AN INTERVIEW WITH EARL J. WILCOX, Ph.D.
English Professor (Retired)
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
I confess my interest began as a purely practical matter when I was completing course work for the PhD at Vanderbilt University: I needed a dissertation topic. Originally, I wanted to work on Theodore Dreiser, but concluded after doing some papers on Dreiser that exploring the naturalism in his works had been done, more or less. I was unaware that Thomas Daniel Young, who at the time was teaching only one course in the English Department at Vanderbilt, had done a dissertation on London, but in one of my courses the professor brought T.D. Young to my attention. A trip to Young's office and a short talk later, I had agreed to do work on London. Initially, I thought in my naiveté that London had written a few novels and short stories; imagine my amazement when I discovered the entire cannon (this is in 1963) and was further shocked to learn how few books were still in print and how difficult they were to come by. At any rate, my interest grew significantly, and thanks to Young and some wonderful libraries in Arkansas, I tracked down and eventually read everything (I believe) that London wrote, excepting the cache of letters and other stuff now at Huntington Library. Young insisted I read it all, not simply select titles that might suggest London's relationship to American literary naturalism.
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
Alas, no, though it has risen immensely in the 40+ years since I began reading him. His "rise" is due no doubt to all those reasons cited by others who have been interviewed here, but I think simply because he continues to endure suggests one day he may have a higher standing, though it's difficult to say.
In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?
I taught London much less than I would have liked, though he was always included in my biennial course in American Literary Realism and Naturalism. My emphasis was on his narrative skills, his magnificent visual imagery, his thematic consistency, and other literary qualities. Students were always amazed (I think that's an accurate word since most had read only TO BUILD A FIRE) to learn what a strong story teller and artist London is. They were somewhat fascinated with his biography, so we paid ample attention to that, but not to the neglect of the literary artistry. Most often, I taught MARTIN EDEN, though CALL was always rewarding, as were numerous short stories whenever I could manage to work them into a graduate course. Of course, we all know which stories remain in the anthologies, though occasionally I would break loose like Spitz or Buck and strike out with an handout of a story I insisted students read! If you know what I mean.
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
Since several students came to classes knowing only CALL, and many came not even knowing that (maybe TO BUILD A FIRE, but not always), misunderstanding was not an issue in my classes. The world in general, the great unwashed who read only pulp fiction, know CALL, almost always. Among friends in the non-literary world, I soon learn they are totally ignorant of London's massive output, including the range of subjects and the monumental achievements of his life. I try to avoid the soap-box image, though it's hard. I found it was not so much a "mis" understanding so much as a no-understanding.
Almost universally, my students chose Jack over many of the mainline popular and critically acclaimed writers such as James, Howells, and even Twain--once they read Jack.
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 think I accept completely the premise of this question simply because today's readers are no longer taken with fiction that requires or presumes a setting they know or with which they identify in some way. Consider how young readers have been taken with the Ring fiction, with Harry Potter, with female-centered fiction, with C S Lewis and the fantasy world in general. Given the availability of London's shorter fiction and his fantasy/futuristic works, young readers might be taken with him, too. I am quite sure knowledge of socialism or the Klondike would not be prerequisites for today's young readers to know and enjoy London. Indeed, they might be intrigued with political issues, as these surface quite frequently in fantasy fiction.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
I'm sure Jeanne Reesman, Earle Labor, Jim Williams, and numerous others who are devoting their lives to London (still) are more qualified than I to comment much here. Paul Lauter's essay helped some to understand why Jack is neglected and Jeanne Reesman's ambitious schedule for her work on Jack amply demonstrate what is possible. We all await Earle Labor's biography, which just might be the jump-start renaissance we have anticipated in the 21st century for London studies. I have no current areas of London research, though my wife, Elizabeth, and I did the centennial edition of CALL for Houghton Mifflin (2003), In completing that edition, we tried to read almost everything which had been written of London's most celebrated novel, and the volume of criticism was enormous, though engaging and rewarding. Earle Labor's generous review of the book is reprinted on this website.