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Jack London: The Stories
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The woe of an aspiring genius.

Part II of a Series
by Dale L. Walker

JACK LONDON'S first published story (actually a personal essay), "Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan," appeared in the San Francisco Morning Call on November 2, 1893. For reasons baffling to me, this story seems to be underappreciated by London's biographers, critics, and commentators, some of whom have failed to appreciate the astonishing gift on display in this "sketch," as they erroneously categorize it.

(Irving Stone wrote the best appraisal of it in Sailor on Horseback the 1938, calling it "fresh and vigorous after the passage of forty-five years," and commenting on its vivid imagery, rhythmic prose and elements of suspense.)

"Story of a Typhoon," it must be remembered, was written by a 17-year-old boy with a grammar school education who has just returned from a sealing expedition to the Sea of Japan on the three-masted schooner Sophia Sutherland. Those facts alone should capture our attention. But the story! It is a work of such breathtaking maturity it gives new meaning to that shopworn phrase, "born storyteller."

Read such passages as these:

Huge gulls rose slowly, fluttering their wings in the light breeze and striking their webbed feet on the surface of the water for over half a mile before they could leave it. Hardly had the patter, patter died away when a flock of sea quail rose, and with whistling wings flew away to windward, where members of a large band of whales were disporting themselves, their blowings sounding like the exhaust of steam engines. . . .

The wildly dancing movements of the sea lamp cast a pale, flickering light through the fo'castle and turned to golden honey the drops of water on the yellow oilskins. In all corners dark shadows seemed to come and go, while up in the eyes of her, beyond the pall bits, descending from deck to deck, where they seemed to lurk like some dragon at the cavern's mouth, it was dark as Erebus. . . .The roar of the wind through the rigging came to the ear muffled like the distant rumble of a train crossing a trestle or the surf on the beach, while the loud crash of the seas on her weather bow seemed almost to rend the beams and planing asunder as it resounded through the fo'castle. . . .

The sea was a dark lead color as with long, slow, majestic roll it was heaped up by the wind into liquid mountains of foam.

How many 17-year-olds, in 1893 or 2004 could think, much less write such lines?

Name another American writer who, at such an age, wrote so well.

Where did young Jack, working at a kitchen table with tablet and pencil, find the instinct for such luminous similes and metaphors as that of the whales' blowing "sounding like the exhaust of steam engines"; shadows that "seemed to lurk like some dragon at the cavern's mouth"; the roar of wind through the rigging that "came to the ear muffled like the distant rumble of a train crossing a trestle"; the flickering light through the fo'castle that "turned to golden honey the drops of water on the yellow oilskins"?

What teenage maturity told him to include some seagoing language -- pall bits, fo'castle, weather bow -- that the average reader could not translate but which added a sense of a sailor and his ship to his story?

What other 17-year-old could describe with such a literary grasp the coming of the typhoon near Cape Jerimo -- the angry sun, the falling barometer, the swelling winds and rolling seas -- and combine it so deftly with the death of the bricklayer and the sewing of his corpse in canvas for sea burial?

And that last quoted sentence above -- The sea was a dark lead color. . .: What writer who ever lived would not be proud to have composed it? Had he wrote it or read it, Melville would have leaned back in his chair and smiled.

In the six years following this stunning debut story, London served an apprenticeship of sorts in the Oakland High School literary magazine The High School Aegis and wrote other stories as well, a few of which were published. But he would not rise to the level of "Story of a Typhoon" until publication of "To the Man on Trail" in the Overland Monthly.

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All of London's Aegis stories are remarkable in that, while falling short of the promise shown in "Story of a Typhoon," they show a maturing writer working diligently and tenaciously at his craft.

"'Frisco Kid's Story" (Aegis, 15 February 1895) is mawkish and sentimental, a lesson in bathos and in how not to handle dialect (that is, by employing an abundance of it). "Frisco" is a road kid telling of yellow-haired Charley -- "He wuz so pritty an' innisent like, jest as if he wuz a girl" -- who drowns in an undertow leaving behind a ring and a locket which the Kid returns to the boy's father.

In "And 'Frisco Kid Came Back" (Aegis, 4 November 1895), again has too awkward a use of dialect, and as much, if not more, the sentimentality of its prequel. The Kid is down on his luck and tells a tale of woe: how his pious mother died of a broken heart, his father from booze, and how his adoptive parents ("Dey wuz too good for me," the Kid says) tried to prevent the influences that were "corruptin' de good morals uv dere son."

A much maturer tale is "Sakaicho, Hona Asi and Hakadaki" (Aegis, 19 April 1895), one of the three stories set in Japan London wrote in these apprenticeship years. In a sad but unsentimental narration in which an American sailor tells of the tragic circumstances of Sakaicho, a Yokohama jin-riksha man, his wife Hona Asi, and his only son Hakadaki, age 10. After a neighborhood fire kills Sakaicho's wife and son the sailor returns to his ship. "Though five thousand miles of heaving ocean now separate us," he says, "never will I forget Sakaicho and Hona Asi, nor the love they bore their son Hakadaki."

"A Night's Swim in Yeddo Bay" (Aegis, 27 May 1895) is a solid tale told in a Yokohama saloon by Long Charlie, a grizzled merchant seaman, on how he got drunk and swam a mile out to his ship. Police and his shipmates think he has drowned and search the bay for his body while Charlie is asleep in his bunk. London captures nicely the "voice" of Long Charlie and in a brief space builds the sailor's character through the first-person narration -- not an easy task even for a veteran fiction writer. (Another version of this story was "In Yeddo Bay," published in St. Nicholas in February, 1903.)

“London had learned of astral forms and the empyrean at his mother's knee...”

Who Believes in Ghosts! (Aegis, 21 October 1895) is a haunted house tale concerning Chaldean necromancy, psychic forces, and astral forms being discussed with exhausting erudition by Damon Van Buster, somebody called "Pythias," and George and Fred (no last names), the latter a medical student "deep in Gray's Anatomy." They spend a night in the Birchall mansion where Pythias and Damon play chess. During the game Damon is possessed by an evil spirit and tries to throttle Pythias. It happens that a murder had taken place in the old mansion many years before between an uncle and nephew playing the same game of chess.

For all its one-dimensional characters, its pseudo-intellectualizing and high-flown vocabulary, the story has some interesting features. The mention of Trilby, George du Maurier's 1894 novel of a singer who falls under the spell of the Hungarian musician Svengali, and Monsieur Lecoq (1869) by Emile Gaboriau, father of the detective story, might tell us of books that were on London's leisure time reading list. (He did like detective fiction, read Poe and later Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures).

Even more interesting to me were two dialogue passages in the story. In one, London has George saying, "Remember that in every time, in every land, and in every people, there have been and there are many who did believe in the soul's return after death. Can you, with this great mass of evidence staring you in the face, say that it is all the creation of diseased brains and abnormal imaginations?" In the second, Damon states, "the position I always assume when dealing with the unknown, I neither affirm nor deny. . . .I do not know, but would like to know."

"He had read Ouida and Longfellow by the time he wroteOne More Unfortunate..."

The first sounds like something Jack heard his mother say, and the second sounds like young Jack expressing what would become a lifelong philosophical tenet, as when he insisted that he always sought "the fact, the irrefragable fact."

He had read Ouida and Longfellow by the time he wrote "'One More Unfortunate'" (Aegis, 18 December 1895), his last fiction contribution to the magazine and a much more ambitious story than the others. The unnamed violin genius of the story plays in a tawdry music hall "filled with workmen, sailors, longshoremen, toughs -- the scum of the metropolis." He has attempted, against all odds, to reach for the stars. He has scribbled music on paper "as had Signa of yore," has read "that beloved book of Signa" and "trod with conquering step to fame..." He follows the plow for a time then takes his little store of money, bids goodbye to his boyhood home, and "learned more of the world he had aspired to conquer, and found the ladder to fame a colossal structure, whose very shadow awed, and against whose base was crushed the throng that struggled for a footing."

He has some small success but falls ill; then, we learn in a superb line, "like an unavailing mother holding a dying child to her dry breasts, he felt the art growing cold within him."

Ultimately he dies -- at least we presume he dies -- a suicide at the waterfront docks, murmuring lines from a Longfellow poem:

The sea is still and deep;

All things within its bosom sleep;

A single step and all is o'er;

A plunge, a bubble and no more.

A plunge, a bubble and no more.

The story, which presages the suicidal disappointments of Martin Eden, is a reverse twist on a book that London loved all his life, Signa (1875) by the English novelist Marie Louise de la Ramée, who wrote under the penname "Ouida." In Signa, an Italian son of a peasant girl and an artist, rises to eminence as a violinist. In young Jack's dark version, summed up in the line, "The woe of an expiring genius," the nameless musician ends his life as a "gloom-enshrouded form that stands above the turbid tide," and takes that "single step."

The six pieces of fiction he wrote for the Aegis (none of which would shame any writer, in 1895 or today, looking back on his youthful authorship) must have made his classmates and teachers wonder how Johnny learned to write to well so young.

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Of the stories that languished unpublished in the pre-Overland Monthly period of London's apprenticeship, "O Haru" is as special a case as "Story of a Typhoon." It was written in 1897, before London began keeping records of his work, and therefore we have no idea as to which periodicals he sent it, but this haunting tale of a geisha of samurai blood was probably too daring for any magazine or newspaper of the era. (These lines alone would have been considered salacious: "Her bust was that of a maid's -- no full suggestion of luscious charms beneath the soft fold of her kimono -- rather the chaste slimness of virginity.")

O Haru loves the ambitious but penniless Toyotomi, also of the samurai class, who sails across the sea to the "white barbarians," promising to return to marry her. She waits ten years, saving her earnings and saving herself for Toyotomi. They marry but he has become a surly drunk, spends her fortune, forcing her to dance again, beats her and insults her fading beauty.

She commits hara-kiri during a dance at a tea house.

London's treatment of the tragedy of O Haru is a flawed exercise (he is unsure of who is telling the tale) but a powerful one nonetheless and after a halting opening, the story flows like a kabuki drama.

"The Mahatma's Little Joke," also written in 1897, was unpublished for good reason: it doesn't make sense. Also, it is filled with the impenetrable gibberish of the supernatural that rendered "Who Believes in Ghosts!" unreadable. The mahatma of the title, is helping Jack and Charley learn about their prospective brides (each is courting the other's sister) by offering to "tear your astral form from its sublunary habitation and send it gasping through the empyrean." To do this, says the mahatma, "I have merely to separate your astral forms from your bodies; then to return them, each into the others' corporosity. Thus: the spirit personality of Jack shall inhabit and actuate the material personality of Charley and vice a versa."

London had learned of astral forms and the empyrean at his mother's knee but could never translate such occult esoterica into good fiction.

"Two Gold Bricks" appeared in the Boston-based fiction magazine The Owl in September, 1897, while its author was in the Klondike. It is a clever and amusing tale of a confidence game involving an Edison cylinder-phonograph.

Another 1897 experiment, which was submitted to Harper & Brothers, Century Magazine and Scribner's, but subsequently "retired," was "The Strange Experience of a Misogynist." The woman-hater in the title is a "crusty young bachelor" who writes poetry, condescends to devote "an occasional hour" to "literary drudgery," and is a member of a psychological society. He has a dream, "striking from a psychological standpoint," in which a young girl sings the the song Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking what a good thing it would be, If the women were transported, far beyond the northern sea. He awakes one morning to find the morning paper announcing, "The femininity of the earth is no more! All the female species have disappeared!. . . .Woman, the one great inciting force of man is gone. The one gauge of man's morality, of man's ideality, of man's nobility, is gone. O mourn, ye sons of earth! Cry out in blackest despair!"

As a result of this calamity, life and property are no longer sacred, the criminal classes are flying at the throat of society, there is starvation and anarchy, shoes go unpolished, clothes unbrushed. There is Hell on earth!

But it is a dream and when the misogynist awakens he kisses his landlady and goes off to propose to a girl he had heretofore liked, but only platonically.

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"Write from experience" has been a commonplace principle in the craft of fiction since the craft was born. The "experience" means all of life's experiences: day-to-day incidents; the interaction of family and friends; people, places and things encountered and observed; thoughts, ideas, dreams -- all the tangibles and intangibles forming that immense tangled mass of experience that teems in the brain of every human.

Even in his youthful fiction, London wrote from experience, did so, in truth, all his writing life -- so much so he remains the most autobiographical writer of his time.

There is danger in drawing too definitive a picture of a writer from his writings but it is worth noting the London "experiences" reflected in these first eleven stories:

"Story of a Typhoon," "Sakaicho, Hona Asi and Hakadaki," "A Night's Swim in Yeddo Bay," and "O Haru" are drawn from his seven-month voyage on the sealing schooner Sophia Sutherland in 1893. (And in "A Night's Swim" he might have drawn on his own near-fatal swim, while drunk, across the Carquinez Straits in San Pablo Bay in 1891).

The 'Frisco Kid vignettes have their origins in the "Road kids" London knew from the rough streets of Oakland, in his cannery, jute mill, and oyster pirating days, and in his tramping and riding boxcars across the country with Kelly's Army in 1894.

The supernatural elements of "Who Believes in Ghosts!" and "The Mahatma's Little Joke" certainly derive from his mother's, Flora Wellman's, influence. (She was a spiritualist who conducted séances in their home.)

"'One More Unfortunate'" clearly stemmed from his reading Signa and "Two Gold Bricks" was probably suggested by something London read about Edison's new-fangled phonograph.

There are touches of socialistic thought in "'One More Unfortunate'"; a hint of psychology in "The Story of a Misogynist" (although Freud's first book, a study of hysteria, was published in 1895, London did not begin a serious reading of his work until about 1912); drunkenness in "And 'Frisco Kid Came Back," "A Night's Swim," and "O Haru."

And is it too much a stretch to speculate that "The Strange Experience of a Misogynist" might have something to do with young Sailor Jack's disappointments in love? Love for Haydee, the girl he met at a Salvation Army meeting (as he describes in John Barleycorn)? Love for Mabel Applegarth, the beautiful and cultivated sister of Jack's high school chum Ted Applegarth?

Haydee haunted him, as did Mabel, who subsequently served as the model for Ruth Morse in Martin Eden. She and Jack remained only friends, that terrible fate of the one-sided love affair.

These lost loves might well have made Jack a misogynist -- if but briefly.

Note: To read any or all stories named in this series, see the "Read stories" link which provides an alphabetized list. Click on any story and read the entire text.
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