It’s been as while since I read anything by Jack London. The Call of the Wild was on my summer reading list in elementary school; White Fang was in Junior High; I think one of his short stories was in my Sophomore English book. Since then I’ve not really thought about him.
But then I picked up South Sea Tales, and was reminded why out of many of the required readings foisted upon me, I didn’t mind London so much. And with a more experienced eye, I really enjoy his writing.
Published in 1911, South Sea Tales is a collection of short stories taking place in the titular location. The stories were likely inspired by time he spent travelling from Hawaii to Australia with his second wife (on a boat called The Snark, may I add). He describes beautiful lagoons, proud natives flummoxing the white missionaries and traders, and very disagreeable weather. This is especially true in “The House of Mapuhi”:
He looked and saw the Mormon church careering drunkenly a hundred feet away. It had been torn from its foundations, and wind and sea were heaving and shoving it toward the lagoon. A frightful wall of water caught it, tilted it, and flung it against half a dozen cocoanut trees. The bunches of human fruit fell like ripe cocoanuts. The subsiding wave showed them on the ground, some motionless, others squirming and writhing. They reminded him strangely of ants. He was not shocked. He had risen above horror. Quite as a matter of course he noted the succeeding wave sweep the sand clean of the human wreckage. A third wave, more colossal than any he had yet seen, hurled the church into the lagoon, where it floated off into the obscurity to leeward, half-submerged, reminding him for all the world of a Noah’s ark.
While the language is dated in places – a sort of unconscious stereotyping – it is rich in detail. In most of the South Sea Tales, London takes the narration from the POV of the natives (at least in part). In “The Whale Tooth”, much of the story is from the eyes of Narau, a man who wants to be loyal to his missionary friend, but finds he cannot quite escape his own cowardice. When the missionary, Starhurst, makes his pitch to “save” a local chief’s people, he is beaten to death with a club while Narau hides:
Narau, hiding among the women and the mats, heard the impact of the blow and shuddered. Then the death song arose, and he knew his beloved missionary’s body was being dragged to the oven as he heard the words:
“Drag me gently. Drag me gently.”
“For I am the champion of the land.”
“Give thanks! Give thanks!”
Next, a single voice arose out of the din, asking: “Where is the brave man?”
A hundred voices bellowed the answer: “Gone to be dragged to the oven and cooked.”
“Where is the coward?” the single voice demanded.
“Gone to report!” the hundred voices bellowed back “Gone to report!”
Narau groaned in anguish of spirit. The words of the old song were true. He was the coward, and nothing remained to him but to go and report.
London was a man with some jarring contradictions: When he began a ranch in California, he educated himself on various traditional and scientific methods of agriculture, and believed the Asian approach of sustainable practices to be the best course. But he also called the influx of Chinese immigrants to the area “the yellow peril” (and wrote an essay titled just that in 1904). He praised Jack Johnson in his boxing win over Tommy Burns, saying
Because a white man wishes a white man to win, this should not prevent him from giving absolute credit to the best man, even when that best man was black. All hail to Johnson.
This after referring to Johnson as ape-like.
London was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, poetry, and a few plays. An impressive omnibus for a man who died at 40. While he himself admitted to writing stories strictly as rent-work sometimes, South Sea Tales is a collection of his better efforts. If it’s been a while since you’ve picked him up, I’d advise giving him a chance.
If you’d like to read them for yourself, you can head over to Feedbooks to read South Sea Tales for FREE.
You can also read plenty of his other Public Domain books by visiting his Feedbooks Author Page.
Over on Librivox, you can listen to his memoir of the trip on The Snark which inspired the stories.
While the full South Sea collection isn’t available, “The House of Mapuhi” is available from another collection.
You can also check out Dileas’ take on London’s story The Scarlet Plague – if you like post-apocalyptic tales. Are any of you around here into those?