A Class Act

With a few notable exceptions, the dramatic engine of what has been held up as “Classical Literature” involved men and women of noble birth coping with an onset of calamitous moral choices. Thus “The Iliad,” demonstrating the clangorous results of war, followed by the more satisfying stories of the journey home from it, “The Odyssey.” Thus also in about 440 BC, the moral tugs inherent in “Antigone,” as prelude to the anti-war tenor of “Lysistrata” in about 410 BC. The message was clear: Unless you were doing a send-up, so-to-speak a “Laugh-In”-type satire such as “The Frogs,” you didn’t clutter the landscape with mere soldiers, farmers, or servants. When you did bring them on the stage or page, it was only for a few moments.

No wonder so much of 17th, 18th, and 19th century dramatic work focused on nobles with issues. Less wonder still that emerging middle and merchant classes were allowed dramatic graze in comedies, where it was possible to laugh at their pretensions, their affectations of manner and dress, their touristy gawking at the elegance of affluence.

From about the 19th century on, the middle classes made a distinct bid for greater parity, particularly in education. This effort did not get the middle classes voted into the country club, but it did help the shift in emphasis from “The Classics” to “Culture.” This shift in emphasis was every bit as significant as The Great Vowel Shift, a major linguistic rearrangement in the pronunciation of English that emerged roughly from 1350 to 1550, in which the tone of vowels was raised. In a metaphorical sense, culture became the elephant the 12 blind scholars of legend were trying to describe. In a more practical sense, the middle classes found themselves wanting to learn which fork to use with which course, what wine went with fish, and did the fish course come before or after the meat course?

Middle-brow writers became correspondents of the culture wars; in England Dickens and Thackeray were noted observers, paving the way for Thomas Hardy, the James Lee Burke of the 19th century, and, of course, D.H. Lawrence. Put Kipling and Arnold Bennett in the picture and you more or less have the English battle lines drawn. Galsworthy, Kingsley Amis, and Evelyn Waugh led the charge of the Right Brigade.

On this side of the Atlantic, Mark Twain, James Fennimore Cooper, and Theodore Dreiser saw the battle lines. But it was Jack London who defined the turf; he did in one novel, “Martin Eden,” what Dashiell Hammett did for the mystery novel in “The Red Harvest,” and “The Gutting of Coufingal” – he took murder out of the drawing room and gave it to the middle classes.

“Martin Eden” is neither London’s best nor most popular work, but it has remained in print, if precariously so, in one form or another since its publication.

“Martin Eden” stands with “Great Expectations” and “The Great Gatsby” as an exemplar of a narrative in which a young man resolves and actually does change his social status for want of a wealthier woman of a more privileged class. (In writing style, it is nearly as ponderous as “An American Tragedy,” Theodore Dreiser’s vision of a young man who is bedazzled by an attractive young woman from higher social strata.)

The eponymous protagonist of “Martin Eden” takes to the sea at an early age, more or less content with his auto-didactic status until one fated evening when, at a San Francisco saloon, he comes upon a group of bullies ganging up on a young student, obviously of an affluent background. Eden quickly dispatches the toughs, earning the gratitude of the young student, Arthur Morse, who invites him to dinner at his parents’ home the following night.

Eden does not realize that Morse has alerted his family to expect to be entertained by the wild man he has met. Thus London sets the stage for something that could actually be packaged today as a Marxist thriller. Martin Eden is completely ill at ease in the Morse home; its beauty and reek of tradition a constant reminder of his own wretched living conditions, whether at sea or in the room he rents from his sister and brother-in-law. Eden has read of such a life as the Morse’s lead, but now, for the first time, he is immersed in it, too overwhelmed by it to be envious. In short order, Eden is introduced to Arthur Eden’s sister, Ruth.

At this early point, Jack London has skillfully baited his dramatic hook. Martin Eden’s admiration for the Morse family lifestyle is nothing in comparison with his infatuation for Ruth. “The phantasmagoria of his brain vanished at the sight of her,” London writes. “She was a pale, ethereal creature, with wide, spiritual blue eyes and a wealth of golden hair…. He saw her hand coming out to his, and she looked him straight in the eyes as she shook hands, frankly, like a man. The women he knew did not shake hands that way. For that matter, most of them did not shake hands at all.” Ruth Morse is as drawn to Eden’s animal magnetism as he is to her educated poise and sense of assurance. Ruth Morse “was surprised by a wanton thought that rushed into her mind. It seemed to her that if she could lay her two hands upon that [Eden’s] neck that all its strength and vigor would flow out to her.”

Were this narrative to have been written by a Jack London contemporary, Horatio Alger (1832-1899), Martin Eden would have devoted himself to self-improvement, married Ruth, then lived a life of service to his fellow man. Although “Martin Eden” does invite some interesting and amusing comparisons with the scope and intent of the extensive Alger opus, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) is the philosopher who has captured Eden’s attention and admiration. For love of Ruth Morse, Eden vows – and makes good on the promise – to educate himself, ceaselessly, tirelessly. His goal is to support himself through his writing, proving to the world and Ruth Morse that he has elevated himself to the point of being worthy of her.

Much of “Martin Eden” is autobiographical in nature, differing significantly where London’s fame was neither so accidental nor laden with irony as Martin Eden’s. Both the author and his character were depressive, compulsive, and obsessive. Neither had an extensive sense of humor; both were highly political and, significantly, both were auto-didacts to the point where both went on at some length to the point where the tail of their learning wagged the dog of story.

London’s literary fame – hard won by merit – came as a result of his persistence and prolific output. Martin Eden’s fame was by accident, a novel of the sea, said to rival work by Joseph Conrad, was published by a whim, his subsequent work taken as a result of his fame, often by publications that had crudely rejected the same work previous to his success. In consequence, Eden became increasingly cynical, growing as alienated as only an auto-didact/iconoclast can be.

Although the Morse family was well impressed with Martin Eden’s drive, his sincerity and intelligence, equally convinced that Ruth’s education undercut her chances for a socially acceptable marriage, they forced an end to the relationship. Martin Eden is pursued by Lizzie, a factory worker who loves him to the point of declaring, “I could die for you! I could die for you!”

But Martin Eden isn’t having any. Nor is he willing to forgive and forget when Ruth presents herself to him, repenting of her former get-a-job attitude, willing to be with him whether there is marriage or not. “Why didn’t you dare it before?” he asked harshly. “When I hadn’t a job? When I was starving? When I was just as I am now, as a man, as an artist, the same Martin Eden?”

Ruth persists, but the damage has been done and Jack London’s sense of class structure clamors for attention. “When I was all that I am now, nobody out of my own class seemed to care for me. When my books were all written, no one who had read the manuscripts seemed to care for them. In point of fact, because of the stuff I had written they seemed to care even less for me.”

How closely Martin Eden’s screed against bourgeoisie philosophy and psychology echoes Jack London’s socialist passions and his own sense of having been betrayed by the system he tried first to join then defeat through ridicule, the novel “Martin Eden,” more so than its more contemporary counterpart, Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” is a stunning, historically vibrant monument of coming of age in America.