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Friday, May 25, 2018

Martin Eden (1909) by Jack London


Book Review
Martin Eden (1909)
by Jack London


  I read Martin Eden for the first time in 2004, part of a survey of early 20th century west-coast literature- Frank Norris is another example.   London is canonical in  his own right, a socialist version of Joseph Conrad and his south-sea adventure stories.  Unlike Conrad, London was appreciated in his own day, a genuine early 20th century literary celebrity.  Like many of the more daring early 20th century authors, London wasn't a prize winner in his day.  Generally speaking, literary prizes awarded prior to World War II have less influence on the contemporary canon.  What is more important is that said author is still read today, and here London, by virtue of his early arrival on the American West Coast, has staked a century long claim to be the author for early 20th century Pacific America.

  In that way, Martin Eden is his most unusual book, an honest to god Kunstlerroman, or narrative about the growth to maturity of an artist- the cousin of the more familiar Bildungsroman "coming of age" story.  Heavily steeped in the time and place of the narrative- early 20th century Oakland and San Francisco, London's working-class artist-hero takes in a set of influences unfamiliar to most contemporary readers.  To take any kind of interest in the intellectual discussions which permeate Martin Eden, you need to have a solid background late 19th century philosophy, for none of the characters are what you would call "cutting edge" in their reference points.

  Readers expecting the ripping yarns of London's more familiar books like Call of the Wild will find nothing here for them- just four hundred pages of an artist struggling for survival.  If on the other hand you are a fan of other Kunstlerroman's, like Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, or Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, you are likely to be delighted, even if you don't care for London's other books.

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