Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cruising and Discovering Realism

Jack London's Tales of Cannibals and Headhunters Nine South Seas Stories by America's Master of Adventure. Edited and Annotated by Gary Riedl and Thomas R. Tietze. Publihsed by University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Who ever heard of Jack London's The Cruise of the Snark will have a first-hand running journal of his most promising adventure, a famous book that reveals why London chose the adventures he did. That he would rather intensely experience than simply write is indicated by his account with a crew of twenty-two, his first encounter with fate:

"Possibly the proudest achievement of my life, my moment of highest living, occurred when I was seventeen. I was in a three-masted schooner off the coast of Japan. We were in a typhoon. I was called from my bunk at seven in the morning to take the wheel… At the end of the hour, sweating and played out, I was relieved. But I had done it! I had done my trick at the wheel and guided a hundred tons of wood and iron through a millions tons of wind and waves…."

Thus no stranger to the wild, un-tameable, or inconceivable so sought by readers of his adventure stories, London was prepared to meet the cannibals and headhunters he later wrote about in Tales of Cannibals and Headhunters . And in the same narrative, he often compared the philosophy of primitive peoples with that of the more modern people (i.e. his audience) to striking effect. Since the first publication of these stories, the world is smaller, in that life, outlook and culture have changed radically, so that people today might be shocked by London’s manner or message. And because of that, or maybe to enhance it, editors Riedl and Tietze provide a lengthy Introduction in which social issues and social history are addressed. As they point out:

"The islands of the Pacific were, to the western world, the last mystery of global exploration."

Valuable, because they place stories in the social context that readers might recognize and add a bit of commentary of London’s craft as well as his point of view, introductions to each of the nine stories are provided by the editors. In "An Introduction to the Terrible Solomons", they write about "the inevitable white man", a phrase used by London to help depict the condition of extreme differences in cultures encountered between opportunists and natives. London posited that people from the West were not actually just on discovery missions but were led by greed to commit criminal acts against people from cultures they were ignorant about.

A gallery of 11 images accompanies the text and serves to give realistic relief from the original magazine illustrations set inside some of the stories. In it we see what the Solomon islanders looked like, along with several images of the Londons, mostly on the deck of the Snark.

This is an unusual presentation of Jack London’s work and worthwhile for a reader studying the social issues race and economics of the early twentieth century.

See another blog post on Jack London's book, Stories of Hawai'i at Aloha, Jack London.