A JACK LONDON TALK WITH DALE L. WALKER
(Dale L. Walker – author of many books on Western History)
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
I think I was about 11 or 12 when I discovered a couple of London books in my grandparents' bookcase. One, I'm pretty sure, was Before Adam, which entranced me; another, The Iron Heel, I read but had no clue what it meant until a few years later, after I became a public library habitué. I found a lot of London in the Carnegie Library in my hometown of Decatur, Illinois, and read The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, The Star Rover, and was thrilled by Martin Eden and the South Sea stories. There I also found Irving Stone's Sailor on Horseback and got my first taste of London's life story. I identified with him somehow although I was a land-bound kid. I told this to Joan london when I first met her in 1966.
You knew both daughters?
Yes, Joan better than Becky. I flew out to Seattle in November, 1966, expressly to meet Joan, who was guest speaker at a gathering at the University of Washington commemorating the 50th anniversary of her father's death. We were invited to stay at the home of the London collector and bibliographer George Tweney and had a grand time chatting in front of a crackling fireplace. By happenstance, my first book, a collaboration with the late Richard O'Connor, was awaiting publication by Harcourt, Brace in New York. It was a biography of the radical journalist John Reed titled The Lost Revolutionary. Joan, George Tweney and I were talking about her father's biographers and O'Connor's name came up. His Jack London biography was published by Little, Brown, in 1964 and Joan said she thought it was quite flawed but realized that O'Connor had been denied access to the London papers at the Huntington Library. Anyway, I naturally mentioned that O'Connor and I had written a book on John Reed. Joan grilled me for an hour on this. Reed was one of her heroes and his eyewitness book on the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, was, she said, a classic of revolutionary literature. The Reed book came out in 1968 and I sent her a copy. She professed to like it. We corresponded regularly until her death in January, 1971. Joan's son, Bart Abbott, gave me permission to publish selections from her letters in the Pacific Historian in 1978.
Such a wonderful woman! She was quite different than Joan but both were brilliant in their way and both very generous. Joan was a more "serious," reflective person; Becky sweet and gentle. The first time I met Becky was at her home in Oakland. Russ Kingman was with me and I even met Becky's husband, Percy Fleming. I saw her 2-3 times later after she moved up to Glen Ellen with the Kingmans. We also corresponded periodically. I loved her.
Where in your opinion is London's place in American literature?
Not as high as it should be. My granddaughter's high school literature text contains "To Build a Fire," the last vestige of London surviving in such books—and it probably not for long. London is scarcely recognized in college texts. The ones I have seen are devoted almost entirely to works guaranteed to make students non-readers for the rest of their lives—Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and similar icons of the college cognoscenti. The rule seems to be that the more impenetrable the work, the more it is to be admired—and, God help us, "interpreted." London was always far too readable and "popular"—therefore suspect—to college lit course arbiters.
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?
London's world does seem dead to young readers—ancient history. To me, and to my generation (children of the "Great Depression"), London's era was the era of our grandparents and thus not quite of the Jurassic Age. London's era is intensely exciting for those willing to take a trip back and learn what the world was like a century or so ago. London's fiction (his essays as well) has a terrific range for that "new generation of readers," at least those with an attention span beyond the paramecium level.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
I'm ill-equipped to comment on this as I am no scholar. I do wish we had all of London's short nonfiction published in a multi-volume set of books like Earle Labor's Complete Stories. I am also hoping to live long enough to read a truly good biography of London. I understand Labor is writing one. I hope so; we need it desperately.
You have written many nonfiction books, including several biographies, and have published more work on Jack London than any other writer so . . . why haven't you written that biography of him?
I've been tempted and years ago came close to getting a contract to write such a book.
Don't you think you are equipped to write it?
Maybe, providing I can get by without attempting psychoanalysis or reading great symbolism into his works and identifying its tropes and metaphors. My advantages are that I understand London as the professional writer; I have spent years in research for books set in the period in which he lived; and I know his work and his era.
Sources: Maverick Writers by S. Jean Mead (Jean Henry-Mead), Roundup magazine profile by Candy Moulton, author's biography by Contemporary Authors Online, Gale.
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