Freedom & Responsibility, Literary and Musical Review

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Apologies.. I can’t help it. Seems I always find my way to the point from which I recognize that the only thing that matters is what I think about it, and here it is: I stumbled on to Jack London at 8 years of age. It was in the midst of a Mark Twain frenzy. (I was much more intelligent at the age of 8 than I am today). Jack London’s Call of the Wild reached out to me from my father’s library (with my father’s help, as I recall), and my love of Jack London began. My initial reaction was from somewhere in the same neighborhood as the one I see people reporting after having read scripture. A kind of an “Oh my God! This is true!” sort of thing. Jack London took a firm grasp on the soul of an 8 year old boy which 50 years later remains unscathed.

Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf, Burning Daylight, all read in awe by the son of a hunting, fishing, trapper who lived and breathed personal freedom. The power and majesty of London’s hero characters were inescapable. These were tales of independence, adaptation, defiance and the mastery achievable by the power of individual will. At 8 years old I recognized the independent love of which London spoke between Buck and Thornton. A love that was is a natural truth many human beings never comprehend. It was a love that lived London’s soul and he breathed it into the pages he wrote. Those pages breathe the soul of Jack London into the heart of heart of the reader. In this case, twas me.

In later years I began hearing of interesting aspects of London’s personality. One’s mate should be selected by good breeding, not love? Stories of drugs, alcohol and suicide. And most astounding to me, his anti-capitalist, socialist bent.  Jack London, one of the first celebrities used to endorse commercial products, such as grape juice and men’s suits. A man who made a personal fortune, on his own. A man who took life by the balls and lived the dream most aren’t capable of even imagining. Jack London opposed capitalism? Now wait a minute! Here’s a mystery.

It wasn’t until the tender old age of fifty-something that I stumbled onto “The Handsome Cabin Boy.” Being the musician that I am, it was the name of the story which caught my eye. “The Handsome Cabin Boy?” Wasn’t that Jerry Garcia? Kate Bush? Roger McGuinn? No wait, it goes even deeper, further back, Martin Carthy, John Roberts, Aberdeen’s Jeannie Robertson (one of the greatest ballad singers of all times). Ah, still further it goes. Indeed, “The Handsome Cabin Boy” is the tale told by a traditional folk ballad coming from many years before London wrote his tale.

The traditional folk ballad has an interesting history. It usually includes certain aspects of life most are taught to avoid. Crime, booze, drugs, sexual adventure, wealth. Ballads tell colorful tales and carry messages of the rewards these culturally inappropriate behaviors can deliver to the unwary. In this case we have a common sailor’s dream that among the crew is a girl dressed as a boy. In the ballads based on this fantasy it’s always an officer, typically the captain who discovers the girl’s identity, thus the plight of the pregnant cabin “boy” would be seen as tragic from the girl’s point of view. Yet to sailors and those of any type similar (male), the power of the tale is comedic. Oh my goodness! They’s a gal on board. I’ll be damned, the cabin boy’s a girl! How convenient and boy howdy!

The actual possibility of such a turn is not all that far fetched. A girl in pursuit of some real adventure, wanting to see the world, wanting to touch the life the boys lead, trying on the testicles, as it were. Quite believable, and what could more natural than slipping into the position of “cabin boy” for a young lady with such ambitions? No problem, I can do that. And then the adventure begins. The original ballads end up with the cabin boy becoming pregnant  at the hands.. well.. something, of someone in the crew, and thus the folk, “mind yer damn p’s ‘n q’s” lesson is delivered. The little wench is undone by childbirth. The boy is a girl after all, and now a pregnant girl to boot, and hundreds of miles from home. What is such a poor, unfortunate girl to do?

It’s all well and good, and fascinating it its own way, but what is an adventurous young gentleman hanging out in the Klondike, writing tales of wolves, dogs, mushers, miners, indians, mountaineers, ice, snow, cold, gold and the lack of matches, doing writing a tale, right in the midst of it all, about a girl pretending to be a cabin boy on a trip to Hawaii? Knowing London’s interest in the sea and his adventurous nature, it’s no surprise that he was aware of the old folk ballad itself. In fact London actually mentioned the ballad as one of the Klondikers’ songs in his tale, “In a Far Country.” But to write this particular tale at all, let alone at the time he did?

London ends up generating his own literary version of the old folk ballad, but he spices it up more than a bit, with a new added twist which totally disrupts the traditional folk lesson told in the original ballad. Rather than, “Don’t board a ship pretending to be a boy, girl, er you might end up far from home and pregnant,” changes quite dramatically into something more akin to, “You know it all eh? A girl’s a girl, ‘n a lad’s a lad ‘n don’t tell me I can’t tell the difference? Well try this, you not only lose your bet, you fall in love with a girl, pretending to be a boy, who actually IS a boy. You are in love with a boy and you owe me dinner, and aren’t you the wise one? The captain of what?”

This is indeed outside the norm for Jack London. We don’t have the powerful individualism, the successful against all odds characterizations, no wolves, no dogs, no sleds, no Nietzschean supermen, but we do catch a glimpse of the ambivalence of nature presented with a magnificently comedic flair.  In my head I see a film version with John Cleese playing the role of the yachtsman, “my arm had strayed in forbidden pastures too often to be mistaken now.” (London)

Almost half a century after an 8 year old boy discovered Jack London, he now finds himself as an aging ex-biker, a rebel who’s been just outside the realm of “normalcy” for near half a century, now enrolled in a university class, studying London’s work. Searching for the true root of the man’s majesty. He has recently attended a Jack London symposium and doubts Jack London would have foreseen a Jack London symposium being held in Logan Utah in 2012 which would be attended by academics from far and wide. Notably, one thing which became out repeatedly from speakers and attendees at this symposium, was that Jack London was and remains something of a mystery to us all.

I finally read “The Handsome Cabin Boy” forty-nine years after I had first discovered London’s magic in “The Call of the Wild.” “Cabin Boy,” written well over 100 years ago opened my eyes  not only to the very root of Jack London’s personal power, but it also delivered, to me at least, the thinly veiled answer to the Jack London mystery.  I was finally awakened to the method in his madness. Many saw in this tale more Jack London mystery, “”The Handsome Cabin Boy” is not a very good story, but it certainly is another piece in the puzzle of Jack London’s sexuality” (Smith). A statement marvelously illustrative of a dull mind which is certainly worthy, even if incapable, of embarrassment. This statement was also fairly typical of the comments I was able to locate from widely scattered quarters.

So here it is.  Jack London the result of the same impetus that drove all London’s deliveries. It is the “nature” that drove him out of the factories and waterfront dives of Oakland California. It was the same “nature” that drove him into oyster piracy, that drove him to the Klondike during the Alaskan gold rush, drove him to the sea aboard his own custom-built sailing ship, the Snark, drove him to support the underdogs in society, drove him to farm, drove a boy with an eighth grade education to write a thousand words a day and find fame and fortune in his pen.

“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 proper function of man is to live, not exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.” Would that I had mouthed that before a group of my radical, biker friends at a gathering in South Dakota, but no, I must hobble on remembering that was Jack London’s “Credo.” Socialism, naturalism, ativism, irreligion, individualism… These were the teeth of a rebel, and that, by God,  is what Jack London was.

To Jack London

Oh, was there ever face, of all the dead,

In which, to late, the living could not read

A mute appeal for all the love unsaid–

A mute reproach for careless word and deed?

And now, dear friend of friends, we loke on thine,

To whom we could not give a last farewell,–

On whom, without a whisper or a sign,

The deep, unfathomable Darkness fell.

Oh! Gone beyond us, who shall say how far?

Gone swiftly to the dim Eternity,

Leaving us silence, or the words that are

To sorrow as the foam is to the sea.

Unfearing heart, whose patience was so long!

Unresting mind, so hungry for the truth!

Now hast thou rest, gentle one and strong,

Dead like a lordly lion in its youth.

Farewell! although thou know not, there alone.

Farewell! although thou hear not in our cry

The love we would have given had we known.

Ah! And a soul like thine-how shall it die?

~George Sterling (Sterling)

Suicide? I rather suspect not!

Works cited

London, Jack. “Jack London’s Credo.” London Sonoma Edu. london.sonoma.edu. Sonoma State University. 1999. Web. 24 Nov. 2012

—. “The Handsome Cabin Boy.” The Complete Stories of Jack London. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1998. 164. Print.

Smith, Daniel P. “Pricey But Worth It.” Amazon Prime. Amazon.com, Aug. 2000. Web. 24 Nov. 2012

Sterling, George. “To Jack London.” George Sterling. George Sterling.org, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2012

The Handsome CabinPerson

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Freedom & Responsibility, Literary and Musical Review

Sincere of the Sin

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Does “The Strength of the Strong” reveal the answer to the question of Jack London’s true philosophical perspectives? Marxist? Socialist? Individualist? We know what he claimed, but but what were his actual core principles? Did he know or even understand it himself? This question is reflected in his response to Rudyard Kipling’s anti-socialist, “The Mother Hive,” this story clearly illustrates the very challenge in which London’s own professed philosophy of socialism is bound. The greatest hurdle socialism faces is that It must exist under the helm of human nature. Rather than pointing out the flaws in Kipling’s work, London muddies the very waters he is defending by pointing instead at the natural weaknesses of humanity. “The Strength of the Strong” has been called “A ridiculously lame story … Social Darwinism at its silliest.” (Tidwell) which in fact, it is anything but. “The Strength of the Strong” actually challenges much of what we take for granted as the structure of family and community. Nevertheless the attitude Tidwell is not rare and it is understandable because Tidwell, as have many, missed the point, which is not Darwinism. The point of “The Strength of the Strong” is actually the weakness of all humanity, which is its nature.

The silly social darwinism seen by Tidwell and others is actually the product of London’s creative genius. In this story Jack London has constructively applied his true genius as he captured human nature and gave his readers a very comprehensible and relatable reference point to the naturalistic world he loved. It is much more than a hat-tip to Darwin, in one very short story London has painted a quintessential picture of the ever rotating history of humanity which includes human nature, roots, trunk, and branches, spiced with the ultimate and ever present humanitarian condiment, a god.

Ironically the very magazine which published the tale, Collier’s Weekly, was put out of business in a manner quite reminiscent of the destruction of civility the reader sees in “The Strength of the Strong.” The strong (capitalists) consuming what is perceived as an infection (truth) using various techniques (religion, shortages, market floods, and mendacious control) which remind one of the tactics used by the American industrial oligarchies, during London’s day, and pursuers of tyrannical power throughout recorded time. It could have been another paragraph in London’s story which still would not promote socialism so much as it focusses it’s crosshairs on unregulated capitalism, which was indeed the reign of the day during the progressive era during which London lived. Unregulated capitalism which brought the response of unionism, which many believe is currently destroying the U.S. free market and free enterprise in America as production moves to foreign shores and domestic businesses crumble (Hostess being a recent example).

Long-Beard (Marx?) never does let go of the dream. After the evodevolution of his society he predicts to his children as they converse in their cave, a time “all men will be brothers and no man will lie idle in the sun and be fed by his fellows.” (London) He attributes the social failure to “the fools” which indeed, unfortunately and historically humanity, outside of its words, tends to be.

In the end, the strength of the strong is all that really matters.

“We must take human nature as we find it, perfection falls not to the share of mortals.” ~George Washington

Works Cited

London, Jack. “The Strength of the Strong.” Hampton’s Magazine. Vol. 26, Mar. 1911: UP. Print.

Tidwell, Gregory. “Science Fiction of Jack London, The by London, Jack, 1901.” Omphalos’ SF Book Reviews (NPR). Sept. 24 2012. Web. Nov. 2012

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Freedom & Responsibility, Literary and Musical Review

The Call of the Wild Is Jack London?

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Message to my American Authors Professor:

Am I What I Am or What?

Good gravy..  If you get two of these, ignore the first one. Yes, the one you already read.. unless you didn’t already read it, in which case all is well…  well.

Since time can’t exist, neither can it be frittered away.. I suppose… Still, the bus ride home seems an eternity.
Some things need to be said most when one knows not to whom to say them. I am the guy who fights cocks, hunts.. well.. everything, runs hounds, climbs impossible mountains, skis the chutes, builds and rides choppers, drinks lots of Irish whiskey and Scotch, and so on, then gets his leg tore off, his brain scrambled, and says, “fuck you!” to the rescuing EMTs. Not that much of a touchie-feelie kind of guy… and proud of it! However, I find myself sitting in a classroom full of children, thinking about Buck, and straining every fibre of my being to keep from weeping like a damn baby.
Call of the Wild is the finest work of art to ever go on paper. What London had was “soul.” There are magnificent musicians by the bundles, but when you listen to the radio, certain pieces reach out of that little electric box and grab you right by the heart horns. As a listener, and even more so, as a musician, one can literally feel the soul (when it’s there, which it usually isn’t.. even for a magnificent musician like me). It has nothing to do with talent or ability. Demons or angels perhaps, but whatever it is, it is spiritual and magic. When you read “The Call of the Wild” you do recognize artful phrases, heroic romanticism, descriptive distinction beyond compare, the talent is indeed there, but the magic of “The Call of the Wild,” is Jack London grabbing your soul. Gone neigh one-hundred years? Nope. He’s still here. There is life on that paper. “The Call of the Wild” is a book with a pulse.
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