AN INTERVIEW WITH DONNA CAMPBELL
Associate Professor of English
Washington State University
Pullman, WA 99164-5020
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
My interest in Jack London began as part of a more general interest in turn-of-the-century American culture. After reading naturalist authors such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Stephen Crane, I read Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf and was struck by the ways in which those novels, though prompted by very different experiences, reflected the themes of their works. From his letters and other writings it's clear how much London, like the others, admired Spencer and Darwin, but there's an intensity about the ways that London depicts class and gender issues that makes reading his work really compelling.
Later on, I read the California novels (Valley of the Moon, Burning Daylight, and The Little Lady of the Big House) and was struck by how hard he worked to create—and to educate his readers about—an agrarian alternative to what was already becoming a high-stress, industrialized way of life. The contrast between those idyllic California romances about living on the land and the reality of daily writing that London had to complete to keep his ranch going is striking. One of the things London does best is to think about what's lost and what's gained when people—as individuals and as societies—rush to be “modern.”
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
Not exactly, although the situation is improving thanks to good scholarship from a multitude of perspectives, including work by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Earle Labor, Earl Wilcox, Susan Nuernberg, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, Lee Clark Mitchell, Donald Pease, Jonathan Auerbach, the essayists in Reesman and Cassuto's Rereading Jack London and in Reesman and Hodson's Jack London: One Hundred Years a Writer, and the authors of recent essays about him in American Literature and other journals. For someone who lacks the high standing in the academy of a William Faulkner or a Toni Morrison, London inspires a surprising amount of critical prose. New approaches to his work and his politics, including interest in London's journalism, his South Seas tales, and his socialist stories, should help his critical reputation.
In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?
When teaching London to undergraduates, I talk about London as a bridge between the nineteenth and the twentieth century. We talk about naturalism, of course, but we also discuss style. London's style sometimes veers into the sentimental rhetoric of the nineteenth century, but when reading his crisp and sometimes pitiless descriptions (in “To Build a Fire,” for example) and his handling of sentences, it's hard to imagine a writer like Ernest Hemingway if London hadn't come before. In reading passages closely with my students, I also try to point out the highly conscious ways in which he uses syntax, word choice, and point of view; this helps to dispel impression students have that all London did was to dash off experiences and ship them off to magazines. In graduate classes, we discuss London in light of work we've been reading the ways in which cultures construct race, class, and gender. We also discuss some of the “untapped areas” (below).
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
That's the most common misapprehension about London; another is that he wrote only juvenile fiction. Although many writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century wrote for children as well as for adults, there's been a division between “children's literature” and “literature written for adults.” Recent attempts to break down that barrier might help a reconsideration of some of London's work.
Also, as critics have said, London's a better writer of short stories than of novels.
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'm guessing that young readers would be interested in the same features that young readers have always liked about London's prose: vivid descriptions, fresh prose, exotic locations, and lots and lots of adventure (with a little violence for good measure). Can readers still read “To the Man on Trail” or “To Build a Fire” and shiver with the cold that he describes, even if they don't know London's views on race or socialism? I think they can.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
Jeanne Campbell Reesman and Sara S. Hodson would have much more to say about this than I do, but here are some possibilities. Some have already been the subject of articles and books, in fact:
What are your own current areas of London research?
I've published on London and gender in Martin Eden, on London and landscape in The Valley of the Moon, and on London and Edith Wharton in The Little Lady of the Big House; in addition, I have work in progress for the Blackwell Companion to the Modern American Novel, for the proposed MLA book Approaches to Teaching Jack London, and for an essay on Rose Wilder Lane as London's first biographer.
Read: Life and Jack London