AN INTERVIEW WITH CLARICE STASZ, Ph.D.
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
I had never read London before moving to California from the east coast. A friend returned from visiting the Ranch, and said, "You need to go there. I bet you would want to write a book about his wife." This was the early 1970s, when academic women were starting to research women in response to their young feminist students' demands. I walked into the House of Happy Walls and found an immediate connection with Charmian, and was intrigued completely by the photo of her with head hunters in the Solomon Islands. I read her books bought from Russ Kingman, who told me she was a "terrible person" of no interest. (He later changed his mind.) I then read Irving Stone's Sailor on Horseback. His views of Charmian contrasted greatly with the author of the books. Eventually I had to read Jack London's writings as well, and decided that my research should be a biography of a couple unusual for their time. The result was American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London.
I was very fortunate early in my research to meet Earle Labor, who welcomed this non-literary scholar completely and gave me both full support and assistance. This was not the case for everyone, especially those who did not agree with the growing feminist movement and found my inclusion of Charmian into London studies to be trivial. Many believed Stone's analysis that she was childish and that Jack was unhappy with her. It made no sense to me that such a vital and intelligent man who had always admired bright, independent women would not be happy with the same. My research showed how significant Charmian was in supporting London's activities as a writer, rancher, and journalist, and in return, how he encouraged her talents. In addition, I demonstrated how his relationship with Charmian and his views of femininity were revealed in some of his key writings.
Your second book addressed the key females in London's life. Why?
When I wrote American Dreamers, I included all of Charmian's life, the forty years of widowhood. The publishers cut them out, saying they would not be of interest to readers, who later disagreed. I was thinking of writing up that material for a journal article around 1999 when Helen Abbott, Joan London's daughter-in-law called me. After talking with her, I realized I had allowed myself to be swayed by inaccurate accounts of Jack's first wife, Bess Maddern, and his daughters. Also, I wanted London devotees to appreciate how his life was female-focused, and that much prior biography neglected to see the women beyond narrow standards of what a "good woman" was. This has been a common thread in biographies of famous men until recently: namely, that the women in one's life were sources of difficulty. Flora, his mother, first wife Bess, and daughter Joan have been particulary mistreated in this way. I had to reevaluate my prior writings in the process, and went back to old material with a new perspective.
Also, the book allowed me to place London squarely in California and the Progressive Era. I was able to explore his behavior within the values of that time and place, and not judge him by current standards. I did not want to "side with" any of the women, but elucidate what they meant for his life, and how his actions affected the course of their own. In the process, readers learn much about women in the American history, and changing views of masculinity and femininity. I hope the literary scholars will find this historical material helpful when they address his stories and novels in the future.
Finally, the book is a continuation of the kind of work I did in The Vanderbilt Women and The Rockefeller Women. I have long been fascinated by family history, the role of patriarchy, and the neglect of women in biographies of famous men. In a sense, I am always disputing the American myth of the "self-made man." London of course fostered that myth in his own public relations, yet in private he would be first to acknowledge the value of his women friends and relatives.
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
I am a historian, not a literary scholar. As the editor of http://london.sonoma.edu, I can affirm that he remains of great interest to the general public and remains a key figure in the K-12 literature curriculum. The site receives thousands of hits a month! Nonetheless, I find most London scholarship today is published in London-focused journals, edited volumes, and books. This suggests to me that his place in the university literary community, though increasing, is not one of full acceptance. Were that the case, my bibliographies would list a wider range of literary journals and publications.
I think some of the past neglect of London in the universities is due to (1) his sitting between key period breaks in the artificial dividing up of the American Lit curriculum, (2) his socialism, working class bluntness, and anti-scholar attitudes; (3) failure of literature professors to read him in more depth and recognize his versatility and importance beyond Call of the Wild and the Yukon stories. This is changing thanks to the Jack London Society, the Jack London Journal, and web sites such as yours and the one I edit.
In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?
I am retired, but when I taught London it was as interdisciplinary study. Here are some examples of themes and readings:
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
Key is a tendency to read London's fictional characters as autobiographical, a major error in Irving Stone's work and that of non-specialist writers, often journalists. There is a sensitive side to London that is often overlooked: his love of poetry, classical music, and drama; his devotion to his friends; his generosity to those in need, his willingness to face his demons. London wrote when readers expected brawny Anglo Saxon men, and that is what he sometimes gave them, but he was not one in the caricatured sense that some writers have claimed.
London was very complex, which is why he intrigues so many readers and scholars. He was both alcoholic and teetotaler, depending upon the time period. He could be racist while also critical of racist ideas and practices. He loved his wives yet at times strayed from both. He was a commited socialist who ran his ranch like a kindly paternalistic padrone. Because of his intense and passionate nature, his extremes and contradictions puzzle, unless one admits that humans readily hold self-contradictory attitudes. Even careful scholars get too caught up in whether he was "this or that."
Jack London's real-life world, from the turn of the century to the First World War, seems "dated" to young readers who know nothing of the Klondike or socialism. What is there in his work to appeal to a new generation of readers?
I don't get letters from teachers asking how to interest students in London. That does not seem to be a problem. The youngest readers will never tire of his "dog stories," nor his Yukon tales of individual struggle. Similarly, London covers so many genres that few readers fail to find a portion of his work to be interesting.
Few of London's stories are too dated to put off students, because he does not embed his tales with popular culture references that require special knowledge of the time. (Imagine how hard future readers will find some recent literature with their mention of television shows, movies, and popular figures.) In fact, because London's stories are of the past, they provide a way to reflect upon issues of racism, poverty, unbridled power, environmental degradation, imperialism, monopoly, prisoner abuse, and similar ongoing concerns with more objectivity. As I found with my students, a necessary result is to ask how the situation is today. Finally, London's sharp and stark prose provides little in the way of stylistic obstacles, which is certainly why London and not, say, Henry James remains so widely read today around the world.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
Definitely needed is more comparative research that places London among other writers in English literature. Such work would also bring London more in the minds of scholars who are less familiar with him. London specialists might think more along the lines of Martin Stoddard's California Writers, which examines London, Steinbeck, and Trumbo, among others. It is time to move beyond books focusing solely on London, but instead integrate aspects of his work, such as his science fiction or travel writing, within the larger literary context. Perhaps because London scholars have felt excluded from the mainstream for many years and developed their own community, they have become too insular.
What are your own current areas of London research?
My main goal is to continue to update the http://london.sonoma.edu web pages. I am currently working on a section that gives each of the key friends and family members a page. Apart from that, I have finished with continued scholarly research, although I may try to publish some past papers presented at conferences, such as an examination of London's influence upon George Orwell, and an essay on his environmental views. However, I am also sharing my research knowledge with younger scholars. I have decided to pass the torch down and support others as Earle Labor did for me.