Becoming Hawaiian: Jack London, Cultural Tourism, and the Myth of Hawaiian Exceptionalism

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Editor: Jelena O. Krstovic
From: Short Story Criticism(Vol. 133. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 13,296 words

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[(essay date 2005) In the following essay, Eperjesi addresses the complicated relationship London had with Hawaiian culture and politics evident in his Hawaiian stories, concluding these works helped initiate the practice of cultural tourism in the state.]

An uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and the periphery.--Michel Foucault, Discipline and PunishIt's party time! Alooooooha!--MC at tourist lu'au in Hawai'i1

Hawaiian Exceptionalism

Jack London is the American writer most critics love to hate, hate to love, or simply ignore. Such a wide range of critical affect stems from the fact that the most coherent thing that can be said about London is that his writings, both fiction and non-fiction, are full of contradictions.2 London channels doctrines of Anglo-Saxon masculinist supremacy one minute and exposes the horrors of such a worldview the next. The reception of London's writings has tended to reflect such contradictions; his work has enjoyed enormous popularity, yet he remains subcanonical, his legacy being more the product of fan culture and primary school English classes than of serious literary criticism.3

Most readers associate London with his two stories set in the Yukon, The Call of the Wild and "To Build a Fire." These foundational texts of canine fiction have installed in countless generations of youth the idea that the study of literature means arranging a series of extra-large binaries: Man versus Nature, Man versus Society, Man versus Man. Few readers are aware, though, that these vivid depictions of the chilly Alaskan climate were penned while London was sun-bathing in Pearl Harbor, or that his article, "A Royal Sport," was one of the first detailed descriptions of surfing, complete with photographs, for the American public. This article helped popularize the sport to which Annette Funicello and Dick Dale owe their careers, one that has regularly mediated the relationship between waves of postwar American youth, the Pacific Ocean, and the multicultural mix that regularly congregates on beaches looking to hang ten.4

London spent the better part of the last sixteen years of his life sailing, and signifying, around the Pacific, funding his tours with a continuous stream of short stories, novels, and magazine articles that provided crucial links between Hawai'i and the continental United States. According to his wife, Charmian, a typical day in Hawai'i for Jack would not begin until he had written 10,000 words, no more, no less.5 A number of different places and peoples were drawn into the semiotic webs spun out of his time in the Pacific. But for the Londons, Hawai'i was exceptional, the ontos and telos of the Pacific. Jack London's relationship to Hawai'i can be summarized by a well-exercised anecdote narrated by Charmian in Our Hawaii, her diary of their first trip around the Pacific:

"Do you know what you are?" I quizzed Jack, having outrun him by a word or two in the race for knowledge."No, I don't. And I don't care. But do you know where you are?" he countered."No, I don't. You are...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420098777