Culture  /  Book Review

Jack London, "Martin Eden" and The Liberal Education in US life

In Jack London’s novel, Martin Eden personifies debates still raging over the role and purpose of education in American life.

London’s account of Martin’s self-education offers many excellent reasons to pursue intellectual life as an intrinsic good. It’s a form of lasting intoxication, an almost species-shifting means of self-transformation, and a sedentary voyage through space and time. Yet even this does not exhaust his defence of liberal study. In one of the novel’s most extraordinary passages, London gives an ecstatic inventory of the seemingly disconnected items between which Martin can now perceive links:

He drew up lists of the most incongruous things and was unhappy until he succeeded in establishing kinship between them all – kinship between love, poetry, earthquake, fire, rattlesnakes, rainbows, precious gems, monstrosities, sunsets, the roaring of lions, illuminating gas, cannibalism, beauty, murder, lovers, fulcrums, and tobacco. Thus, he unified the universe and held it up and looked at it, or wandered through its byways and alleys and jungles … observing and charting and becoming familiar with all there was to know.

The heterogeneity of these objects is a kaleidoscopic mirage; only intellectual enquiry reveals the deep unities and patterns in the apparent miscellany of the cosmos.

This passage evokes ideas from across the history of philosophy. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that contemplative activity is the highest form of happiness, not only because it actualises our reason, the most divine element within us, but also because we pursue it for its own sake and can enjoy contemplation more continuously and pleasantly than we can sensual delights. London’s young sailor is an Aristotelian. More recently, the 20th-century American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars defined the purpose of philosophy like this: ‘The aim of philosophy … is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.’ From rattlesnakes to roaring lions, tobacco to beauty, Martin seeks to understand a broad range of things, searching for coherence and continuity across domains. He’s also a philosopher in Sellars’s sense.

London, like Martin, grew up poor and received little formal education. He was working 12-hour days in a cannery while barely in his teens. By the age of 16, he was an oyster pirate on the San Francisco Bay, dodging patrol boats that trawled for illegal operations and drinking heavily with his fellow pirates. While still a teenager, he sailed on a seal-hunting boat that reached as far as Japan. He didn’t use a toothbrush until he was 19 years old.