Reflections on Jack London’s Martin Eden

When I first picked up Jack London’s Martin Eden my first thought was of its being an inversion of his earlier The Sea-Wolf. Where that novel saw a cultured bourgeois plunged into the world of rough sailors and forced to survive in it, Martin Eden had a rough sailor plunged into the world of the cultured bourgeoisie and trying to survive in that. And certainly the novel is describable in such terms — and successful in such terms. Indeed, as a portrait of a working-class man coming into contact with “culture” the treatment of the eponymous character in Martin Eden is far, far more convincing and powerful than E.M. Forster’s handling of Leonard Bast in Howard’s End — the Bloomsbury crowd of which Foster was a part existing in a milieu so genteel that a persuasive image of a lower-class person was beyond the power of these “great” writers.

However, the novel is also much more than that, with perhaps its biggest surprise its being far and away the most realistic, and truthful, treatment of what it actually is to be a writer-of what it is like to write professionally, and of how society treats those who make the attempt, when they have not become “successful,” and when they have become “successful” — that I have ever encountered in literature, period; infinitely more truthful than the utter garbage with which hacks as ignorant as they are insincere, talentless and unskilled, but who got all the breaks in spite of that, fill up our books and screens (where being a writer consists of wearing a smug expression on one’s face as they autograph copies of their latest for starstruck fans), and the quite stupid lies with which the whole industries built around exploiting the dreams of authorship that pay far better than authorship ever did ceaselessly ply the public (summed up in five of the most insidious words in the English language, “You can do it too!”).

That truthfulness is in large part a matter of the fact that where those writers tend to be at their most stupid, cowardly and dishonest when dealing with the matter of publishing — with these usually what we see is a writer finishing a manuscript, or maybe just beginning it, and BAM!, there they are in that bookshop signing those copies — Jack London, who unlike those people who are not even relevant now is genuinely relevant over a century later because he was not stupid or cowardly or dishonest, faces up to the reality fully. He forthrightly acknowledges that it is one thing to write, another to get published, still another to actually make a living from getting published — with the second challenge, and still more the third, so immense as to make the problem of merely producing a piece of writing, even high quality writing, appear trivial by comparison, especially for those who approach that world as most do, from outside, as outsiders who do “not know any editors or writers,” or even “anybody who had ever attempted to write.” Indeed, where even the few who admit the existence of obstacles tend to pass over the struggle to surmount them in a few words here it is lengthily dramatized as the heart, meat, core of the days of Eden’s life during the period of the story, and treated not as the low comedy so many would make of it, but with the utmost — indeed, tragic — seriousness.

When Martin starts out, the very image of the neophyte, not only was there “nobody to tell him, to hint to him, to give him the least word of advice” about the rules. (Martin actually has to figure out for himself that he must type out the work rather than send it written in longhand — just one little reminder that, contrary to what certain Establishment idiots say, there is no “apprenticeship” to speak of in this process.) It was also the case that, submitting his work over and over and over again Martin “began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine . . . a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps.” Thus Martin

poured his soul into stories . . . [and] poems, and intrusted them to the machine. He folded them just so, put the proper stamps inside the long envelope along with the manuscript, sealed the envelope, put more stamps outside, and dropped it into the mail-box. It travelled across the continent, and after a certain lapse of time the postman returned him the manuscript in another long envelope, on the outside of which were the stamps he had enclosed.

It was just “like the slot machines wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing-gum,” with “the rejection slips . . . complet[ing] the horrible machinelikeness of the process . . . slips printed in stereotyped forms . . . he had received hundreds of them — as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts.” It is so dispiriting that he thinks to himself that “[i]f he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered,” but he never saw such a line, “not one editor . . . giv[ing] that proof of existence,” so that Martin “could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine.”

London shows us, too, the obscene amount of time taken up by that process of merely “feeding the machine” rather than actually writing, and the way that those supposedly small expenses of submission like postage add up, sufficiently so in his case to mean genuine hardship, with absolutely nothing to show for it — just one of many reasons why while he is at the effort there never seems to be time enough in the day, every other interest and pleasure getting crowded out. He shows us the confusion and frustration and sense of injustice the writer feels at seeing so much mediocrity and outright drivel in print, while work no worse and maybe much better gets only the cold contempt of those rejection slips. He shows us what happens when that writer turns their hand to nonfiction, and equally “pour[s] their soul” into it, regardless of what they can offer, the fact that they are a “nobody” rather than a “well-known specialist” retailing the conventionalities of their field makes what they have to say meaningless in any editor’s eyes — nothing that he does ever seeming to make any difference whatsoever, offer any escape from “the process” and its horrible and invariably disappointing “machinelikeness.”

Meanwhile, in the extreme opposite of those speeches in which tearful award-winners fulsomely give thanks to every person they have ever met in their entire lives for their unremitting support as they clutch their little statuettes, through it all no one supports Martin, no one believes in him, no one is interested. Those who at least attempt to be polite, like his sister, do not understand his work, let alone why he does it — what it means to him, why he cannot fit the square peg that is himself into the round holes society offers the vast majority of its members, why he cannot just reconcile himself to a workaday existence as his lot in life — just telling him to “get a job” (in spite of the fact that he is in no way living off of any of them, in no way a burden to them). Where in a more romanticized recounting of such a story the woman he loves would have been his sole support, here the woman he loves is like all the rest, and indeed more emphatic than all the rest in offering only disinterest and discouragement, endlessly trying to persuade him to give all this up and just “get a job.” (“Their highest concept of right conduct . . . was to get a job. That was their first word and their last. It constituted their whole lexicon of ideas. Get a job!” The reader with any sympathy or empathy for Martin quickly gets as sick as he does of hearing others say it to him — while his experience in the resort laundry underlines just how foolish and glib is so much of the talk about day jobs and writing in one’s “spare time.”)

No matter how hard he worked at his writing, he was in their view “lazy”; and no matter what he produced it did not matter if there was no sale, their respect for the judgments of editors total — and their respect for him the extreme opposite. The editors who may not have existed at all, the editors with their soul-crushing “cold-blooded, automatic, stereotyped” rejection slips — they must be right, no one trying to see things his way, no one taking his side any more than they share his enthusiasm, endlessly justifying the shabby and cruel way in which he is being treated.

The indifference of the world, the absolute failure of effort to improve his own lot, the disrespect with which his toil is treated, makes a cruel mockery of the middle-class verities about delayed gratification, hard work, and the rest — and while I suspect that few indeed get past the experience of the first half of the book, in which Martin has sold absolutely nothing, there is no less truth in the second half, in which Martin starts to make sales. There is how it may be a long time between that positive reply and actually getting the money promised — perhaps so long a time as “never.” There is the way that first little success or two, rather than a watershed, so frequently proves to be nothing of the kind, followed up by nothing else for a long time — and in that time that writer clings desperately to that tiny success too small to improve their situation in any way. If more checks come, eventually, the “old-time thrill at receiving” a check would be gone, for it would no longer be “pregnant with promise of great things to come,” just a bit of money that might let them pay a bill so that they can continue grinding along in poverty.

And there is in that a hint of how the long train of disappointments, the brutalization of it all, far from making the victory sweeter in the manner of the “uplifting,” aspirational garbage which Martin himself sees through early on, deprives later success of any sweetness it may have. Indeed, while stories of artists, fiction and nonfiction, always seem to me to become unreal when they tell of how they become “successful” — the grit and the texture of the early part of the story falling by the wayside as they seem to lose touch with reality, because in a sense they have (their head turned by what has happened to them, their self-awareness vanishing), there was for me palpable truth in that last act in which Martin genuinely does find success — when the material that had so often been insulted in the past inexplicably, suddenly, brings him large paydays. Where most in such a situation, in life as in fiction, think “At last my hard work and perseverance have paid off! At last my genius has been recognized!”

Martin, being a deeper thinker and more feeling human being, has a different reaction. The profound disconnect between the effort he put in and the quality of his work, and the way the world treats him, has swung from one extreme to the other, plays its part in destroying him. Thus does Martin think again and again in that last act about how when he was doing that celebrated work, when he had even finished that work, he received only contempt, now that he had riches and fame everyone sought after him, everyone honored him, because it was riches and fame they sought after and honored, not his work — this the “bourgeois valuation of a man” that has the bourgeoisie showering dinner invitations upon him. (Back when “he needed dinners, and went weak and faint for lack of them and lost weight from sheer famine . . . no one gave them to him, and now that he could buy a hundred thousand dinners . . . dinners were thrust upon him right and left.”) Indeed, the very Morses who had disdained his earlier, honorable courtship of their daughter, contrived against it and compelled her to break it off peremptorily at the first opportunity, were, now that he was a man of fortune, ready to pimp her to him (her brother Norman escorting her to Martin’s hotel, where she goes up to his room and lies about having defied her family to see him, offering him “free love” if that is all he will accept) in the ultimate commentary on what thinkers like London thought of the highly touted “bourgeois morality” in sex.

It all disgusts and demoralizes him. Everything he had believed in, his values and goals and accomplishments, are deprived of meaning — the admiration he felt for those who lived in what at the start seemed to him that higher, more beautiful world of not just material comfort but culture, the faith he had in his work and the possibility that others might value it as he did, the love he had for Ruth, or thought he had (Martin realizes in that shabby last meeting that he had loved “an idealized Ruth . . . an ethereal creature of his own creating, the bright and luminous spirit of his love-poems,” and never “[t]he real bourgeois Ruth, with all the bourgeois failings and with the hopeless cramp of the bourgeois psychology in her mind”) in the earlier part of the tale when he was, in regard to all these things, eons younger and more naive. The end of all that is the end of his capacity to create, which leaves him at an end, literally. “What does it profit a man to write a whole library and lose his own life?” Martin asked earlier in the narrative — but that is exactly the course he ends up following.

Indeed, thinking again of The Sea-Wolf I cannot help thinking of how in that book Humphrey Van Weyden, thrust into horrible circumstances aboard the ship the Ghost, managed to not just survive but triumph heroically. By contrast, Martin Eden (whom it would seem from the hints of his recollections of such episodes as his voyage on the John Rogers had himself survived horrors to compare with it), thrust into “bourgeois civilization,” failed to do so. Of course, this was most fundamentally a matter of London’s world-view, and especially his stance toward Nietzschean would-be superman-type individualism. It was not Humphrey who held such views, but the Ghost’s captain Wolf Larsen, who extraordinary a man as he was in mind, body and will, was utterly destroyed in the end by the falsity of the ideology by which he endeavored to live — as Martin Eden was to be, that would-be superman, even in excellent physical health under conditions of life that could only be called luxurious, unable to endure in a world deprived of all meaning for him. Yet it also seems to me a suggestion that, horrific as life aboard the Ghost was, it was in at least some critical way less vile than that world in which Martin made his way, his triumph in which proved his undoing.

And thinking of that I find myself remembering the other book I mentioned at the outset of this review, Forster’s Howard’s End. Where Howard’s End remains so esteemed that it is a byword for higher culture even for those who have never come within a million miles of actually reading Forster, most, in London’s own country, at least, seem to remember London mainly as a teller of animal stories — and it seems that this has more than a little to do with London’s truths being of a kind the opinion-making Establishment critics have not been prepared to accept, and indeed become less able to accept over time. This seems to me to validate EVERY SINGLE WORD London had to say about them in this book. Indeed, considering that fact it seems all the more fitting that one of Martin Eden’s themes is how little intellect is actually to be found among society’s designated intellectuals, how little culture among the designated cultured — and how much more of both these things can sometimes be found in working-class ghettoes than in the snobbish salons of the ever- middlebrow haute bourgeoisie.

Originally published at



Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.