Today’s post from the series I’m calling “Sea Fever” deals with two collections of stories by American author Jack London, who was born January 12, 1876.
Jack London’s daring attempt to sail around the world with a small crew on a forty-three-foot ketch, the Snark, began with great fanfare in April 1907 in San Francisco harbor. But it ended when London, who had become seriously ill, abandoned the project in the Melanesian archipelago of the Solomon Islands near the end of 1908. However disastrous, the trip provided the writer with material for The Cruise of the Snark, which I described in my post for January 12, 2020, as well as a number of stories and novels.
Several of those stories are set in Hawaii, the northernmost archipelago in Polynesia, and, given their complexity, they deserve a post of their own. But two other collections—South Sea Tales and A Son of the Sun—reflect London’s experiences in other parts of the Pacific and complement each other nicely in terms of treatment and attitude. (The islands of the Pacific are usually divided into several geographical and cultural regions, including Polynesia, in the eastern and central Pacific, and Melanesia, in the western Pacific.)
South Sea Tales (1911) is made up of eight stories, five of which—“The Whale Tooth,” “Mauki,” “’Yah! Yah! Yah!,” “The Terrible Solomons,” and “The Inevitable White Man”—dramatize the conflicts between cultures in Melanesia. On the whole, these are likely to strike most readers as shockingly, almost numbingly brutal, although it’s difficult to fault their honesty. After all, they reflect what London saw in Melanesia, a region once infamous for cannibalism and, in London’s own day, for “blackbirding,” or slave trading, on the part of European and American interlopers. However, the fifth of these stories, “The Terrible Solomons” actually satirizes the islands’ “savage” reputation.
The remaining stories in South Sea Tales are set in Polynesia. “The House of Mapuhi” dramatizes the frightening impact of a hurricane on an atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago (in eastern French Polynesia), while “The Heathen” is a celebration of brotherly love between a Polynesian and a Caucasian. The best of the stories in the collection, and one of the best that London ever wrote, is “The Seed of McCoy,” in which a descendant of one of the Bounty mutineers pilots a ship whose cargo is on fire through the Tuamotu Islands. A long chain of 78 atolls and low-lying islands stretched across waters notorious for their strong currents, the Tuamotus were once known, with good reason, as the Dangerous Archipelago. Despite his descent from a notably violent man, the pilot manages to calm the ship’s panic-stricken captain and crew through his innate gentleness, and, thanks to his knowledge, saves them all.
The story is closely based on the plight of a real ship, a four-masted barque named the Pyrenees, which underwent a similar ordeal in the same archipelago in late 1900. Like the ship in London’s story, also named the Pyrenees, the actual one initially made for Pitcairn Island when the fire was discovered, but as there was no anchorage there, the captain took on a pilot named James “Big Hunty” McCoy who managed to pilot the burning vessel on to Mangareva, about 260 miles west of Pitcairn. However, the ship in London’s story is forced to sail past Mangareva and finally beach on Fakarava, an atoll even farther west.
Looking back over the past few years, I realize that I’ve written about the Tuamotus before in World Enough. Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall set their 1936 novel The Hurricane there, and Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki fetched up on a reef in the Tuamotus after its famous 101-day voyage. It’s a small world …
“The Seed of McCoy” also recalls Joseph Conrad’s autobiographical story “Youth,” which dramatizes a similar situation and which I wrote about in my post for December 3, 2018. London read and admired Conrad, but while Conrad’s almost aristocratic language and attitude are those of an officer, London’s plainer language and attitude are very much those of a sailor, even though the sailor was for a time the captain of the Snark.
A Son of the Sun (1912) has since been republished as Captain David Grief, as its eight stories all involve a larger-than-life character by that name. If the stories in South Sea Tales really are “tales,” which William Harmon and Hugh Holman define in the ninth (2003) edition of A Handbook to Literature as “relatively simple” narratives, then the stories in this collection are even simpler. I’m tempted to call them yarns. Having reread them after a number of years, I can recommend only the story that opens the collection, also named “A Son of the Sun,” and the one that closes it, “The Pearls of Parlay.” In the latter, an embittered French settler plans to auction off a fortune in pearls. But soon after potential buyers have reached Parlay’s atoll on their ships, a hurricane of unimaginable intensity strikes. As the mortally injured Parlay reminds them, “Don’t forget … the auction … at ten o’clock … in hell.”
The book covers reproduced in today’s post are from first editions, while the photograph of Jack London and his wife, Charmian, aboard the Snark at Apia, Samoa, was taken by A.J. Tattersall. The map of the Pacific is based on United Nations geoscheme M49 coding classification and is the work of Tintazul as modified by Cruickshanks. The photograph of Hirifa Beach on Fakarava is by Julius Silver, and both it and the map are reproduced courtesy of Wikipedia.
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