Being pre-human: book review / Before Adam by Jack London


(c) Hesperus


I discovered Jack London in the conventional way.  Like millions of others in the English-speaking world, I was made to read White Fang and The Call of the Wild at school, which gave me the impression that London only wrote about dogs at the North Pole.  Now that’s all well and fine, but after reading two books on that particular subject I felt no wish to read any more, and I didn’t bother about Jack London for many years afterwards.


I rediscovered Jack London in a very unconventional way.  A while back, I was working on an educational project based in a hard-line communist country – one of the last hard-line communist countries in the world – and was asked to put together an English-literature course for a local university.  The texts set for this course had already been approved by the communist authorities and one of them was London’s novel Martin Eden.  The socialist London, I learned later, was much admired in the Soviet Union and there’s even a 10-kilometre-long lake named after him in Siberia.


A semi-autobiographical novel dealing with both the spiritual barrenness of the wealthy classes and the absurd pretensions of the literary elite, Martin Eden, I realised, was actually very good.  And there wasn’t a husky or an ice floe in sight.


After that I read such London books as The Sea Wolf and People of the Abyss, which was a journalistic tome about a period in 1903 when London passed himself off as an common sailor and lived in his namesake city’s East End, writing about the wretched living conditions and human specimens he experienced there – thirty years before George Orwell did the same thing more famously in Down and Out in Paris and London.  I also read a lot of his short stories, for which the adjective ‘cracking’ could have been invented.


Jack London appeals to me too because he managed to live the sort of life that would seem unbelievable if he’d been a character in another writer’s story.  Not only did he acquire massive literary fame in his short 40-year life, but at different times he worked in a cannery, a jute mill and a power plant, sailed a sloop around San Francisco Bay as an oyster pirate, got arrested for vagrancy and spent time in a penitentiary, served on a sealing ship that took him as far as Japan and, of course, prospected for gold in the Klondike.  To make the romance of Jack London just that little more romantic, he also died at a tragically young age and that most writerly of afflictions, alcohol, at least contributed to his death.  London even managed to pen a late-in-the-day memoir about his relationship with alcohol called John Barleycorn, in which he described drinking copious amounts of the stuff but – like a true alcoholic – repeatedly denied that he had a problem with it.


Before Adam is a minor but intriguing London novel from 1907, narrated by a modern-day American who’s been plagued from early childhood by dreams with a recurrent theme – that he’s a member of a tribe of pre-Homo Sapiens ape creatures living back in the middle of the Pleistocene Epoch.  Eventually, after attending college and studying psychology and evolution, he decides that what’s lurking in his subconscious is an elaborate set of ‘racial memories’, passed down to him from a remote ancestor through countless generations and through numerous twists and turns of evolution.


For most people, such racial memories manifest themselves only vaguely, for example, as dreams about falling (which their distant primate ancestors did a lot of, from trees) or as an instinctive fear of the dark.  London’s dream-haunted narrator, however, has been given nightly access to the adventures of Big Tooth, a member of some missing-link-type species called the Folk.  Big Tooth’s Folk live in caves and hover on the evolutionary scale a little way above their forest-dwelling neighbours, the Tree People – outright apes – and another tribe living in the locality called the Fire People, who wear animal skins, light fires and, ominously, have invented the bow and arrow.  Thus, the narrator of Before Adam relates the life story of his prehistoric alter-ego Big Tooth after he’s pieced it together from his thousands of dreams.  The story runs from Tooth’s childhood to the cataclysmic events where the Folk are all but wiped out by the encroaching Fire People.


On one level Before Adam is a rollicking adventure story with a pretty heroine – the Swift One, who eventually becomes Big Tooth’s mate, is described thus: “Her eyes were larger than most of her kind, and they were not so deep-set, while the lashes were longer and more regular…  Her incisors were not large, nor was her upper lip long and down-hanging, nor her lower lip protruding… and while she was thin-hipped, her calves were not twisted or gnarly” – the villains are (literally) brutish and the narrative is spiced with battles, narrow escapes, chases and encounters with sabre-toothed tigers.  In some ways, it feels like a forerunner to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, which was published in 1912, although the racial-memory device with which London frames the narrative gives it a more literary feel than Burroughs’ stories about the yodelling, vine-swinging Tarzan.  It helps that London’s ideas are similar to those of the soon-to-be-fashionable Carl Jung.


Before Adam is reminiscent too of William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors, another tale about prehistoric ape creatures.  Indeed, the fashion in which the human-seeming Fire People set about destroying the Folk prefigures Golding’s storyline, which has his Neanderthal characters falling foul of the ‘new people’, i.e. Homo Sapiens.  Golding, however, is game enough to tell his story from the point of view of one of the Neanderthals, rather than take London’s approach and have a contemporary narrator filter and interpret the prehistoric events for the benefit of the reader.  This makes The Inheritors seem as artistically superior to Before Adam as it seems to the Tarzan books.


London’s set-up creates a few problems for the narrative.  The Folk lack sufficient perception of time, progress and cause-and-effect to do anything other than live for the moment – “Life was hit or miss and happy-go-lucky with us.  Little was ever planned, and less was executed.  We ate when we were hungry, drank when we were thirsty, avoided our carnivorous enemies, took shelter in the caves at night, and for the rest just sort of played along through life.”  This means the story ends up as a fairly random and haphazard collection of events, with only the impending genocide waged by the Fire People giving it some momentum.  At the same time, the suspense is limited by our knowledge that, whatever happens, Big Tooth and his family will survive at the end – they have to, so that through their descendants their memories will be planted in the narrator’s subconscious many generations later.


But Before Adam is an engaging book and, at only 124 pages, it’s worth spending a couple of hours with.  And the various members of the Folk whom Big Tooth encounters and whom the narrator describes make surprisingly amiable characters: “In spite of the fear under which we lived, the Folk were always great laughers,” observes the narrator at one point.  “We had the sense of humour.  Our merriment was gargantuan.  It was never restrained.  There was nothing halfway about it.  When a thing was funny we were convulsed with appreciation of it, and the simplest, crudest things were funny to us.”


Then the Fire People show up and slaughter the jolly little fellows.  Yes, that sounds human.


2 thoughts on “Being pre-human: book review / Before Adam by Jack London

  1. Thanks for posting your insightful review. After reading London’s biography, I still cannot understand how and when he could have written so much in such short periods when he had the emotional state of mind and physical settings that allowed him to write. BTW my paperback small copy of Before Adam was 228 pages, which makes me wonder if you read an abridged version. Do you know if his stories were edited and downsized by publishers?

    • Hi, Yona —
      Thanks you for your comment. I don’t have my copy of ‘Before Adam’ at hand, but I don’t remember the text in it being particularly small — so it sounds like it was indeed an abridged version. Regarding London’s work-rate, his novel ‘Martin Eden’ depicts its hero, a common sailor, putting himself through hell in order to educate himself and establish himself as a writer. He slaves away in manual jobs to support himself financially and then deprives himself of sleep to have time to study and write. I assume the novel is at least semi-autobiographical and that’s the regime that the real Jack London subjected himself to, at least, before he became famous.

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