Masculinity in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf and Maceo Montoya’s You Must Fight Them

One of the great things about spending thirteen or fourteen of the last twenty something years coaching Academic Decathlon, Aca-Dec for the initiated, is that preparing for each year’s different theme exposes me to material that I wouldn’t have rubbed up against any other way. That’s certainly true this summer, because if it weren’t for it being selected as this year’s long work of literature, there was no way in perdition’s maelstrom I was going to spend time this summer reading Jack London’s novel The Sea Wolf.

If you’d asked me to make a list of London’s books, I don’t know that I would’ve been able to put this one on it before May. But as I was reading it, I found myself thinking a lot about notions of masculinity and manhood from our wider cultural discourse, and some of what doesn’t qualify as discourse out in the Twitterverse (some of which I can’t tell if it’s sincere, satire, or self-parody).

The Sea Wolf‘s story revolves around a dyad, opposite poles of male identity. On one end is the protagonist and narrator Humphrey Van Weyden, a wan intellectual who comes from money, and Wolf Larsen, a tyrannical seal boat captain. When Van Weyden’s ferry out from San Francisco capsizes, he is pulled from the sea by Larsen’s men. Far from a rescue, Larsen promptly shanghais Hump, as he dubs him, and presses him into service in their trans-Pacific hunt. Larsen is all vitality and he easily subdues Van Weyden to his will. As a narrator, Van Weyden is self-conscious and aware of his own stunted manhood, particularly when compared to the larger-than-life bravado of Larsen. The captain grows fond of the intellectual conversations he can have with Hump that he couldn’t have with his other sailors and they debate endlessly whether there are any higher principles at work in the universe or whether life is simply fungus, ever-growing–meat to be taken by the strong, as Larsen believes.

Van Weyden comes to respect Larsen in a strange way, even as he hates and villainizes him. There are homoerotic undertones to the way that he describes Larsen’s raw and powerful physicality. But–as you’d expect from an adventure novel from 1904–this theme gets subsumed.

Enter Maud. Another shipwreck victim is brought on board long after Hump has grown accustomed to (and been appreciably toughened up by) the sailor’s life. By an astronomical coincidence, the young woman snatched from the sea happens to be someone Van Weyden knows, at least by reputation. Maud Brewster is a published literary critic and she and Van Weyden are familiar with each others’ work. She, too, assumes she has been rescued, but Van Weyden disabuses her of that notion. Larsen presses the others from her life boat into life before the mast and takes a special interest in her.

For a second, I thought London might do something interesting. There was a moment when I wondered if Maud might actually be drawn to the gruff, confident masculinity of Larsen. But, no, Van Weyden and Maud escape the ship and have a little Gilligan’s Island adventure where they play house on a deserted island–all the while Van Weyden imagines maybe someday telling Maud that he is in love with her, but, of course, her chastity goes unthreatened during months alone on a desert island. In the end, they meet up with Larsen again when he and his ghost ship wash ashore post-mutiny, and the crippled captain withers and dies while Van Weyden becomes a complete man–not just made of irrational appetite like Larsen, but still strong enough to provide for “his woman”–and effects repairs to the ship and gets them to safety where, presumably, they get married, finally have sex, and live happily ever after. Maud never seems to think twice about her role in this plot. As a character, she’s as bland as they come. She’s custom-written for Weyden’s journey like some kind of castaway manic pixie dream girl.

As I read The Sea Wolf, my mind kept going back to another book exploring themes of manhood that I read not long ago. Maceo Montoya’s You Must Fight Them is also told by a bookish narrator, but one set pretty far from the pampered wealth of Van Weyden’s background. The narrator is a pale-skinned kid from a Mexican family in SoCal long, long after London’s time. A bit of a misfit, he takes honors classes and maps a course to college. While in school, he takes note from afar of Lupita Valdez, a beautiful girl with a problematic family background. You see, if you try to date Lupita, her brothers will fight you. And they are a trio of very tough and scary customers, so few dare to make a bid for her affection.

The narrator goes on, sheds his awkwardness, becomes a successful student and steers toward grad school, but after graduating and going back home, he happens to meet up with Lupita who not only remembers him from high school but admits that she had a little crush on him (On him? Imagine!) because he was so different.

Like Maud in London’s Sea Wolf, Lupita serves primarily as an idealized feminine figure for the narrator. But unlike Maud, there’s some complexity and wrinkles that make her a fully realized character in her own right. You see, even though she’s an adult, working in retail management, the old deal still applies. After a series of dates far away from her neighborhood and somewhat clandestine behavior, she finally admits to the narrator that her brothers would still beat him senseless if they found out they were dating. “Still?” he asked. Yes, still.

It’s a somewhat absurd premise, but it lets Montoya dig into the theme of masculinity in much more interesting ways than London did. As the narrator and Lupita continue in secret to avoid this gang-style “jumping in,” he feels more and more uneasy about his inability to rise to this physical challenge.

And eventually, his unwillingness to endure the physical trial, to fit this warped vision of manhood, does seem to erode Lupita’s affection for him. Despite herself, on some level she seems to want him to step up and “be a man” as much as, deep down, he wishes he could not only fight her brothers, but somehow win.

It’s interesting that both these schema revolve around their relationship to womanhood. London seems to endorse a code that finds a middle ground between the violent, commanding masculinity of Larsen and the initial sheepishness of Van Weyden while Montoya’s exploration is more complex, less pat. Like London’s, his narrator is overly intellectual and aware of how his education and social status tug him away from these more primal, if not feral visions of masculinity, but this explores men as victims of ideology more than The Sea Wolf and, particularly in the ending, challenges middle-ground resolutions, or any resolution at all, really.

It mirrors a larger discussion about toxic masculinity littered with problematic online whining about “simps” and outright misogyny set against broader trends in marriage roles and income disparities–and men’s reactions to both. But what literary explorations of masculinity identify again and again–think Palahniuk’s Fight Club–is the implicit or explicit violence inside men’s notions of their own manhood. Larsen knew it and embraced it. Van Weyden knew it and feared it. And Montoya’s narrator struggles with it throughout.

Though London’s denouement suggests that this wolf-nature can be tamed toward a certain kind of domesticity if the man has a woman to claim and serve and protect, it’s noteworthy that this is only possible for his poindexter protagonist because the stronger wolf met with a convenient deus ex machina end.

Insomnia, Twitter, and the New Dune Trailer

I hate Twitter. It is not for me. I hated it when it was only 140 characters. I still find it unusable at 280. Last night at God-knows-what-AM, I tweeted this:

Looking back, it’s incomprehensible. I’d had to edit it down so much that it just doesn’t land and apparently, late last night, I didn’t realize that I had rendered it incomprehensible and tweeted it anyway.

What I’d wanted to say was: For me, having too much caffeine in the evening leads inevitably to the kind of manic, insomnia-driven spurt of creativity where I’m supposedly reading Magnason’s On Time and Water, but am really mapping out an essay comparing images of masculinity in Jack London’s Sea Wolf and Montoya’s You Must Fight Them while also adding lines mentally to a poem I started while watching the Anthony Bourdain documentary and then sketching out the basic concept for a novel about authoritarianism.

I threw the Stellaris thing in there as a joke. I wasn’t (remarkably) actually thinking about my last Stellaris game. But for the record, that is a wicked form of digital crack to be avoided.

So neither tweet is funny, per se. And though brevity is the soul of wit, not everything can be funny, right? Not everything should be funny. And not everything can be conveyed and digested in a blipvert.

Case in point: The new Dune trailer, which I found myself watching late last night (because, again, insomnia).

I have many thoughts on this trailer.

First of all, it looks gorgeous. I think those of us following the development of this film knew it would be. From Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve has obviously established that if you want thinky, austere beauty in a sci-fi film, you come to him.

Secondly, Timothee Chaalamet still seems too boyish and skinny to be Paul Atreides. I’ve been wrong about stuff like this before and people turned out to be perfect for the role and all, but c’mon, they even have Jason Mamoa’s Duncan Idaho joke about how skinny he is in the trailer.

Third thought: Why is Duncan Idaho joking? I don’t remember any humor like whatsofreakinever in the Dune novel. Maybe they figure: We cast Jason Mamoa. We should use his natural charisma. It’s not like the guy can’t play stiff and laconic. He was Conan. Before that he was Ronan. His big break was as Kahl Drogo. He can be a no-nonsense tough guy. Maybe I need to reread the books, but I don’t remember Duncan being punchy. Then again, they’re playing the long game on this film (the trailer doesn’t say so, but this is only Part I of Dune) so maybe they’re thinking, “Duncan is really the hero and main character of the entire millennia-spanning Dune series, so let’s make him more personable.”

Who knows?

But my real thought is this: You can’t tweet what makes Dune awesome. You can’t package it in a trailer. They should just go for impressionistic in a trailer for this movie, but instead, it tries to give the audience a sense of everything that’s going on. And I do mean, everything. This is like a trailer for a romantic comedy. If this film only covers the first half of the book, then we’re seeing pretty much the whole story in this clip.

For a fan of the book, this looks awesome. I assume this will be the best adaptation of the Dune yet–and for the record, I think the Sci-Fi channel’s miniseries is underrated–and it will be a shame if Hollywood B.S. or poor audience response denies us the Part II to this Part I (much less future Dune Messiah and Children of Dune adaptations…I have no idea how you could make a big budget God Emperor of Dune, but if the worm’s willing, I hope they make it that far).

But what do non-fans see here? I think it could come off looking like a basket of really pretty space opera cliches (the cliches are based on this!) like Jupiter Ascending or something.

Packaging cultural products as, well, products hardly begins and ends with Twitter. This reductionist tendency in late-stage capitalism’s relationship to art, thought, and expression is hardly limited to Twitter. But Twitter’s the worst of it, so let’s burn it down first. Start there.

Yeah, that’s all. This rant has little substance. Basically: Twitter bad. Dune good. And I shouldn’t have had a Dr. Pepper that size with dinner.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

No one suspected that the shark had put himself in the box. Not only chosen the box, not only swum into it in careful, back-and-forth motions like a car squeezing into a too-tight parking space, but constructed the box itself, designing the enclosure with its supposedly primitive mind meant only to think about the sweetness of thrashing fish meat; somehow–with gesticulation of fin and careful clenching of jaw muscles, it riveted the iron beams holding the plexiglass.

And now, it holds still not through the effects of any formaldehyde emulsion, but through its own discipline, through commitment to its art.

Biography

Self portrait of my
middle
perhaps end years

This is what I have seen.

This is what I will be.

There
just there
a plain of rippled mockery
–lambasting my white privilege

And everywhere
everywhere the aging pull of gravity

You will think you
see my blood
–and it is there–
but not where you imagine

You can see the rolling hills
I have never lain upon

Behold the artifice/artifact that
constrained me

And if you pick just the right detail:
my soul itself

Atlas

A pebble that needed no support

no ligatures between firmament
and
firm ground

Are we reaching
or digging

Is this some new titan
holding up the heavens

How long until the bough breaks
And
down
we tumble
down

Brown bones
of the world
Bronzed but brittle

Did He merely dream
Was he only hoping
that there was some weight upon his shoulders

Because what if not?
What if it was only
open hands
and an indifferent sky

Arete

The idea came to him while reading Ovid.

Suddenly, he thought the poet had not been ambitious enough. 

Yes, Ovid had written a history of the world beginning with the deepest lore of Greek mythology up to the deification of Caesar—but so much felt glossed over. There were so many corners cut. 

So this would be his answer to Ovid: a new translation from the Latin, but interspersed with his own translations of Homer. But he would introduce his own verse as well. When Ovid got to the Trojan War and glossed over nine years worth of battles, he would layer in new stories of the heroes, then connect wholesale to the Iliad, then keep going. An entire verse history of the Western world, calling on all the great poets. Link up and hold hands with Virgil. Then compose a whole new epic based on Gibbon for the fall of Rome. Thousands of new lines to cover the Dark Ages. Meet up with Beowulf, sure. Why not? The poetry would come alive again with the Renaissance. There would be cantos for each great artist, each great thinker. Traipse from Michelangelo all the way to Shakespeare and then Newton—Locke, Descartes, Roseau. A whole epic for the Age of Reason. Who should be the heroes for the conquest of the Americas? Surely a war poem for Washington, but he’d need others in between. No matter, he could shift focus as liberally as Ovid himself did. Eventually, he’d reach the apex of human conflict—an epic beyond all previous epics for World War II. Then treat the Cold War with the same sort of muted meter he had the Dark Ages. Weave that into the doldrums of the early twenty-first century, through plague and corruption.

And then…then go further. Beyond his own era, the whole poem would become science fiction. Convert Kim Stanley Robinson to iambic hexameter. He salivated at the prospect of a space battle modeled on Hector’s flight from Achilles. And beyond. Reembrace myth. Follow Superman to the doom of the sun, finally weakening when its rays turn red. 

As he considered the scope of it, he thought constantly of Chaucer and the unfinished Canterbury Tales, but tried to encourage himself. He was a young man, after all. If he could live to ninety, then he had a chance of finishing. There was time. He mapped out a schedule on the wall of his apartment. There would be no room in his life for something so mundane as a job now. He’d have to rely on some kind of public assistance. And Carol and the kids would have to go. Unneeded distractions. 

But he would really have to learn Ancient Greek to get started.