Back Jack London, “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.

Turn to any of a number of books or articles on the history of surfing and you’ll find a near-obligatory mention of how Jack London popularized the sport among Americans or, even more extravagantly, the claim that he helped rescue it from near-extinction in the Hawaiian Islands. Either version is often overstated; London was just one of a group of young men, including Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku, who brought surfing to the attention of an international audience, and although London learned to surf (sort of) during his first trip to Hawaii in 1907, he can hardly be said to have inspired hordes of kahuna chasers when he returned to the States.

London did, however, bring surfing to the attention of American readers, most notably in the article “Riding the South Sea Surf,” which appeared, of all places, in the pages of Woman’s Home Companion. It was later reprinted as a chapter of his best-selling travelogue The Cruise of the Snark (1911), but by then surfing fever had already begun its invasion of the globe. When London returned to Oahu in 1916, the number of the mostly white surfers in the Outrigger Canoe Club had grown to 1,200, and they competed regularly with the Native members of the equally thriving Hawaiian Hui Nalu club. (Both organizations still exist.)

Among the twenty novels and hundreds of short stories London wrote in his sixteen-year career are thirteen tales set in the Islands, including his very last story, which he finished soon after his return from Hawaii and shortly before his death. Featuring a narrator who is a lot like London himself and an elderly Native fisherman who spins marvelous tales from island myths, “The Water Baby” is unlike anything London had written before. We present it as our Story of the Week selection.

Read “The Water Baby” by Jack London

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