I'm reading Hearts of Three written by Jack London. Right in Chapter I, I found the following sentence:

If ever a man leaped across time into the raw, red drama and tragedy of the primitive and the medieval melodrama of sentiment and passion of the New World Latin, Francis Morgan was destined to be that man, and Destiny was very immediate upon him.

I understand the whole sentence but I can't catch the meaning of the phrase across time into the raw. What meaning does raw have in the phrase?

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    The word "raw" belongs to "raw, red drama and tragedy of the primitive" Commented May 6, 2021 at 17:28

4 Answers 4


The meaning is a little clearer if we parse and excerpt the phrase a little differently.

across time into the raw, red drama

The adjective raw modifies drama, it's not a noun in this case. London, narrating, draws a connection between primitive vs civilized societies and raw vs cooked meat. And of course there are all kinds of colonialist implications to that.

He is echoing an old Chinese imperial distinction between "raw" and "cooked" barbarians, ie, ones who have adopted less or more of Chinese metropolitan culture. The distinction goes back to the Liji. A similar metaphor organizes Levi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked, which post-dates London. Whether the Liji, Jack London, and Levi-Strauss's uses of the terms are connected is another question.

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    Do you have any evidence supporting the last paragraph? It seems much more likely to me that London is using 'raw' for its plain English meaning rather than making an allusion to ancient Chinese culture. It also seems more likely that he intends raw in the sense of 'abraded' rather than 'uncooked.'
    – d_b
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 21:37
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    I'm not claiming he is deliberately alluding to the imperial Chinese distinction (which persisted beyond ancient times). I'm merely claiming all three of those sources reached for the same "raw" metaphor to describe cultures outside their own, which they saw as primitive. The meanings of "raw as uncooked" and "raw as abraded" both work to identify this "unprocessed" quality associated with the primitive.
    – Adam Burke
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 23:30
  • Aside: there might be something interesting in contrasting the way Jack London and others identify the primitive with the "raw" - not processing things enough - Adolf Loos identifies it with ornament - ie elaborate, careful processing.
    – Adam Burke
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 23:33

I think you're parsing the sentence a little bit wrong. It's not "leaped across time into the raw", it's "leaped across time into the raw, red drama and tragedy of ...". "Raw" is applied to the "red drama and tragedy", and I think the specific imagery here is of an untreated open wound: the drama and tragedy are shocking, painful, direct, alive, etc.

So our narrator is saying that

  • the "New World Latin" was liable to have a life full of passion and sentiment ...
  • so much so as to be like a primitive or medieval melodrama ...
  • whose drama and tragedy were "raw and red" like an exposed wound ...
  • and, in a manner of speaking, Francis Morgan was destined to "leap across time" into that world.

It's an interesting read. I agree with the other answers about the parsing. The consonance of "red" with "raw" enforce the relationship. Even so, Jack London has likely evoked the response he wanted from you, the reader.

The "leap into the abyss", "leap into the great unknown", "leap of faith", all share a similar sentiment with "leaped across time into the raw,..." of leaving the rational behind. The rest of the sentence nearly works as a delineation of that "raw". Let's give it a try:

"If ever a man leaped across time into the raw, Francis Morgan was destined to be that man."

The use of "If" adds nicely to the hyperbole.

Consider this:

"Growing up in Virginia, I had no idea what a cannibal sandwich was until recently. Rachel was reading a short article on Jack London’s favorite foods out loud to me, which mentioned that raw ground beef and onion sandwiches were a favorite of his."

https://elevatedwild.com/elevatedwildblog/jack-london-sandwich . Unfortunately, the article referenced is not cited.

Finally, we have Jack London's own Tales of Cannibals and Headhunters. Can there be any doubt about the London's affection for the word?


As the other answers have suggested, you are parsing the sentence wrongly, although I disagree with them on how to group it.

Suffice it to say, this is a tricky sentence! It is heavily recursive: multiple concepts are grouped together, then those wrapped-up groupings are themselves grouped together, etc.

To undo the recursion, it's easiest to work from the outside in. I'm going to leave parts that we haven't yet figured out in ⟨angle brackets⟩ and direct quotes in bold.

  1. The sentence is about Francis Morgan, and it combines two thoughts.

⟨Something is true⟩ and Destiny was very immediate upon him.

  1. What does that last phrase mean? Here, him refers to Morgan. I would gloss immediate as roughly synonymous with "imminent" here. Putting it together, Morgan is about to encounter his destiny.
  2. What destiny? To answer this, we turn to the first thought:
    If ⟨some condition⟩ is true, then Francis Morgan was destined to be that man
    We still don't understand this, because we're still missing referents, but we know there is some unique person (that man), and Morgan is destined to embody said person.
  3. What is that man? To answer this, we now fill in the "if" condition:
    If ever a man leaped across time into ⟨something⟩
    So that man has leapt across time: he is anachronistic, ill-suited to his surroundings.
  4. Why is he anachronistic? Now we fill in the last unspecified part of the sentence: he leapt into
    the ⟨something⟩ of the primitive and the ⟨something⟩ of the New World Latin
    OK, so now we know his surroundings: something London believes characteristic of indigenous peoples (the primitive), and something characteristic of South Americans (the New World Latin). Without context, I can't tell if London thinks these are two ways of describing the same thing or two different things. Nevertheless, I can guess as to why Morgan is different from either: he is "civilized."
  5. What is characteristic of the New World Latin?
    the medieval melodrama of sentiment and passion
    Notice that this is a unitary concept (it's a single medieval melodrama), but the melodrama in question is composed of two parts: sentiment and passion.
  6. What is characteristic of the primitive?
    the raw, red drama and tragedy
    This is the part that's confusing you. Unlike the New World Latin case, here there are two things characteristic: drama and tragedy. Note that while we colloquially describe all plays (including tragedies) as dramas (via synecdoche), a more recent definition is a specific genre of play, and that is almost certainly what London is alluding to here. But, of course life as a drama or tragedy is not unique to the indigenous.
  7. Finally, we can address what makes indigenes' drama and tragedy unique: it is raw and red. As Gareth McCaughan adeptly points out, these are both adjectives used to describe bleeding wounds; London is almost certainly trying to invoke a notion of brutality and violence that he believes characteristic of indigenes' feuds.

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