American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE SEA-WOLF (1904). This novel by Jack London* (1876-1916) traces the development of the narrator, the effete literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden, through his encounter with the brutish Wolf Larsen.*

Crossing San Francisco Bay in a fog, Van Weyden’s ferry is sunk, and he is picked up by Wolf’s sealing schooner Ghost. Wolf determines to keep “Hump” on his crew to make a man of him. Life at sea is a Darwinian struggle in which Hump’s idealistic values are put to the test. Of those on board, Wolf is the fittest, London’s version of Nietzsche’s superman, for he possesses amazing physical prowess as well as a developing intellectual knowledge, both of which buttress his materalist outlook. Hump has risen to become first mate when the Ghost picks up Maud Brewster, a shipwrecked poetess with whom Hump immediately feels an affinity that blossoms into love. Threatened by Wolf, Hump and Maud set out in a small boat and land on an island, where they eventually reencounter Wolf, ravaged apparently by a brain tumor, and they finally overcome him. They declare their mutual love and are rescued.

This sea experience is for Hump a proving ground in his development; his values are challenged, and through the rigors of nautical life he grows into vigorous, yet still virtuous, manhood.

The novel was adapted for film several times: 1920, 1926, 1930 (with dialogue by S. N. Behrman*), 1941 (starring Edward G. Robinson), 1958 (with the title Wolf Larsen), and 1997.

John Samson