Jack London’s Martin Eden: On the Screen Again

Still from Martin Eden.

Jack London’s big, bold 1909 novel, Martin Eden, which some consider autobiographical, is on the screen again, this time in an Italian production that’s set in Italy and that arrived in 2019. Pietro Marcello directed. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Maurizio Braucci. Martin Eden was made into a film in 1914 and again in 1942, under the title The Adventures of Martin Eden.

London would not be surprised by the continued interest in his work on the part of contemporary movie makers, but he would be surprised and probably alarmed at what Marcello and Braucci have done to his book. Indeed, moving the setting from the San Francisco Bay Area, to Naples and the time period from near the start of the twentieth-century to sometime in the mid-to-late twentieth-century (the period is intentionally ambiguous) wrenches the plot and the characters from the particular time and place that give London’s novel much of its force.

Martin Eden, the fictional character, is thoroughly American. He has American drive and American ambition. An American sailor and an American nobody, he becomes an American success story and then chooses to reject it all. He’s also very much a Californian, and a product of San Francisco and Oakland. In one of the most vivid scenes in the novel, working class Eden gives a massage to his girlfriend, Ruth, a daughter of the Bay Area bourgeoisie

In a copy of the novel which London gave to his friend and fellow writer, Upton Sinclair—(they co-founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society)— London wrote, “One of my motifs, in this book, was an attack on individualism (in the person of the hero). I must have bungled it, for not a single reviewer has discovered it.” London ought not to have been surprised by that outcome. In a letter to a friend, shortly before he wrote Martin Eden, he explained, “The author is the least competent to judge what he produces.” But in John Barleycorn, his memoir about his own alcoholism, published four years after Martin Eden, he insightfully noted, “I was Martin Eden.” The intervening years might have provided the critical distance so he could see his character more clearly than when he first wrote the novel.

London outlined the novel before he set out to write it. His notes show that from the start he thought that his anti-hero would commit suicide, though he wasn’t sure what method he would use. In the end, Eden goes to sea and drowns himself. To write that scene, London probably drew on his own experience as a young man who became intoxicated and tried to drown himself in the waters of San Pablo Bay, which connects to San Francisco Bay, the territory that he knew better than any other on the planet, whether on land or at sea. A description of that botched suicide appears in John Barleycorn, London’s memoir of his bouts with alcohol.

He also initially envisioned Martin Eden as a play for the stage, with acts, scenes and set pieces.

Along with The Call of the WildThe Iron HeelThe Valley of the Moon and The Star RoverMartin Eden is one of London’s most accomplished works of fiction. He also wrote masterful first-person non-fiction narratives, including The People of the Abyss, which is about the poorest of the poor in London, England, and The Road, which recounts his own experiences as a hobo and vagabond. Martin Eden might be called a portrait of the artist as a young man, to borrow the title that James Joyce used for his 1919 novel which features Stephen Daedalus.

Unlike Joyce, London wasn’t a modernist, and, while he wrote about daring subjects, like prison life and time travel, he didn’t experiment with form and with language as Joyce did in prose and T. S. Eliot did in poetry. Martin Eden was published at the dawn of the twentieth-century, but it fits the mold of a great deal of nineteenth-century European fiction such as Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which trace the fortunes of a young man from the countryside who makes his way in the big city. The 2019 movie of Martin Eden is far more experimental than the 1909 novel. It includes documentary footage, hand held shots, static images and close-ups of faces.

London knew the journey from the bottom step on the ladder of society to near the top step, from his own experience, as well as from reading fiction and sociology. Born to a working class family in 1876, he labored in mills and factories, (see his short story, “The Apostate”), joined the Socialist Party as a young man and became one of the headliners of the American Socialist movement, as well as a keen supporter of perennial Socialist Party candidate for the Presidency, Eugene Debs, and a fierce defender of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) when they were under attack. (See his essay “Something Rotten in Idado” which is about IWW leaders Moyer, Pettibone and Willam “Big Bill” Haywood. London resigned from the Socialist Party in 1916, just months before he died at the age of 40. His motive? Unlike many socialists, he supported U.S. entry into World War I because he feared Germany hegemony and identified with the British Empire. Earlier, he defended the U.S. invasion of the Philippines and Mexico during its revolution. He covered that story as a reporter for Collier’s and lambasted Mexicans as half-breeds and as inferior to white people.

Intensely creative, London was also intensely self-destructive: he smoked heavily, consumed more alcohol than he ought to have consumed for many years, and long after his doctors urged him not to drink alcohol. He was also a workaholic; when he died, he had nearly 50 books to his name. It’s not hard to see why Italians would want to translate Martin Eden from the pages of the novel to the big screen. The Russians have also had a long love affair with London. The hero is a romantic in love with love itself. Also, Martin Eden explores class, sex and gender in uncommonly sophisticated ways. Much of the writing is lyrical, including the description of Eden’s last moments alive when he sinks beneath the waves at sea, loses consciousness and drowns. The final passages of the novel are as beautiful as any in the English language in part because London himself had a kind of death wish, which paralleled his wish to live life to the fullest.

During his lifetime, he was one of the most popular American writers. He’s still popular and a hero to readers from San Francisco to Naples, Chicago to St. Petersburg. Still, many readers and critics steer clear of him in part because at times he embraced white supremacy. (See his essay “The Salt of the Earth” and his novel, The Mutiny of the Elsinore.) East coast academics and writers, including E.L. Doctorow, have often turned up their noses at London because he wrote popular books and short stories for the masses. He accurately called himself “a hack writer.”

Time and again, he squandered his own talents. Indeed. he wrote too much, too quickly. His narratives got out of hand, and, as he recognized with Martin Eden he “bungled it.” One might say the same about the Italian cinematic version of the novel. Changing the time and the place, seems like a set-up for problems. The film critic J. Hoberman tries to like the picture in a piece published in The New York Review of Books, but he points to its many “anachronisms.” Hoberman also writes that “The final scenes evoke the opportunistic demagogue Mussolini.”

In his own lifetime, London never resolved his own inner conflicts, including the conflict between his socialism and his individualism, his attraction to Marx and to Nietzsche, to “The PEOPLE” (he capitalized the word) and to the “blond beasts,” as he called them, meaning the strongest of the strong, physically speaking.

The latest cinematic version of Martin Eden depicts the main character as an individualist who becomes involved in working class struggles, affiliates himself with a strike, but attacks the union that has organized the proletarians. In London’s novel, The Valley of the Moon, the working class hero hates the bosses and at the same time distrusts the union organizers. He feels betrayed by the union, severs himself from the struggle, goes on the road and settles in rural Sonoma County. That journey reflects London’s own trajectory from child of Oakland to rural gentry.

Jack’s older daughter Joan, a San Francisco Bay Area radical, noted in her biography of her father, that he “wanted to beat the capitalists at their own game.” For a time he did that. But he also beat himself to death. Joan London argued that if her father had lived to the 1920s, he would have become a supporter of Mussolini. Perhaps. Or he might have gone to Russia with John Reed and observed the revolution there.

All too often London’s books fell short of the expectations he had for them. Readers missed what he was trying to say, through no fault of their own. His own contradictions were reflected in flawed books in which he couldn’t stop himself from making nasty remarks about people of color and women. He does that in Martin Eden in which the narrator uses the “n” word, explains that Eurasians are “stamped with degeneracy” and points to the “monstrous female form [that] preys on sailors.” Still, London left the world with half-a-dozen works that are still worth reading, including The Call of the Wild, The RoadThe People of the AbyssThe Iron HeelMartin Eden and The Valley of the Moon. Read them and see for yourself.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.