Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Water Baby

Jack London (1876–1916)
From Jack London: Novels & Stories

“By the time they discovered they had missed him, he had gone to the bottom and come back, within his hand a fat lobster.” Double-page illustration by American artist G. Patrick Nelson (1876–?) for London’s “The Water Baby” when the story first appeared in the September 1918 issue of Cosmopolitan.
Jack London spent much of the last year of his life in Hawaii. He and his wife Charmian arrived in the winter of 1915–16 and stayed through late July. “The New York dweller must wait till summer for the Adirondacks, till winter for the Florida beach,” London wrote in a three-part travel essay published that year in Cosmopolitan. “But in Hawaii, say on the island of Oahu, the Honolulu dweller can decide each day what climate and what season he desires to spend the day in.”

It was the Londons’ second trip to the islands; their original visit in 1907 was the initial leg of their famous (and famously aborted) two-year voyage on his leaky sailboat, the Snark. During that first trip, Jack fell in love not only with the locale but also its people.
Hawaii and the Hawaiians are a land and a people loving and lovable. By their language may ye know them, and in what other land save this one is the commonest form of greeting, not “Good day,” nor “How d’ye do,” but “Love?” That greeting is Aloha—love, I love you, my love to you. Good day—what is it more than an impersonal remark about the weather? How do you do—it is personal in a merely casual interrogative sort of a way. But Aloha! It is a positive affirmation of the warmth of one’s own heart-giving.
Over the objections of most of the Native population, the islands became a U.S. territory in 1898, just four years after a group led by the descendants of American and European settlers overthrew Queen LiliÊ»uokalani and established a provisional government led by Sanford Ballard Dole, the son of Protestant missionaries from Maine. Charmian’s recollection of their meeting with the deposed queen in 1907 interpreted the expression of her eyes as “implacably savage in their cold hatred of everything American. And who can blame her?” Jack’s opinions on the coup were mixed. On the one hand, he wrote:
The haoles, or whites, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy, formed the Dole Republic, and shortly thereafter brought their loot in under the sheltering folds of the Stars and Stripes. There is little use to balk at the word “loot.” The white man is the born looter. And just as the North American Indian was looted of his continent by the white man, so was the Hawaiian looted by the white men of his islands. Such things be. They are morally indefensible.
On the other hand, he argued, it was almost certain that the islands would have been taken over by the Japanese if not by the Americans; the Japanese were far and away the largest group of settlers of the islands and they vastly outnumbered even the Native inhabitants. Better the Americans, London decided. “And let this particular haole who writes these lines here and now subscribe his joy and gladness in the Hawaiian loot.”

In addition to travel essays, London wrote thirteen stories set in Hawaii, which were collected in two volumes, House of Pride (1912) and the posthumously published On the Makaloa Mat (1919). The later tales show the influence of London’s intensive study of the recently translated Psychology of the Unconscious by Carl Jung, which “helped Jack to write some of his better short stories in the last months of his life,” writes biographer Andrew Sinclair. “Jack began to reveal the power of his dreams and his unconscious rather than parading his socialism or his realism.”

One of these tales, “The Water Baby,” was the last story London completed, on October 2, 1916, and it is unlike anything he had previously written. There is little in the way of action or adventure or human struggle; instead, the narrator John Lakana nurses a hangover while taking part in a largely one-sided conversation with Kohokumu, an old Hawaiian fisherman, whose very name (kumu) suggests a teacher or foundation. (Lakana was the name given to London by Hawaiians, although, Charmian wrote in her journal, “how London can be transmuted into Lakana is as much a mystery as the mutation of [their friend] Thurston into Kakina.”) In her biography of Jack, Charmian points out that the exploration of Jungian philosophy in “The Water Baby” is “subtly presented through the medium of Hawaiian mythology. Throughout Dr. Jung’s chapter on ‘Symbolism of Mother and Rebirth,’ there are penciled indications of Jack's grasp of the meaning of folk-lore and mythology of recorded time.”

The result is that, unusually for a story by Jack London, both the moral and the conclusion are ambiguous. “At the end of ‘The Water Baby’ the reader does not know whether the protagonist’s mind has truly been changed, nor if the limitations of his world-view transcended,” writes literary scholar Jeanne C. Reesman in an article examining this final story of one the most prolific American storywriters. “Would that London had lived a few more years—at least—in order to explore further this resonant ambiguity of knowledge.”

Notes: London scatters a few Hawaiian words throughout his story: ukikiki is blue snapper; wahine is female; aliis is a member of the royal family; kona is a strong southwest wind; opihis are limpets (aquatic snails); limu is the general name given to a number of edible seaweeds native to Hawaiian waters. Swipes is a word for beer. Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight main Hawaiian islands; due to its lack of fresh water, it has always been sparsely populated and currently has no permanent residents. Haleakala is the volcano that makes up much of the island of Maui.

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I lent a weary ear to old Kohokumu's interminable chanting of the deeds and adventures of Maui. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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3 comments:

The Triumph of the Thrill said...

Good tale, compels me to read more London in the future.

Tess said...

Your opening dates are incorrect; since London died in November of 1916 in California, he did not spend the winter of that year in Hawaii. Perhaps you mean he spent the winter of 1915 there, returning to Glen Ellen in July of 1916?

The Library of America said...

Thanks for your note. Since the Londons arrived in Hawaitt in time for a New Year's Eve celebration with former queen Liliʻuokalani, we have changed the reference to winter 1915-16 to avoid any ambiguity.