Readers no doubt are familiar with Jack London. One of the great 20th century American novelists and short-story writers, he is justly famous for his harrowing tales of survival and courage, often set in exotic locales like the Klondike, the South Seas, and the abysses of urban squalor.
He lived a life that was as adventurous as one of the characters in his stories. Before becoming a full-time writer, he had knocked about as a vagrant, an oyster pirate, a seaman, a gold prospector, and most bitterly as an industrial slave-laborer.
These experiences sharpened his already acute senses of judgment and observation; and he honed a unique skill at describing physical action and its attendant moral consequences. His books The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf, and many others established his reputation as a unique voice of the new century. What is less well-known is that he planned and executed a scheme to sail around the world with his wife Charmian and a small crew, inspired by the account of Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail around the world alone.
London made it across the Pacific and to the relatively wild South Seas; but his trip was cut short by a variety of tropical ailments that could not be cured with the existing medical technology. Yet the drama is an intense one. It gives us a window on the soul of this remarkable man, and has much to teach us about the importance of pursuing one’s dreams.
After coming up with the idea of sailing around the world, London dove into the project with characteristic vitality and intensity. Construction on the ship–a sailboat which he would christen the Snark, after a poem by Lewis Carroll–began in 1906. It would eventually cost him in excess of 30,000 dollars, a colossal sum in those days and an amount he could ill-afford. Problems with the vessel multiplied as the building continued. Costs grew steadily, and delays plagued the project. The final product was a reasonably sea-worthy boat about 43 feet long.
London would only find out later that shipbuilders had cheated him with much of the work: they had used inferior materials, making the allegedly “watertight” bulkheads leaky, and the gasoline engine proved useless. Most of the food and supplies they set out with were ruined by exposure to seawater and fuel. Why does London decide to take this journey? He tries to explain his reasons to friends, but they cannot hear him. He then expounds on the mentality of the traveler, versus the mentality of the timid land-lubber. The following quote from the The Cruise of the Snark is most revealing:
They cannot get away from themselves. They cannot come out of themselves long enough to see that their line of least resistance is not necessarily everybody else’s line of least resistance. They make of their own bundle of desires, likes, and dislikes a yardstick wherewith to measure the desires, likes, and dislikes of all creatures. I tell them so.
But they cannot get away from their miserable egos long enough to hear me. They think I am crazy; in return, I am sympathetic. It is a state of mind familiar to me. We are all prone to think that there is something wrong with the mental processes of the man who disagrees with us….
Life that lives is life successful, and success is the breath of its nostrils. The achievement of a difficult feat is successful adjustment to a sternly exacting environment. The more difficult the feat, the greater the satisfaction at its accomplishment.
London and his small crew–which included an ex-convict and an idealistic 18-year-old lad from rural Kansas–left San Francisco in 1907, bound first for Hawaii. Hawaii in those days was still largely unknown to mainland Americans. London was fascinated by the sport of surfing and became obsessed with mastering it. He eventually did. The next leg of the journey would take London and his crew into perilous waters. Polynesia and Melanesia were in many ways still isolated communities, having little intercourse with European travelers outside of missionaries and infrequent merchant ships.
The Marquesas islands they found enchanting, yet not quite living up to the expectations set by Herman Melville’s Typee. There was a large incidence of leprosy, tropical ulcers, and various other types of diseases; blindness was not uncommon. Many of the native men had lost one hand or another, as a consequence of fishing with dynamite.
Other places visited included Bora-Bora, Fiji, and Samoa. The Solomon Islands turned out to be even more savage. London was shocked by the excesses of European colonialism–which included corporal punishment, serfdom, and slave labor–as well as by the ferocious practices of the natives, which included an enthusiastic cannibalism.
Worse still, London began to pick up various sicknesses: malaria, yaws, tropical ulcers, and severe sunburns. These physical problems would eventually render him unable to continue his journey.
Not a line nor a word [in medical journals] could I find descriptive of my affliction. I brought common horse-sense to bear on the problem. Here were malignant and excessively active ulcers that were eating me up. There was an organic and corroding poison at work. Two things I concluded must be done. First, some agent must be found to destroy the poison. Secondly, the ulcers could not possibly heal from the outside in; they must heal from the inside out.
London was forced to make for Australia when his hands and feet began to swell, and he was unable to perform basic tasks aboard ship. Once there, he did what he had to do to get back to California. The Snark was stripped of its equipment and supplies in Sydney; these were sold off for about forty-five hundred dollars in 1910.
Yet the voyage served its purposes. London had done once again what he had always done: pushing himself to the limit, straddling this little globe as a conqueror, and living life to its fullest extent.
He was, after all, still Jack London.
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