Tuesday, February 14, 2012

475. Martin Eden – Jack London

History: This book was published in 1909. This book is a favorite among writers, who relate to Martin Eden's speculation that when he mailed off a manuscript, 'there was no human editor at the other end, but merely a cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps,' returning it automatically with a rejection slip. The central theme of Martin Eden's developing artistic sensibilities puts the novel in tradition of the Künstlerroman genre, in which is narrated the formation and development of an artist.
While some readers believe there is some resemblance between them, an important difference between Jack London and Martin Eden is that Martin Eden rejects socialism(attacking it as 'slave morality'), and relies on a Nietzschean individualism.
When Jack London wrote Martin Eden at age 33, he had already achieved international acclaim with The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf and White Fang. However, London quickly became disillusioned with his fame and set sail through the South Pacific on a self-designed ketch called the Snark. On the grueling two-year voyage—as he struggled with tiredness and bowel diseases—he wrote Martin Eden, filling its pages with his frustrations, adolescent gangfights and struggles for artistic recognition. The character of Ruth Morse was modelled on Mabel Applegarth — the first love of London's life
Plot: Living in Oakland at the dawn of the 20th century, Martin Eden struggles to rise far above his destitute proletarian circumstances through an intense and passionate pursuit of self-education in order to achieve a coveted place among the literary elite. The main driving force behind Martin Eden's efforts is his love for Ruth Morse. Because Eden is a rough, uneducated sailor from a working class background, and the Morses are a bourgeois family, a union between them would be impossible until he reaches their level of wealth and perceived cultural, intellectual refinement.
Just before the literary establishment discovers Eden’s talents as a writer and lavishes him with the fame and fortune that he had incessantly promised Ruth (for the last two years) would come, she loses her patience and rejects him in a wistful letter: "if only you had settled down...and attempted to make something of yourself." When the publishers and the bourgeois—the very ones who shunned him—are finally at his feet, Martin has already begrudged them and become jaded by unrequited toil and love. Instead of enjoying his success, Eden retreats into a quiet indifference, only interrupted to mentally rail against the genteelness of bourgeois society or to donate his new wealth to working class friends and family.
The novel ends with Martin Eden committing suicide by drowning, a detail which undoubtedly contributed to the 'biographical myth' that Jack London's own death was a suicide.
Joan London noted that "ignoring its tragic ending," the book is often regarded as "a 'success' story...which inspired not only a whole generation of young writers but other different fields who, without aid or encouragement, attained their objectives through great struggle.
Review: Social class—and Eden's perceptions of it—is a very important theme in the novel. Eden is a sailor from a working class background, who feels uncomfortable but inspired when he first meets the bourgeois Morse family. Spurred on by his love for Ruth Morse, he embarks on a program of self-education, with the aim of becoming a renowned writer and winning Ruth's hand in marriage. As his education progresses, Eden finds himself increasingly distanced from his working class background and surroundings. Notably, he is repelled by the hands of Lizzie Connolly, who works in a cannery. Eventually, when Eden finds that his education has far surpassed that of the bourgeoisie he looked up to, he finds himself more isolated than ever. Paul Berman observes that Eden’s inability to reconcile his "past and present" versions—"a wealthy Martin of the present who is civilized and clean, and a proletarian Martin of the past who is a fistfighting barbarian"—causes his descent into a delirious ambivalence
Opening Line: “The one opened the door with a latch-key and went in, followed by a young fellow who awkwardly removed his cap.”
Closing Line: “And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.”
Quotes: “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
Rating: Good

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