The World of Jack London

JACK LONDON: THE VARIABLE IN MY LIFE

James Edward Sisson, III (1916–1986)

The life and outlook of James E. Sisson, III, may best be told in his own words. We thank Dave Schlottmann for his kind permission to post the following article written by Jim and first published in The Wolf '73.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines variable as "a quantity capable of assuming any set of values" and as "a symbol representing such quantity." Throughout the years Jack London has been the variable in my life in both senses of the word.

It was at the age of ten in the fourth grade that I first encountered Jack London. I was extremely fortunate to have a teacher Miss Inez Hankins -- a Miss America to her students (and one who would have given strong competition to the official contestants at Atlantic City), but more importantly she was very knowledgeable in literature and perhaps even more knowledgeable in the ways of fourth-graders. She led us on literary journeys throughout the world and through our own country, and in a study of the literature of the Far West we were told how Jack London had written so well of the Frozen North, and we were asked to find the map of Alaska in our geographies"... and imaging the name Jack London written on it."

In the next few years Jack London to me was only the narrator of the Frozen North, but this began to change in my high school years. Through the perceptive, inspired teaching of Mrs. Bessie T. Redus, who was my English and American literature and a new interest in Jack London through a discussion of the levels of meaning in The Call of the Wild. During this period I was also introduced to The Sea-Wolf, but at the time I did not recognize the dramatic deftness in its composition, nor did I think of it as a naturalistic romance. To me it was just "a whacking good sea story," as Charmian remarked about another London novel.

At this time I was more interested in the Mutiny on the Bounty than in Mutiny of the Elsinore, but other interests led to a greater interest in London's South Sea stories. My chief South Sea influence was H. de Vere Stacpoole, whose novel, The Blue Lagoon, as J. C. Furnas says, "...established for all time the idiom and atmosphere of the popular South Sea romance." The reading of his works led to Melville, Conrad and London (and later to James A. Michener). Another influence was a movie -- The Hurricane; it will be forever associated in my mind with the stories -- "The Pearls of Parlay," "The House of Mapuhi," and "The Heathen." And with these stories there is another association -- Eugene Burdick's statement: "...London does the impossible: he makes the wind visible, gives it palpable character."

The war years pointed up to me the vividness and authentic backgrounds of London's Pacific stories and articles. There were the names -- Pearl Harbor, Midway, Wake Island, Samoa, Tulagi, Guadalcanal, the New Hebrides, New Guinea, the Gilberts, the Marshalls, Iwo Jima and Yeddo Bay. It was all a case of deja vu; I had been there before -- with Jack London, either in The Snark or through his writings. (On the Snark voyage the first landfall had been Pearl Harbor, which he and Charmian had christened "Dream Harbor." Then after cruising through the Marquesas, the Society Islands, Samoa, and Fiji, London had ended the voyage at Guadalcanal. In writing of these cruises he was returning to his earliest theme: Pacific travel and adventure -- written in "Story of a Typhoon off the Coast of Japan," "Bonin Islands," and "In Yeddo Bay." (The war years brought to fame one of the Bonin Islands -- Iwo Jima). London's descriptions of the atolls, the lagoons, the coconut palms, the famed banyan trees, and even a three-day hurricane ("The House of Mapuhi") were now a reality. Thus at war's end Jack London -- the symbol -- was the Pacific, the entire Pacific -- not just the South Seas. The imaginatively inscribed map of Alaska was far in the background.

On returning to college after the war, I enrolled in am American literature seminar at Auburn University, taught by Dr. Walton R. Patrick, whose classes were always a joy and an inspiration. He assigned me a report on John Barleycorn, and with this report my professional interest in Jack London really began. After studying John Barleycorn and Martin Eden in two courses, I became interested in psychological aspects of his work, and in what critic Morton Dauwen Zabel calls in relation to Conrad's Lord Jim, the "central theme ... the grip of circimstances that enforce self-discovery and its cognate, the discovery of reality or truth ..." in much of London's fiction. In this category one may list such varied stories as "To Build a Fire," "Trust," "The White Silence." "In a Far Country," "The Chinago," and the provocative Star Rover with its excursion into astral projection or soul travel.

Thus through the various periods of my life Jack London has been a symbol -- a changing symbol, and now with the resurgence of his fame, I am sure the symbol will change again. But there is his affirmation of life which, I am sure, will not change. This is best expressed in the last paragraph of The Star Rover:

There is no death. Life is spirit, and spirit cannot die. Only the flesh dies and passes, ever a-crawl with the Chemic ferment that informs it, ever crystallizing, only to melt into flux and to crystallize into fresh and diverse forms that melt back into the flux.

In connection with this, Jack London's meaning to me and many others may be summed up in Joan London's statement:

... a new generation of readers has found him, a generation that is informed, seeking realistic answers to the challenging issues of the day, basically optimistic. In writings long ago completed, Jack London's passionate affirmation of life, his love for his fellows, his faith in the ultimate perfectibility, through struggle, of man and society, speak clearly today to them and to the world.

– James E. Sisson, III
Berkeley, Calif.
At Utah State University Library a biographical note says:
“James Edward Sisson III was born August 16, 1916 in Vernon, Alabama to Daniel W. and Susie Brown Sisson. Sisson graduated from Lamar County High School as valedictorian in 1935, and a year later enrolled in Florence State College. In 1939 Sisson graduated with at B.A., and worked for two years as a teacher in Jackson County, Alabama. After the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, Sisson served in the US Army from 1941 to 1945 as a cryptographic technician in the Signal Intelligence Unit, in both New Guinea and the Philippines. Once the war had ended, Sisson enrolled at Auburn University, Alabama to study English and by 1947 Sisson had earned a second B.A. and a M.A. Thereafter, Sisson taught at Mississippi State University and Georgia Tech before enrolling in Duke University in 1953 to further his studies. During this time Sisson was diagnosed as having both tuberculosis and a form of skin cancer on his face, which later disfigured him. In 1957 Sisson enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley for a Ph.D. in English, studying under Professor James D. Hart. From 1967 to 1969 Sisson worked as a library assistant at The Bancroft Library. In 1970 Sisson became actively involved in researching and writing about Jack London. Discovering an unpublished literary work of London's housed at the Library of Congress, Sisson had London's Gold published by the Holmes Book Company in 1972. Sisson soon earned a reputation that led him to be one of the nation's leading Jack London research scholars. Over time Sisson became internationally known for his abilities to aid researchers seeking information on Jack London. Some of his recognized works include The Fiction of Jack London: A Chronological Bibliography (1972), Jack London: First Editions (1979), and Jack London's Articles and Short Stories in 'The Aegis' (1981). Sisson died in the 1986.”
Related Link:
James Edward Sisson III Papers — Utah State University Libraries
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