Adventures in Reading

Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan by Jack London
“In the sun’s path they wandered, where every ripple, great or small, every little spit or spray looked like molten silver, where the water lost its dark green color and became a dazzling, silvery flood, only to vanish and become a wild waste of sullen turbulence, each dark foreboding sea rising and breaking, then rolling on again. The dash, the sparkle, the silvery light soon vanished with the sun which became obscured by black clouds that were rolling swiftly in from the west, northwest; apt heralds of the coming storm” from “Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan” from the Short Stories of Jack London.

The other morning I went through my books to pull all of the short story books and collections I had. Originally I thought that I was going to be limited in my reading ambition only to pull more than fifty volumes. For my next short story, I asked my partner to select the book and he handed me the Short Stories of Jack London. Best known for his elemantal man versus nature novels of the “Northlands,” London wrote more than 200 short stories in his life time.

The first story in this collection is “Story of a Typhoon Off the Coast of Japan,” which was London’s first “short story” at 17 won him first place and $25, or a month’s wages, in a San Francisco competition. London remarked “Once … I won a prize essay of twenty-five dollars from a San Francisco paper over the heads of Stanford and California Universities, both of which were represented by second and third place through their undergraduates. This gave me hope for achieving something ultimately.”

The introduction to the collection refers to “Typhoon” as a “‘short story.'” It was written for an essay contest after all, but I cannot aptly define what a short story is and thus won’t reject “Typhoon” as not being a short story. I did struggle with it, however. Typhoon is filled with technical nautical terms and a linear narrative style that encouraged me to scan. It wasn’t a gripping tale by any means (“Typhoon” seems a bit of an exaggeration) and it took some self-persuading to reread the story.

Keeping in mind the early date of “Typhoon” (November 12, 1893), London’s inexperience as a writer, and that it is based on real life happenings of the teenage London from the summer before, the story also has its successes. Like the introduction quote to this post, London delivers a few gripping detailed scenes that are adventurously beautiful and charge the reader’s senses. A remark from Alfred Kazin describes “the greatest story Jack London ever wrote was the story he lived” and “Typhoon” allows a sweeping view of what is to come in London’s life time.

As well, the concluding scene where the “‘bricklayer'” is sewn into a canvas coffin and thrown overboard after dying of consumption brings some effect to the story. In some ways the scene is unnecessary and disconnected from the actual typhoon but it does create complexity for the story. As a child I read London’s novels and loved the stories of the super men and dogs of the north, and it was intriguing to read about the teenage London and his first step into writing.


“The Voyage” by Washington Irving
“Who can tell, when he sets forth to wander, whither he may be driven by the uncertain currents of existence, or when he may return, or whether it may ever be his lot to revisit the scenes of his childhood?” from Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” from The Sketch Book.

Washington Irving is perhaps best known for his two short stories “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (both stories I admittedly have never read), and I had never read his short fiction or considered reading them until I finished Edgar Allan Poe’s review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story collection Twice-Told Tales where within he mentions Irving. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of reading Irving is approaching him, as the introduction describes, as a post-colonial author. I confess that in my literary experience I have always considered America the colonizer and had failed to even consider American literature in any way as post-colonial. [1]

When I finish a novel I expect to close the back cover, leave feeling satisfied, see the threads nicely tied together, and generally have some sentiment of contentedness with the entire reading process. My short story reading experience has seldom replicated this scenario. Honestly it is a little closer to reading and then rereading the final page to figure out what the hell just happened, giving in and starting over from the beginning, sparks of excitement as themes etc. begin to fall into place, and ultimately leaving the story (no matter how often I read it) with questions.

This is an excellent reason to read living short story writers because you can write them letters and ask them what they were thinking or what they meant or why the hell they write such confusing prose. Unfortunately for me, Irving has been dead for quite some time.

But that’s the feeling that “The Voyage” left me with. On the surface, “The Voyage” is a tentatively safe short story with an American taking a sea voyage to England. Our nameless narrator reflects on leaving his home, the joys and sorrows of the sea, and finally landing in a strange land. On my first time through I found “The Voyage” terrible dry and dull and dreaded trying to reread it. However, I found “The Voyage” to be a tale punctuated with the grief and flatteries of the sea and these concepts broadening to metaphors for life. Irving captures a multi-faceted approach to the ocean describing it as “vacancy,” “meditation,” “monotony,” and “continual reverie.” The ocean becomes a symbol of isolation and cruelty as well as an extention of purification and childlike whimsy.

“The Voyage” has the more obvious man versus nature references but my favorite parts of “The Voyage” were two internal stories, which I’ll refer to as “The Captain’s Story” and “The Sailor’s Arrival.” “The Captain’s Story” is how a ship the captain was on crashed into a smaller schooner uncontrollably and destroyed every thing and one on board. “The Sailor’s Arrival” ends “The Voyage” as a woman scans the faces onboard the boat for her husband and only recognizes her husband after he calls to her as he is so emaciated and near death. The woman ends the story wringing her hands “in silent agony.” These two minor stories were wonderful and created a complexity within “The Voyage” it would otherwise lack.

But what was the point? “The Captain’s Story” is rather more fitting as it serves as a representation of the chaos and uncontrolable nature of the sea. However, “The Sailor’s Arrival,” while lovely, seems almost superfluous. Or is it? As a result of the shortness of prose tales it is unlikely that an author would interject unnecessary information. What objective do these stories serve? Likewise, considering the period Irving was writing in, what poignancy can be extricated from the concluding lines of the story: “I alone was solitary and idle. I had no friend to meet, no cheering to receive. I stepped upon the land of my forefathers–but felt that I was a stranger in the land”?

[1] Keeping in mind that these post-colonial peoples were doing terrible things to the native population.