, Jack London's follow-up to his unbelievably popular Call of the Wild
, is, despite its publication in the Oxford World Classics series, far from a masterpiece. I read the book for a seminar on masculinities in American literature, which clearly impacted my response...
What works best -- what may even be brilliant -- about the novel is the male-male relationship between Humphrey Van Weyden, an aristocratic intellectual stranded in the cold San Francisco waters after another boat collides into his ferry, and Wolf Larsen, the brutal, self-educated, and manly
captain who extracts "Hump" from the waters and forcibly enlists him as cabin boy on his seal-boat bound for Japan. Many people have commented upon the intense homosociality of London's books of men doing manly work with fellow men; indeed, I challenge you to find another allegedly "heterosexual" novel that tops The Sea-Wolf
in its admiring, even steamy attention to men's bodies. "I had never before seen him naked," Hump says when he is summoned to Wolf's cabin to stitch him up after a skirmish with the ship's sailors, "and the sight of his body took my breath away."
Wolf Larsen was the man-type, the masculine, and almost a god in his perfectness. As he moved about or raised his arms the great muscles leapt and moved under the satiny skin.... His body, thanks to his Scandinavian stock, was fair as the fairest woman's. I remember his putting his hand up to feel the wound on his head, and my watching the biceps move like a living thing under its white sheath. It was the biceps that had nearly crushed out my life once, that I had seen strike so many killing blows. I could not take my eyes from him. I stood motionless, a roll of antiseptic cotton in my hand unwinding and spilling itself down to the floor (emphasis added).
London, as you can see, set quite a precedent for the cheap erotic paperbacks my library used to shelve as far away from the juvenile section as possible. The novel would be infinitely improved if, at this point, when the physical attraction between Hump and Larsen hits its bursting point, the two men would have just jumped in bed together. But of course that would have been far too brave, far too scandalous, for an American novel published in 1904 with the primary goal of earning the author as much money and fame as possible. Instead, London commits what Eve Kosefsky Sedgwick would call a paradigmatically homophobic move: He introduces the bland woman character, Maud Brewster, who draws lustful/romantic attention from both Hump and Larsen, therefore assuring us of the two men's virile heterosexuality. Yawn.
From that point forward, the book slows, grows both monotonous (so many technical descriptions of the mechanics behind Hump's repair of the ship's masts) and
ludicrous (the entire Endeavor Island escapade), and reveals so many narrative/literary weaknesses its early moments of genius quickly drown, like sailors tossed lifeless in the rocky waves of the indifferent Pacific Ocean.