Tag Archives: Marine Literature

You Stand on Dead Men’s Legs

“You stand on dead men’s legs.”

So says Captain Larsen to his human find, the once drowning stranger now plucked from San Francisco Bay by the crew of The Ghost, a schooner starting for the coast of Japan to hunt seals.

The captain ordered his crew to lift the chance man from the freezing water only because they were short one. (The captain’s mate died onboard from a “debauch” the night before.)

The rescued man is Humphrey Van Weyden, who responds to Larsen’s questions of occupation by identifying himself as a “gentleman” who has an “income.”

The angered captain responds, “Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men’s legs.”

Humphrey dismisses the abuse and asks to be put ashore.

It’s then that Wolf Larsen, as the captain’s known, refuses Humphrey’s request and commits to make him stand on his own legs.

“My mate’s gone, and there’ll be a lot of promotion. A sailor comes aft to take mate’s place, cabin-boy goes for’ard to take sailor’s place, and you…”

Thus Humphrey Van Weyden, gentleman, is impressed into service as “Hump,” cabin boy of The Ghost.

This is the setup for Jack London’s 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf. London pits Wolf and Hump against each other for an engaging tale on the sea and to explore whether humans have immortal souls.

It’s Van Weyden who tells the story. He shows Larsen both as a fierce captain of super-human strength who abuses his crew, and as a self-educated man (his state-room full of literary classics and scientific works) who’s curious but skeptical about the value of life.

During breaks in the terror and the hard work of sailing, Wolf seeks Hump to debate whether life is anything more than “particles of yeast…striving to devour each other.” Hump’s impressed by Wolf’s ability to reason and argue, but is unable to change him from “a man of whom to always be afraid.”

Wolf does have a weakness–he gets migraines. This enables two things: opportunity for Hump to save himself, and a gradual physical deterioration that presents an idea about life being more than the desire to devour.

Reading The Sea-Wolf I felt like I too was captive on The Ghost.

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