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Martin Eden

(5 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 31, 5 August 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Martin Eden
by Jack London
Penguin Books reprint, New York, 1946, 346 pp. 25 cents

One of the most pronounced traits of Jack London was his vigor, his energy, his sheer love of life. He regarded realism as a way of writing which permits a writer to reveal this love of living. And this trait of his is significantly embodied in his novel, Martin Eden.

As is commonly known, this novel has an autobiographical basis. It is the story of a young man of the working class who suddenly discovers the world of ideas and the world of art and poetry. As London has observed, Martin Eden’s mind had long lain fallow, and because of this, Martin was all the more responsive, the more excited, the more eager to learn. The novel deals with Martin Eden’s struggle to learn, and to write, and, at the same time, with his love for a bourgeois girl, Ruth Morse. As such, it involves class relationships presented on the plane of personal experiences, and bound up with a story of love.

Social-Darwinist Theory

London was influenced by Herbert Spencer, by Nietzsche, and by Marx. His novels are one of the reflections of the current of thought, known as Social Darwinism, which exerted such a pervasive influence in America in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and in the earlier part of this century. Martin Eden can be described as a novel of Social Darwinism. The hero, Martin, is subjected to a process of social adaptation and struggle. Motivated by his love for a girl, and his eagerness to learn and to write, he is successively exposed to disappointments, frustrations, poverty. Not only must he learn how to write, but he must even learn the simple rules of etiquette and manners.

When he first enters the bourgeois home of the Morse family, he does not know how to walk in a comfortable room, nor how to use a knife and fork. The problem of survival and with that, the problem of adaptation, are posed for him on the social plane. Martin is an eager, powerful and honest giant of a youth, bursting with health and vigor. Temperamentally and physically, he is admirably suited to survive. His struggle to survive; his disillusionment in love which is a consequence of the bourgeois values of his sweetheart; his experiences in trying to write for bourgeois magazines—all results in his developing a profound melancholia.

Success comes too late to be meaningful. He becomes a famous writer overnight, but he is treated like a matinee idol, and looking down on all of this from the standpoint of his adopted attitude of the Nietzschean Superman, he rejects it. In the end, he quotes Swinburne, and commits suicide.

London’s Dual Insights

The insights of London in Martin Eden are dual in character. On the one hand, there are sound and sharply observed insights into the social aspects of class relationships and class differentiations: on the other hand, there are insights which are bound up with Nietzschean and Social Darwinian attitudinizations. Martin Eden’s melancholia has the character of being derived too much from this second type of insight. In this way the element of attitudinization plays too strong a role in the-motivation of his suicide. It is not a necessary suicide, and in this sense, is not deeply tragic.

However, there are many parts of this novel which still have a suggestively contemporary aspect. The problems of Martin as an aspiring writer are, at the same time, the problems of any eager and ambitious youth of the working class who wants to learn, to grow in his own inner life. And if seen from such a standpoint, it should become clear that Martin Eden is a work containing truly prophetic insights. Just as London revealed such prophetic grasp into the mechanisms of capitalism in his novel, The Iron Heel; here he revealed parallel insights into the nature of bourgeois society in terms of social relationships. Martin Eden will more than stand comparison with many contemporary novels. It is one of important works of twentieth century American fiction.

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