AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL J. WICHLAN
A respected Jack London authority, bibliographer, collector and author.
How did you become interested in Jack London?
On my tenth birthday my father gave me a collection of Jack London's short stories. The book was The Best Short Stories of Jack London published by Garden City Books in New York City. I still have the book. Its pages are very yellowed and dog-eared but I treasure it, not only for the memory of my father, but also because it marks the beginning of my love of reading. It was the first adult book that I had read and it motivated me to read avidly — not only Jack London but whatever I could find. I recall staying awake all that night and reading all 311 pages. I didn't want the stories to end. As a pre-teen and teenager, I spent much of my summer vacations at the public library. I was something of a "geek". So actually, my father gave me two gifts for my tenth birthday — Jack London and the gift of reading. Both have served me well throughout my adult life.
What of London's works do you find most appealing?
I am a devout fan of London's short stories and I was ecstatic when Earle Labor's collection of The Complete Short Stories of Jack London was published. The collection made all of the stories readily available and also included some previously unpublished stories. This latter fact inspired me to search for other unpublished London material which I have included in my first book, Jack London: The Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays, and in my soon-to-be-released second book, The Complete Poetry of Jack London. I have read most of the short stories many times and I very much appreciate and enjoy Dale Walker's series on "The World of Jack London" website that synopsizes and annotates them. Dale's work perfectly compliments the complete short stories that are also posted on the website.
London was a masterful story-teller and the short stories with their rich characterizations and vivid descriptions best display his abilities and are some of the best in the English language. My favorites include "The White Silence", "To Build a Fire", An Odyssey of the North", "Lost Face", "A Piece of Steak". "Samuel", "The Law of Life", "To the Man on Trail", "Love of Life", "The Mexican", "All Gold Canyon", and the "Pearls of Parlay". These were all included in that original collection of stories that I read on my tenth birthday.
I also have some favorite London novels: The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf, White Fang, Martin Eden, Burning Daylight, and The Valley of the Moon. The latter book inspired me to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area and I still aspire to someday live in the Valley of the Moon. In general, I am less passionate about the novels than the short stories because many of the novels suffer from plot deficiencies which is distracting and which is not an issue with the short stories.
You have worked for many years to bring together London's short non-fiction and his poetry. With publication of these, is all of London's work now available?
My first two books publish all the known and previously unpublished writing except for some notes and small fragments of writing. However, there is still a body of uncollected writing that is not readily available. Therefore, I am working on a third book that will contain uncollected letters-to-the-editor, book introductions and interviews and which will complete the collecting of London's writing for publication (this excludes only personal letters). This book will have an Appendix that will provide the most complete bibliography of London's writing to date. It will feature the many alternate titles under which many of London's stories and articles were published which I believe to be an important research tool.
What in your opinion remains to be done in London studies?
I see the need for one comprehensive, multiple-volume set of London's complete writing. The set should be fully indexed and annotated. Preferably it would be available online. It would represent the ultimate database of his writing and serve as the basis for all future research and critical analysis. However, the scope of this project exceeds the efforts of a single researcher and any one publisher. Realistically, the only way that it could be accomplished is through a coalition of schools that have London studies. It would require a team of graduate students under the direction of London scholars to do the indexing and the annotating and with schools sharing the publication costs.
It is actually more feasible than it, at first, seems. With the completion of my third book, all of London's work will be collected and exist in machine-readable form. The project could begin with the scanning of the complete works and computers could help greatly with the indexing, cross-referencing and annotating. All that is lacking is a meeting of the academic minds.
How do you account for the fact that London, among the most popular of American writers, is rarely taught in American schools?
I apologize for sounding pessimistic but I have a general concern about literacy in America and a specific concern about literacy in elementary and secondary schools. London is not the only author in which interest has declined in our schools. The toll that television has taken on the interest in reading and the ability to read has been long term and decidedly negative. It has been more recently exacerbated by video games and the Internet. What reading young students do is often in the form of "graphic novels" (formerly called comic books). "Non-graphic" stories that are read in schools and magazines have come to resemble TV shows, video games and movies. They consist of short vignettes that do not exceed the attention span of their readers and they are full of action and devoid of characterization and description, substituting instead slang dialogue. The reading of a London story by the typical American high school student today would challenge both that student's concentration and vocabulary.
I am pursuing a second education at local community colleges and I am shocked that the poor level of English language skills of my classmates, the students coming out of high school and into college. (I have also observed the same low levels of math and science skills.) However, I am doing more than just complaining about the situation; I, as many other volunteers do, tutor English language skills two days per week. It is a small step in the right direction.
Do you have some further London work in your future?
I am developing a fun project. I am working on a fact-based novella of the last two months of Jack London's life. In September 1916, London had agreed to report on the World Series between Brooklyn and Boston. He had to cancel his trip at the last minute. My story hypothesizes what might have happened if London had fulfilled that contract. It entails London's meeting Babe Ruth, who pitched for Boston in the Series, and their exchanging life stories over several glasses of beer. The story inter-weaves fact and fiction. That's all that I'm going to give away.
Note: Wichlan has contributed to our site in several ways:
• The Fiction of Jack London: A Chronological Bibliography by Dale L. Walker and James E. Sisson III, that was out of print for 30 years, and now extensively revised, updated and expanded by both Walker and Wichlan.
• Wichlan's massive London collection. View but a small portion, an example: The Nonfiction of Jack London
• Jack London Recipes provide insight into the dietary habits of London.