JACK LONDON AND THE HAIRY APE
Robert McIlvaine's convincing article in the January 1979 issue of The Eugene O'Neill Newsletter ("Crane's Maggie: A Source for The Hairy Ape," pp. 8-10) shows that Yank's low-down but poetic lingo owes something to the rough talk Stephen Crane created for Jimmie in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1896). Like the notorious Jimmie, Yank is a defiant survivor of a brutalized childhood; both characters, as Mcllvaine notes, show a potentiality for awareness that has been crippled by New York's worst environments. Further parallels in the two works that Mcllvaine observes are the use of ape imagery and of the same final words of rejection—"Go to Hell"—which send both Maggie and Yank to suicide. I would like here to suggest another important influence on The Hairy Ape (1922), that of Jack London's autobiographical novel, Martin Eden (1909), which is closely related to O'Neill's central concerns as well as to his characters and plot. It was a natural influence, for O'Neill had to a degree modeled himself on Jack London, an early hero—the red-blooded sailor, romantic adventurer, gifted and self-made writer, and revolutionary socialist.
Both Martin Eden and The Hairy Ape center on rugged lower-class seamen (although Martin is an untaught genius, far surpassing barbaric Yank in awareness) who painfully discover that they do not "belong" in the bourgeois society that despises and exploits the likes of them. Each is challenged by an anemic princess in white; a sexless, protected daughter of wealth. Martin wills to improve and educate himself so that he can worthily win his goddess. Yank, in contrast, vows to destroy the pale she-ghost who had in revulsion termed him a "filthy beast." Despite these differing quests, both men suffer disillusionment, disorientation, disintegration. Both are rugged individualists who reject conformity to socialism as well as to capitalism, and who finally reject life (i.e., a frustrated life of mere existence) in ways that symbolize return to nature Martin drowning himself by dropping from a ship (bound for the Eden of the South Sea islands); Yank forcing open the zoo cage to release the gorilla that crushes him in an "embrace."
Before both protagonists reject, by snuffing out life, a meaningless existence, they are offered the same alternative to the unnatural bourgeois system—the socialist alternative, sympathetically presented by both writers, especially by London. While both protagonists reject the socialists, the implications of their rejections are different, for London believed in revolutionary socialism whereas O'Neill had moved toward a dark mysticism of evolution and the life force.
O'Neill, who had voted for Eugene Debs and early considered himself a socialist, is sympathetic to his socialists, though not so much to the sloganeering Long, who reveals the class struggle to Yank, as to the open and aboveboard IWW men who reject Yank's wish for a conspiracy of violence. But he has Yank (his Everyman) express the basic human problem as alienation from nature rather than as class struggle due to bourgeois exploitation, for human nature, in the eyes of Yank and his creator, is in a transitional stage of evolution, having lost clear guidance from instinct without having perfected thought—a painful diagnosis recalling Theodore Dreiser's naturalism.
The Hairy Ape derives from O'Neill's questionings about what might have caused the suicide of his friend Driscoll, a tough, proud stoker who had leapt from his ship to drown (ironically, Martin Eden's way of suicide). On the other hand, Martin Eden, originally titled Success, is a carefully elaborated, at times overwritten, warning that both bourgeois success and Nietzschean individualism (considered here as the lonely achievement of the true philosopher, scientist or artist) are paths of death for a gifted member of the working class who is drawn to the false idols of "culture," "refinement," "love," "success," "art" and "achievement," as these are defined by bourgeois society. Martin's rejection of the compassionate, revolutionary movement of socialism is a fatal error: that is London's warning to his readers.
Both London and O'Neill were torn by conflicts between their marked individualism and their social concern and sympathy for the masses (or, in Nietzschean terms, their pity for the weak, the herd). Caught between Nietzsche and Marx, Jack London favored Marx, worked hard for the socialist cause, and yet, like his Martin Eden, ended in depression and suicide. O'Neill took a different philosophical road. In her excellent study, The Tempering of Eugene O'Neill (New York, 1962), Doris Alexander has shown how O'Neill, influenced by the "life force" preached by Bernard Shaw (pp. 95-96) and more especially by the Hindu and Buddhist mysticism of his friend Terry Carlin, resolved "the conflict between Marxian socialism and Nietzschean individualism in favor of individualism. Through his friendship with Terry Carlin, Eugene O'Neill became a philosophical anarchist and a confirmed mystic" (p. 214). Thus, despite the parallels in character, conflict and resolution, The Hairy Ape and Martin Eden reach differing conclusions.
Young, poor, rough, gifted Martin Eden's initial illusion is that there is a "finer life"; a life he has read about in romantic fiction; a life of culture, art and refinement lived in beautiful great houses by marvelous, intelligent, kind people. People not like the likes of him, unless he prove himself worthy by educating himself; by improving his appearance, speech and manners; by earning and achieving a signal success. In love with romantic love, the infatuated Martin mistakes a repressed, uselessly educated, wealthy girl, Ruth, for a goddess of beauty, culture and purity whom he will worship and serve with all his intense genius and energy. She will improve and inspire him, until he is worthy of her and her family. Unlike Yank, who fights the bourgeoisie, Martin's initial wish is to join them after proving his worthiness to do so. A true student, he drives himself into literature, science, philosophy; he proves himself in debates with college people, going so far ahead intellectually that he begins to look down on the bourgeois as being timid conformists—a conforming herd like the working class; not brave, original thinkers like his new found heroes, Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche. But Martin does not see through Ruth, his goddess on a pedestal, until she and her family reject him on the basis of a newspaper's inaccurate and malicious description of him as a "red" when in fact he had attacked the socialists to their faces as a slavish and cowardly herd.
When disillusionment with middle class "love" strikes him, Martin is devastated and has nothing to live for, even though suddenly all his literary ships come in and his writing is acclaimed and bought by everyone. Literary success proves a nightmare of commercialism, lionizing and backbiting. He cannot return to his roots in the lower classes, having read too many books and changed too much. Nor can he be a simple sailor again, as his friend Brissenden urges him. Consumptive poet and reluctant socialist, Brissenden argues for socialism as a way of life: even if socialism be a lesser evil, only preferable to "the man on horseback," even if it limit individualistic genius in some ways, it is the way of compassion and humanity. Brissenden's arguments are too late for Martin, and Brissenden's suicide seals his despair. Liz, the working-class girl who, in contrast to Ruth, loves Martin for himself and offers to live with him without marriage, speaks the final truth to him: he has become "sick in the head." London has him make the final discovery that if he has rejected socialism, neither is he a Nietzschean superman, for he cannot rise above compassion for the weak and the poor, represented by his drudging, wasted sister. Jack London warns us that the charms of genteel culture, of romantic love, of personal success, even the nobler heroic dream of being the lonely genius who serves beauty or truth—that all of these are false and fatal ways. Martin's illusions, like Yank's, lead to nothingness, but Martin should have chosen otherwise.
Yank, too, moves toward disillusionment, but there is not the feeling that Yank could or should have made other choices. O'Neill has Yank begin with the illusion that he belongs, as the self-proclaimed leader of rugged men who do the elemental work of feeding the mighty boilers which provide the power to move the modern world. When Mildred Douglass the pale, indelicate daughter of the owner of Nazareth Steel, recoils from him as from a "hairy ape," he is enraged, but his efforts at violent revenge upon her and her class prove impotent. In a parody of Rodin's "Thinker," he sits and ponders, a baffled brute. Could it be that the old sailing days were really better because closer to nature, as the old drunken poet Paddy says? Are he and the likes of him the slaves of the effete but well-protected rich? How can he strike out against them? Is he an ape-man? When the socialists reject him as violent, ignorant and conspiratorial (O'Neill has Yank get his distorted picture of socialists as bomb throwers from the tirade of a right-wing senator), he in turn rejects socialism as a pathetically limited solution, for the problem is not "three meals a day," but belonging—Yank is homeless on earth. Shedding his illusions of power and pride, finding himself a feeble thinker and an unnatural ape, he stoically chooses extinction.
I leave it to O'Neill scholars to debate whether The Hairy Ape is not O'Neill's somewhat reluctant farewell to what Mark Twain described, upon finishing Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887, as "man's last and best dream, socialism." To a degree O'Neill had experienced the same conflicts as Jack London and shared London's quest: "Let me glimpse the face of truth. Tell me what the face of truth looks like." I think The Hairy Ape owes something to the truth as Stephen Crane viewed it in Maggie; much to the truth as Jack London saw it in Martin Eden; and more to the truth Eugene O'Neill saw in his experiences, questionings and meditations.
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