AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES WILLIAMS, Ph.D.
University of Chicago
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
Ressentiment describes the emotional base for my interest in JL, and I've been trying to fight it ever since. I first read JL in a graduate seminar and felt he was underappreciated. Thus I wrote a master's thesis, my first conference paper, my first published paper, and my dissertation on JL. Now I realize there are more productive motivations for studying JL.
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
Yes and no. Is he read in graduate seminars? Yes. And students include readings of his works in their dissertations. Countless numbers of authors are not afforded these "privileges." Yet, at the same time, he does not receive the same amount of critical attention as Hawthorne, Melville, James, Crane, and others who lived after JL expired. Few are, but of course one wonders why isn't JL included in say the top twenty. At the risk of sounding like Tom Wolfe, one might say that the academic study of literature has been heavily influenced by creative writing programs and the kind of literature they produce, which heavily leans away from "mere" realism. Sometimes people like to blame theory and French theory in particular for academics' supposed fondness for postmodernism; but it seem equally plausible to me that our own homegrown affection for the likes of Renata Adler, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and others, reinforced by the way writing is taught at the Iowa school and other fiction workshops, may have steered two or perhaps more generations away from realist fiction.
In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?
Well, I don't teach. I'm the Senior Managing Editor of Critical Inquiry, a University of Chicago Press humanities journal.
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
Well, but he was a writer of dog stories, and good ones at that. Of course, the fault here lies in not seeing the totality of his work.
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?
His appeal to our common humanity and social justice. These issues are timeless.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
There really has never been a thorough study of all his work seen in its entirety. That is the golden fleece of JL studies, perhaps never achievable. Franklin Walker, Charles Watson, Jonanthon Auerbach, Chris Gair, and others have tried, and tried beautifully.
What are your own current areas of London research?
I have been working on a book about JL and his conception of the office of authorship for over fifteen years. Some day it will get done. Part of this book focuses on how journalism and photography--specifically, the concept of the human document--inform his writings, a mesh of the visual and written that overlaps with and gets resolved, at times, in what I like to call his psychoanalytic scenes. The author figure in JL's work actually may work in a way similar to that in Philip Roth's work, and, as Mark McGurl has recently shown, that kind of self-reflexivity may be a natural product, if understood in systems theory, of a particular kind of fiction.
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