Saturday, June 12, 2010

From On Native Grounds, by Alfred Kazin

I'm reading Alfred Kazin's study of American literature of the period 1890-1940 right now, and once I finish I will likely have some things to say about it, but for now, I just want to flag this perplexing passage:
The clue to Jack London's work is certainly to be found in his own turbulent life, and not in his Socialism. He was a Socialist by instinct, but he was also a Nietzschean and a follower of Herbert Spencer by instinct. All his life he grasped whatever straw of salvation lay nearest at hand, and if he joined Karl Marx to the Superman with a boyish glee that has shocked American Marxists ever since, it is interesting to remember that he joined Herbert Spencer to Shelley, and astrology to philosophy, with as carefree a will. The greatest story he ever wrote was the story he lived: the story of the illegitimate son of a Western adventurer and itinerant astrologer, who grew up in Oakland, was an oyster pirate at fifteen, a sailor at seventeen, a tramp and a 'work-beast,' a trudger after Coxey's Army, a prospector in Alaska, and who quickly became rich by his stories, made and spent several fortunes, and by the circle of his own confused ambitions came round to the final despair in which he took his life… (111)
I find the idea that anyone attaches themselves to any ideology "by instinct" a profound and absurdly un-self-reflective misunderstanding of how anyone comes to think the things they do, but my confusion is not over Kazin's journalistic superficiality. Rather,

what the hell is an "oyster pirate?"

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I suspected it was someone who fished oyster beds illegally, but had to resort to Wikipedia to be certain. More here