After a raid by the Meat-Eaters, the Fish-Eaters held their first council and formed their first tribe, adding their strength together, setting out sentries to watch for the Meat-Eaters, protecting the fishermen and women gathering roots and berries. They even made their first laws: killing the man who killed another, killing the man who stole another's wife, hanging the body of a killed main so that all could see it as a warning.
They elected a chief, Faith-Faith, made walls of stone to protect their grass houses, and planted wild corn. Other families came and joined the tribe.
Then land began being exchanged for corn and bearskins and fish and soon the land was gone. Then Faith-Faith died and his son Dog-Tooth became chief; then Twisted Lip rose in the tribe as shaman, talking of spirits; Big-Fat said he was the voice of God; Sea-Lion became the strongest in the tribe and the richest; and Bug became a singer of such songs as "Song of the Bees" which told of a robber wasp in a swarm of bees, the wasp stealing their honey and doing no work.
The council dissolved; shell money came into being, and the chief and his council members, who did no work, took a portion of all food and goods and grew fat and lazy on the work of others while the children of the tribe starved.
When Long-Beard's grandsons wondered why the folk didn't rise up and kill the chief and his lazy counselors they are told, "Because we could not understand. There was too much to think about, and, also, there were the guards sticking spears into us." Not to mention Big-Fat talking about God.
One of the tribe, Hair-Face, said, "Where is the strength of the strong?" and was killed because they agreed he was a wild man who wanted to go back to living in trees.
Then the Meat-Eaters came and attacked the weakened tribe and killed them, kidnaping the women, and only Bug and Long Beard escaped, hid in wild places and became hunters of meat. Bug eventually went to live with the Meat-Eaters and to be a singer of songs to the king.
Old Long Beard tells his grandsons, "Some day, all the fools will be dead and then all live men will go forward. The strength of the strong will be theirs, and they will add their strength together, so that of all the men of the world, not one will fight with another. . . .all men will be brothers, and no man will lie idle in the sun and be fed by his fellows. And all that will come to pass in the time when the fools are dead, and when there will be no more singers to stand still and sing the 'Song of the Bees.' Bees are not men."
|« View Series Index||
Copyright © 2008 by Dale L. Walker
|Jack London: The Stories|
|Home :: Biography :: Ranch Album :: Writings :: Links|