AN INTERVIEW WITH JACK LONDON SCHOLAR
Earle Labor, Ph.D.
Wilson Professor of American Literature
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
I fell in love with London's wonderful stories more than sixty years ago when I was in the 8th grade in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma. Ours was a small consolidated school in a very small town that had once been the capital of the Choctaw Nation (the Choctaw Council House has recently been beautifully restored and made museum-worthy). Both 7th and 8th grades met in the same classroom; and while our teacher was focusing on one class, the other students were expected to be preparing their lessons. Instead, many of us boys spent our "free" time stropping our pocket knives on the upper sides of our boots and testing the blades by shaving the fuzz on our forearms. After a while, waiting to grow a new fuzz-crop, I explored the small library in our cloak-room and found a thick volume bound in dark red cloth titled JACK LONDON'S STORIES FOR BOYS. Opening the book on a page titled "To Build a Fire," I was "hooked" at once. I'd seen freezing cold in the Kiamichi Mountains—but never so cold that spit crackled and froze in the air before it reached the ground! Moreover, I'd never treated my bulldog "Buster" as cruelly as that man treated his dog. Even so, I was hoping he'd beat the cold. Even though I've read the story a half-hundred times since, I still keep hoping he'll make it—but he never does (except in the original "story for boys" that King Hendricks and I discovered when I was working with him at Utah State in l966 with the treasure-trove of Londoniana donated by Irving Shepard). I also remembered forever the sharp stinging taste of muskeg berries and the hot sticky taste of a sick wolf's blood from a story called "Love of Life." Oh—and a fascinating tale about two fellows who were invisible competitors in "The Shadow and the Flash." From there I went on to read those great dog stories about Buck and White Fang. All of these made knife-sharpening seem pretty dull.
But I heard and read no more of Jack London until I was a senior at Southern Methodist University, when my best fried—a WWII veteran named P.B. "Pink" Lindsey from Gilmer, Texas—took a course in the American Novel taught by Professor George Bond. One of the texts was MARTIN EDEN. "You've got to read MARTIN EDEN," Pink told me; "It's a very powerful book." But I was more interested in following other extracurricular pursuits at the time, and it was not until four years later while in boot camp at the U.S. Naval Recruit Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland, that I managed to pick up and read a 25¢ paperback edition of Jack's novel. It was indeed "a very powerful book"—the most powerful I'd ever read—and I determined then and there that if and when I ever went back to study for a doctoral degree, Jack London would be the subject of my dissertation.
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
Certainly a higher standing than when I studied American Literature at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1950s. I'd gone there because I'd heard they had the finest American lit. program in the country and that Frederick Hoffman, who had just published his definitive study of THE TWENTIES, was the finest 20th century American lit. scholar in the country. Professor Hoffman was indeed one of the most brilliant teachers I've ever had—but when I asked him to direct my dissertation, he replied: "Jack London really isn't a twentieth-century author—and, besides, I don't know that much about him." He need not have added the second clause, since he was evidently unaware that the first of London's fifty-odd books was published in 1900. I should have anticipated Hoffman's response in view of his dismissing London as "an interesting sideshow in the Naturalist Carnival" in THE MODERN NOVEL IN AMERICA.
Fortunately, Harry Hayden Clark, one of the Grand Old Men of American Literary Scholarship, was more open-minded; and even though Jack London was still an "untouchable" among the New Critics of the Fifties, Professor Clark graciously and patiently supervised my New Critical (Formalist) study of London's Literary Artistry.
Thanks to the pioneering work of distinguished scholars like Sam Baskett, Franklin Walker, Earl Wilcox, and Hensley Woodbridge, Jack London started to win respectability in the academic establishment in the l960s. Woodbridge's massive bibliography provided London scholars with a very essential basic tool for research and his JACK LONDON NEWSLETTER provided a valuable forum for our studies. Russ & Winnie Kingman's bookstore and research center became a Mecca for London buffs in the 1970s, and the 70s also witnessed the "Second Wave" of London scholarship featuring the works of such scholars as James McClintock, Clarice Stasz, Dale Walker, and Charles Watson. London was finally granted the major status he had so long merited during the succeeding decades, which witnessed the publication of scholarly books by prestigious university as well as commercial presses. The establishment of the Jack London Foundation (and Newsletter) by the Kingmans and the Jack London Society (and THE CALL) by Jeanne Campbell Reesman clearly signalled his higher "standing" in the academic world. That high standing has been further enhanced by the support of the London Estate and Trust of Irving Shepard as well as by that of the Huntington Library. Note, in addition to providing scholars access to the magnificent London archives, the Huntington publications of Franklin Walker's JACK LONDON AND THE KLONDIKE and, more recently, JACK LONDON: ONE HUNDRED YEARS A WRITER, edited by Sara S. [Sue] Hodson and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. I should mention that Hodson's Introduction includes an excellent overview of London scholarship past and present; morover, the eight critical essays which follow, showcasing some of the brightest contemporary scholars, indicate the wide range of London's own literary talents.
In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?
I teach a Jack London course here at Centenary every fall semester and will be happy to send a copy of my syllabus to anyone who's interested in seeing it.
I emphasize that Jack London is "America's Greatest World Author" and that THE CALL OF THE WILD is "America's Greatest World Novel." Note that I say "WORLD Novel"— not "America's Greatest Novel" (I'd be hard-pressed to make a case for that over some other very great American novels and novelists). During the semester, while reading his works (starting with MARTIN EDEN and continuing with THE CALL OF THE WILD and THE SEA-WOLF along with other shorter works from THE PORTABLE JACK LONDON), they begin to see even without my coaching why London's writings have achieved such worldwide acclaim.
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
The stigma of "writer of dog stories" is still a problem—as is the "ghettoizing" of his works in the juvenile section of the libraries. Unfortunately, there are still too many academic critics who brush him off as a hack who wrote too fast just for the marketplace. Even Jim McClintock fell into that trap when writing about London's later stories. Jeanne Reesman corrects that misconception quite ably in her recent book on London's short fiction. Others are familiar mainly with the Klondike stories, failing to realize that they constitute only part of a much wider field of work. After nearly a half-century of serious study, I continue to be astonished at the extraordinary range of Jack's writings.
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?
The key to London's greatness, as to that of all great writers, is UNIVERSALITY—meaning that there is something in his best work that is both timely and timeless. Every generation of my own students have quickly seen that as they have read through his best fiction.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
There are plenty of new worlds to conquer in London scholarship—especially in the analysis of his 200+ works of fiction—sources and influences as well as "achieved meaning."
What I'd like to see is a thorough study of London's influence on subsequent writers. Only recently, for example, we saw in her obituary that well-known critic Susan Sontag had been influenced by MARTIN EDEN. That is only one recent example, but I'm sure there are dozens of others.
What are your own current areas of London research?
Right now, I'm ten years behind schedule on my contract with the publisher for my London biography. I have two or three more chapters to go and am hoping to finish this summer. All wishes for Godspeed are welcome!
External link: Wikipedia – Earle Labor