The World of Jack London
AN INTERVIEW WITH JACK LONDON SCHOLAR
Jeanne Campbell Reesman
Ashbel Smith Professor of English,
Department of English, Classics and Philosophy
University of Texas at San Antonio

Jeanne Campbell Reesman

Q: Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.

A: I do not recall reading The Call of the Wild or White Fang as a pre-teen like most people do, but I am sure I did. My first interest in Jack London arose when I was a senior at Centenary College in the fall of 1976; I was enrolled in a course on Literary Criticism with Earle Labor and four or five Danish students on Fulbrights who had come to study with Earle. Earle had been on leave for much of my sophomore and junior years, and I was glad that I would get this course with him. He gave me a mimeographed copy of "The Red One" to read. I still remember staying up all night reading it and writing notes all over the margins and on the back of the pages. I was struck by the Jungian dimensions of the story. My essay on this, "'Falling Stars': Myth in the Red One" was published a few years later in the Jack London Newsletter, my first publication. By then, I was hooked.

Q: In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?

A: His standing has gone up and down. It is currently up. We must remember that in London's day no one taught American writers at universities; this did not develop until well after his death. He was certainly regarded as a popular but serious writer by early students of his work. Paul Lauter's recent essay ("London's Place in American Studies." The Call: The Magazine of the Jack London Society 14, 1 [Spring-Summer 2003]: 11-17) is a fascinating look at how London disappeared from literary anthologies during the Cold War years because of his socialist politics. For the past 30 years we have seen a renaissance of interest in London, with such milestones as the publication of the Letters (1988) and Complete Stories (1993) by Stanford University Press, edited by Earle Labor, Robert C. Leitz, III, and I. Milo Shepard. Some of the very things that banished him from classrooms in the past are drawing new attention to him: his socialism, working-class identity, his status as a West Coast writer, his interrogations of sexism and racism, his interest in androgyny, his insights into "alien" cultures, his psychoanalytic and mythic dimensions.

Q: In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?

A: I like to direct the students to the many layers of London's fiction—he remarked on several occasions that he always included a story beneath the surface story. I am most interested in how his narratives work. Of course we cover so many other topics, including, for example, the following:

Autobiography

Artistic, Philosophical, and Scientific Influences (such as Darwin, Spencer, Nietzsche)

Major Themes and Subjects

Socialism

Race, Imperialism, and Post-colonialism

Sexuality, Gender, and Androgyny

"Nature-Writing"

Naturalism

In teaching the major novels I might introduce such approaches as:

The Call of the Wild

Naturalistic Romance

The Hero's Journey

The Slave Narrative

The Sea-Wolf

Darwinism versus Sentimentality

Androgyny and Sexuality

Is There a Hero in this Book?

The Iron Heel

London's Utopia/Dystopia

Martin Eden

The Künstlerroman

Autobiography

Socialism vs. Individualism

For teaching the short fiction, I tend to concentrate on issues like the following:

Northland Short Fiction:
Gold Rush
Expansionism
Nationalism
The Indian Presence in the Northland
Theme of Justice, Community, and Imagination
Types of Heroes and Heroines
Allusions to Classical Greece, esp. The Odyssey
Pacific Short Fiction
Cultures in Conflict
Racism, Imperialism, Post-colonialism

Socialist Fiction

Psychoanalytic Fiction

Experimental Narratives
"Goliah," "The Unparalleled Invasion," "Told in the Drooling Ward," and "Samuel"

In teaching London's non-fiction I look at:

The People of the Abyss: Social Justice, Documentary Writing

The Cruise of the Snark: Travel Writing, Race, Post-colonialism

John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Denial, Environmental Determinism, Masculinity

Socialist Essays: Idealism versus Naturalism

London's Photography: "Human Documents"

Jack Johnson fight coverage: London's cross-racial identifications

London's anxieties about the Mexican Revolution

Q: Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"

A: I think Susan Nuernberg said it best in her introduction to The Critical Response to Jack London (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995):

The prevailing myths are that London was one of the most autobiographical of American writers, that he committed suicide, that he wrote obsessively about his own illegitimacy, that he was a writer of dog stories and adventure tales for adolescent boys, that he was a racist, a womanizer, an alcoholic, and a hack writer, and that he contradicted himself and was confused in his thinking about socialism, individualism, scientific materialism, and idealism. (xxiii)

I find the suicide myth, promulgated by Irving Stone and numerous biographers following him, to be of singular unimportance. I do not personally think London committed suicide, not because he absolutely wouldn't, but because he had just begun to reconcile with his daughters, especially Joan, and because he was full of plans for the future including books, travel, and new land for the ranch. His symptoms upon his collapse and death are clearly those of a stroke, brought on by kidney failure. His symptoms are not those of morphine overdose. It is safe to say that he was an alcoholic and in denial about his physical health. I also believe, after reading The Cruise of the Snark, Charmian's The Log of the Snark, and Martin Johnson's Through the South Seas With Jack London, that the tropical diseases London contracted while on the Snark voyage, especially yaws or "Solomon Island sores," and even moreso London's liberal treatment for them consisting of corrosive sublimate of mercury applied to the sores, ruined his kidneys and hastened his death eight years later. (Interestingly, his defeat and cancellation of the remainder of the cruise, brought about by disease in the Solomon Islands, also colored his racial views of "Melanesians" and both gave rise to some of his most bitter racism (the 1911 novel Adventure) and to such critiques of racial and cultural prejudice and blindness as "The Red One" (1916).

However, if he did commit suicide, I do not think this really tells us very much. That is, I know people who, in the worst of a major depression, have attempted suicide. This desperate, rash act does not define them as far as I am concerned. It is the act of a moment, not a teleology through which to view their entire lives before and after.

Womanizer? No real evidence for this, beyond the normal impulses of a normal man. Clearly London was in love with his wife, and theirs was a true partnership physically and emotionally. Racist? That is complicated. He was and he wasn't—almost never in his short fiction, often in his novels and non-fiction, especially newspaper interviews. I am completing a book to be published by the University of Georgia Press on this subject: In the House of Pride: Jack London and Race. As to his multiple conflicting ideas, such open-mindedness and willingness to experiment was typical of intellectuals of his day.

Finally, the myth I try the hardest to dispel for my students is that London was somehow an idiot savant who merely went out and had adventures then just wrote them down. I direct students to the rich allusiveness of his work, his careful craftsmanship, and his often hidden meanings.

Q: 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?

A: I don't think either the economic panic that drove the Gold Rush or the issues addressed by Socialism (not to mention London's conflicts about race) have gone away; in fact, students can easily make connections between the circumstances that caused the Panic of 1893 (the gold standard, immigrant labor, corporate greed, monopolies, class⁄race strife) and the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor today, coupled with industrial globalism. Or, on a few different notes, today we are surrounded by the problems of nationalism versus globalism, racial conflict, war, gangs, alcoholism, family violence, the homeless, land use, cultural clash, Creationism vs. Darwinism, censorship, the cult of celebrity-hood, and so on—all subjects London takes up—to connect London to our own day.

And the kind of mythic framework that characterizes the struggles of London's characters, whether with nature or their fellow humans or within themselves, makes him nearly universal, now translated into over one hundred languages He is read in just about every country around the globe. As Earle Labor has stressed, London is America's best claim to a "world author." Vladimir Lenin would have London's "Love of Life" read to him by his wife upon his death-bed, and London would be transfigured into an icon of American valor in heavily propagandistic World War II films such as Samuel Bronston's 1942 "Jack London," in which London's life is curtailed into his months as a war correspondent in Korea during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, or in Frank Capra's classic military propaganda film "Why We Fight," in which a scene depicts the Nazis burning books—at the top of the heap are London's Martin Eden and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

Q: Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.

A: Sara S. Hodson of the Huntington Library and I are completing a book of London's photographs (The Photography of Jack London), a long-neglected aspect of his work. Nearly 12,000 of his original photographs survive, and they cover the East End of London, the Russo-Japanese War, the San Francisco Earthquake, the cruise of the Snark, the voyage of the Dirigo, and the U.S. invasion of Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution.

There is future work to be done on some neglected stories. Certain topics, despite previous treatment by scholars, demand more: race, his readership abroad, the influences upon him and his influence upon later writers like Hemingway and Wright, his screenplays, his influence on the African-American film-maker Oscar Micheaux, his constant presence in advertising (esp. the phrase "The Call of the Wild"), etc. One of the newest areas (or a newly resurrected one) in contemporary literary theory has to do with spatial theory, with geographies, with mapping or re-mapping one's experience—London's restless travels and insights into many cultures fit well with this approach.

Q: What are your own current areas of London research?

A: Here are the projects I am currently working on:

MLA Approaches to Teaching Jack London. Ed. Kenneth Brandt and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. MLA Approaches to Teaching World Literature Series. General Ed. Joseph Gibaldi. Under consideration at the Modern Language Association.

The Photography of Jack London. Ed. Sara S. Hodson and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Ms. in progress and under agent's representation.

The Sea-Wolf by Jack London. Ed. Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Critical edition under consideration at Riverside Editions/Houghton Mifflin. Series Editor Paul Lauter.

In the House of Pride: Jack London and Race. Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Forthcoming 2006.

"Frank Norris and Jack London," Companion to the American Novel. Ed. Alfred Bendixen. London and New York: Blackwell. Forthcoming 2005.

"The-Sea Wolf." American Literature in Historical Context, 1870-1920. Ed. Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst. New York: Twayne. Forthcoming 2005.

"Prospects for the Study of Jack London." 1999. Rev. and Updated. Rpt. in Prospects for the Study of American Literature II, ed. Richard Kopley. New York: AMS Press. Forthcoming 2005.

And here are some recent publications:

Michaël chien de cirque (Michael Brother of Jerry) by Jack London. Ed. Noël Mauberret and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Preface Jean-Pierre Digard. Trans. Louis Postif and Paul Gruyer. Paris: Éditions Phébus, 2004.

Les Mutinés de l'"Elseneur" (The Mutiny of the Elsinore) by Jack London. Ed. Noël Mauberret and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Preface Jean-François Deniau. Trans. Charles- Noël Martin. Paris: Éditions Phébus, 2004.

La Petite Dame dans la Grande Maison (The Little Lady of the Big House) by Jack London. Ed. Noël Mauberret and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Preface Linda Lé. Trans. Louis Postif. Paris: Éditions Phébus, 2004.

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