Jack London and the Sea, by Anita Duneer
The first book-length study of London as a maritime writer
Jack London’s fiction has been studied previously for its thematic connections to the ocean, but Jack London and the Sea marks the first time that his life as a writer has been considered extensively in relationship to his own sailing history and interests. In this new study, Anita Duneer claims a central place for London in the maritime literary tradition, arguing that for him romance and nostalgia for the Age of Sail work with and against the portrayal of a gritty social realism associated with American naturalism in urban or rural settings. The sea provides a dynamic setting for London’s navigation of romance, naturalism, and realism to interrogate key social and philosophical dilemmas of modernity: race, class, and gender. Furthermore, the maritime tradition spills over into texts that are not set at sea.
Jack London and the Sea does not address all of London’s sea stories, but rather identifies key maritime motifs that influenced his creative process. Duneer’s critical methodology employs techniques of literary and cultural analysis, drawing on extensive archival research from a wealth of previously unpublished biographical materials and other sources. Duneer explores London’s immersion in the lore and literature of the sea, revealing the extent to which his writing is informed by travel narratives, sensational sea yarns, and the history of exploration, as well as firsthand experiences as a sailor in the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean.
Organized thematically, chapters address topics that interested London: labor abuses on “Hell-ships” and copra plantations, predatory and survival cannibalism, strong seafaring women, and environmental issues and property rights from San Francisco oyster beds to pearl diving in the Paumotos. Through its examination of the intersections of race, class, and gender in London’s writing, Jack London and the Sea plumbs the often-troubled waters of his representations of the racial Other and positions of capitalist and colonial privilege. We can see the manifestation of these socioeconomic hierarchies in London’s depiction of imperialist exploitation of labor and the environment, inequities that continue to reverberate in our current age of global capitalism.