Martin Eden functions as a critique of radical individualism and as a memoir of a young writer, struggling with his career. The main character had working class roots and like London wrote extensively over the course of a short but vibrant career. Martin Eden struggled against a peer group that either did not respect his career choice or overlooked him from his proletarian roots and a publishing industry that failed to provide much of a living to younger writers. Despite frustrations and failings that often led him to temporarily give up a writing career, Martin Eden remained ruggedly individualist, influenced by writers such as Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche. He resisted the socialism of a peer, Russ Brissenden. Martin Eden’s frustrations, growing lack of fulfillment with a writing career, and eventual suicide suggest the weakness of the ideology of individualism that dominated the turn of the twentieth century. We have seen enough of London’s writings to know of his support of socialism and his desire for community and solidarity (this is a theme that is strongly expressed in John Barleycorn).
What is the type of individualism embraced by Martin Eden? It is much closer to the isolated, capitalist individualism of Horatio Alger or the robber barons than the association of free individuals envisioned by the American anarchists and socialists of London’s generation. His strongest influence was Herbert Spencer,who embraced a Lamarckian evolutionary model and coined the phrase, “Survival of the Fittest.” The reader cannot deny that this strong individualism got Martin Eden someplace. He lifted himself from his proletarian roots, educated himself, and sent our endless manuscripts (and endured the rejections) with an amazing Stoicism that cannot help but impress. London is not saying that individualism is incapable of inspiring great actions, but it is ultimately flawed. Martin Eden is much like the protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” a rugged individualist who dies due to his own isolation.
When reading Martin Eden, I kept coming back to Oscar Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Wilde argues that only in socialism can true creative individualism be achieved. Martin Eden believed, wrongly, that hard work and even brilliance alone could help he achieve creative success. Not only did his efforts largely fail (as when his first published story was paid 1/20 of what he expected), but even when relative success was won Martin Eden felt drained. Martin’s horrible realization at the end of his career was that all of his hard work led only to him moving from the manual labor proletariat to the intellectual proletariat. Like Martin, the artists that Wilde describes are forever hampered by the needs of the intellectual marketplace. Their energies will be directed toward questions of social justice instead of artistic liberation. Essentially Wilde argues that socialism is not a route to serfdom. It is a route to true individualism because every talent will be freed from the oppression of subsistence and can engage in creative enterprises. I get the same sense from Martin Eden, although none of the characters (except maybe Russ Brissenden) can articulate an alternative to the the intellectual marketplace. Martin’s love, Ruth, often reminds him that he needs to write for the public tastes and often critiques his work as unsuitable for mass consumption. This is the same criticism often leveled by editors who pare down, transform, or shred Martin’s stories. Martin figures most of this out, even as he rejects the salvation provided by socialism. “Surely they do not want me for myself, for myself is the same old self they did not want. Then they must want me for something else, for something that is outside of men, for something that is not I! Shall I tell you what that something is? It is for recognition I have received. That recognition is not I. It resides in the minds of others. Then again for the money I have earned and am earning. But that money is not I. It resides in banks and in the pockets of Tom, Dick, and Harry. And is it for that, for the recognition and the money, that you now want me?” (913)
We are in an era of mass, market-driven education. I suspect most intellectuals have felt similarly about their own work, whether it is as writers, researchers or teachers. This exploitation of minds for money and name recognization is brilliantly discussed by Marc Bousquet in his article considering the popularity of the television series Spartacus. In this piece, he suggests that American intellectuals are simply exploited labor, but like the gladiators of the Roman-era cling to the “glory” of their position. The arena and the classroom are both venues for the the exploitation of a deluded proletariat. At least the factory worker understand her exploitation. The adjunct instructor (or the full-time professor at many schools) lives hand to mouth for the right to call himself an “intellectual.” http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/we-are-all-roman-porn-stars-now/32195
I will sign off with that, realizing that I have another seven posts on Jack London Martin Eden effectively puts you in the head of one of these long-deluded intellectuals. I wonder how many English professors assigned this book without fully realizing that to the university administration, they were nothing but a part of a money-making machine, like Martin Eden. And for the anarchist, as attractive as individualism is (Tocqueville called it “egoism” – seeing true “individualism” as a more mature feeling), London reminds is that that individualism is hollow and soul-crushing is it is not based on a broader foundation of community, solidarity, and cooperation.