Themes of the Film
The First Modern Celebrity
Thanks to the growth of popular media and his own relentless self-promotion, London was the Twentieth Century’s first modern celebrity, creating a myth of himself as an author/adventurer that persists to this day.
His travel exploits were reported regularly in major newspapers and magazines across America. He did advertisements, endorsing products ranging from cigars to grape juice. He made deals with early Hollywood to market his stories in the new media of film, the first mass-market writer to do so.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
The Artist as Sociologist
Few writers were more keen observers of the world’s various tribes than Jack London. He reveled in the details of humanity’s sub-cultures, be they Hawaiian, Native American, Japanese, Anglo-Saxon, prospector, tramp or leper. He examined them in his writing almost as a biologist would observe a species. His heroes were not only writers like Stevenson, Kipling, and Melville, but also naturalist/philosophers like Spencer and Darwin. No other American writer of his time attempted to get inside the minds of subjects so different from himself on such a consistent basis.
The New Woman
London created numerous female characters that were strong, self-reliant, and independent, many based on his wife, Charmian. They represented the “New Woman” of the Progressive Era: slightly androgynous but feminine, usually a self-supporting seamstress or secretary, educated, with a mind of her own. These characters are seen especially in his later novels and stories like Burning Daylight, The Valley of the Moon and The Night-Born.
Man rarely places a proper valuation upon his womankind, at least not until deprived of them.
As I, my real self, grew older, I entered more and more into the substance of my dreams. One may dream, and even in the midst of the dream be aware that he is dreaming, and if the dream be bad, comfort himself with the thought that it is only a dream. This is a common experience with all of us. And so it was that I, the modern, often entered into my dreaming, and in the consequent strange dual personality was both actor and spectator. And right often have I, the modern, been perturbed and vexed by the foolishness, illogic, obtuseness, and general all-round stupendous stupidity of myself, the primitive.”
Writer on Politics, Philosophy, Science, and Nature
Jack London wrote on an astounding variety of subjects in his extraordinarily prolific career. His intellectual curiosity began with a reading of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, and Darwin’s Origin of the Species was one of the books he took with him to the Klondike. Their theories informed his thinking for the rest of his life and he often worked them into his stories, shifting in emphasis from Spencer to Darwin as his career progressed. He also frequently explored the ideas of Nietzsche and Marx, among others and wrote frequently on Socialist themes, seeing it as his contribution to the Socialist Party.
Mythic archetypes abound in London’s work, pre-dating his discovery of Jung towards the end of life. Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious was the most heavily annotated book in London’s voluminous library, and he was writing stories with heavy Jungian overtones at the time he died.
Questioner of Ethnic Identity
London, the child of illegitimacy, was essentially the product of two mothers — one black, one white — and two fathers, one of whom disowned him. As a result, he had to invent an ethnic identity and ancestry for himself that continued even in death.
He wrote frequently and insightfully about race — a topic that few other popular writers of his time considered with any depth — and often voiced the point of view of the racial “other” when that was virtually unheard of in popular fiction.
London was one of the founding members of the Naturalist school, yet pushed the envelope on the definition of that genre. He expanded on naturalistic themes with the sort of romantic naturalism seen in works like The Call of the Wild. In a regional sense, London can also be considered America’s first writer of the Pacific Rim, as his oeuvre is set primarily in California, Alaska, Hawaii and the South Sea Islands. His essays about the majesty of surfing introduced that iconic Hawaiian sport to a mainland audience, and his boxing reports virtually invented modern sports-writing. And few if any other authors of the time maintained simultaneous careers as popular fiction writer and author of social tracts.
Writer on Race and Class
Because of his many travels, London was much more connected to people of other cultures than other writers of his time. Even though he subscribed to the Social Darwinism and pseudo-scientific racialism common in his time, London was always drawn to the underdog. Often he would inject himself into other cultures as a participant or very close observer, then write about those cultures from their point of view. No other American writer so consistently put himself in this position.
In stories like Ko’olau the Leper and Mauki, London gives the reader a sense of what it is like to be a disenfranchised Hawaiian or indentured Solomon Islander servant — experiences most readers would otherwise never have. This is one reason why he has remained so popular around the world.
Also, by virtue of his humble origins, London was aware of class in ways that other writers of the Progressive Era who came from wealthier backgrounds were not. As a Socialist, he had a deep belief in brotherhood and championed the downtrodden of society. This sense of comradeship was at odds with his Social Darwinism, and he would work out the themes in his writing. Though his views were inconsistent, London was interested in and engaged in racial subjects in a manner that other writers were not.
Jack London was no ordinary photographer. He was arguably the world’s leading photojournalist at the turn of the century, before the term had even been invented. London experimented with photography from almost the moment cameras became available and affordable for the general public in the early 1900s. He worked photos into his journalism assignments beginning with his trip to the East End of London in 1902.
At the time of the Snark trip, there were strict conventions about the way in which foreign cultures should be photographed. “Natives” were usually shot in a studio setting, in stylized poses before a faux-jungle background. It was extremely rare that native cultures were depicted in natural settings or a documentary fashion. Because he was not a trained photographer, Jack ignored these conventions and shot close-ups of faces, people at work, family scenes and other natural poses not seen at the time. This makes London’s Snark photos a valuable archive of late-colonial life in the South Seas.
London was also present firsthand, either as an adventurer or reporter, at some of the landmark events of his age — the Klondike Gold Rush, the Russo-Japanese War, the Great Earthquake of 1906, Hawaii after annexation, the Mexican Revolution, the Jeffries/Johnson “Great White Hope” prizefight — and he photographed almost all of them.