Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cannonball Read #1 - "The Sea Wolf" by Jack London

So this being my inaugural review for Cannonball Read, I thought I would do something special. While I know it is weird to break with a format without establishing a format to begin with, you’re just going to have to deal with it. Because really, who’s the one writing this?

Anyway, to begin, I will edify you with the context of this reading. After recently graduating school from University of Wisconsin, I finally landed a job in the Chicago-land area, and was forced to move away from Madison, and all the friends I have there. One of my good friends, with whom I often discuss things like philosophy, the meaning of life and women, gave me a copy of The Sea Wolf by Jack London. I will start by relating to you the inscription on the inside cover.


This is the closest I have known Jack London to get to philosophy, and even with that in mind, it is not very close. He misunderstands Nietzsche as being akin to Spencer – a common mistake but a huge one. It leads Jack to believe that the ubermensch is literally meant by Nietzsche to be his goal. We can talk on some other day if you fancy as to why this is inappropriate of Nietzsche, but it does mean that Jack London could be reasonably taken to be looking at Rand [Note to the reader: I am a huge fan of Ayn Rand, and this is often the subject of conversations between me and the writer of this inscription]

And that’s why I am giving this to you. Objectivism and the rugged individualism which is appears as the formulated variation of are powerful, romantic notions. They appeal to our instincts and our imaginations because they arouse deeply seated sentiments fundamental to the human state. But the danger in all ideas is that they can be believed, and once believed, they never, ever behave as they seem as though they would when they only were being entertained.

Americans are not always aware that George Orwell was a committed socialist; so much so that he fought in the international brigade in the Spanish Civil War. But the hero of 1984 and Animal Farm recognized that when ideas become ideology-when they are implemented-things go awry.

Here J.London is not unattracted to the ubermensch philosophy-he is, in many ways, intrigued by Wolf Larsen, our Randian Hero. But Jack perceives the danger of giving such a romantic ideal birth into flesh. London associates him with the Norse gods of Asgard-and as long as he lived he was a bomb threatening all life around him, to bring us back to Nietzsche, by way of paraphrase. But London recognized that, just as with the Norse gods, mortals could not truly live until the gods, and their epic threats passed away.

This was far too long to come back around to my point, but I am finally there – in your life, I would suggest to you and all people to not trust ideas. Live with them, observe them, but never trust them. They are too much like women.

Good luck on your future endeavors


This book spoke to me on a number of levels. Not only was it a vivid coming of age tale which appealed to my sense of individualism, but it also to untold adventures that life holds.

For those unaware, the Sea Wolf follows the journey of Humphrey Van Weyden as he falls overboard in a ferry crash and is picked up by a sealing ship. Aboard he meets the story’s antagonist, Wolf Larsen, who is determined to break him of his aristocratic ways and make him a real man. Around halfway through the story, a woman is introduced, and seeing the danger that Wolf poses to her, steals her away during the night. Eventually they shipwreck themselves on an islet they dub “Endeavor Island.” Without the menacing presence of Wolf, he is finally able to stand on his own two legs.

Though I suspect my enjoyment of this book was heightened by the context in which I read it, I would highly recommend this to anyone. It carries with it a sense of adventure that is reminiscent of Krakauer’s Into the Wild. Though I suppose I should give credit where credit is due, as Krakauer is a modern author and was obviously heavily influenced by Jack London.


Going back to the main point of why I was given this book – to provide a foil for the value I place on rugged individualism. London paints a dangerous picture in Wolf Larsen, a picture of individualism and greed (Randian values to which I adhere somewhat) gone awry. The character of Larsen is ultimately made to suffer for his actions, as he dies alone, helpless and abandoned on his broken ship. No doubt this is a book which I will point to in years to come as one which continually shapes my values, and as a lens through which I look at the world.

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