AN INTERVIEW WITH SARA S. HODSON
Curator of Literary Manuscripts
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
Before coming to the Huntington Library, where part of my position involves looking after the largest London archive in the world, my only experience with Jack London was reading The Call of the Wild in junior high school. Once I began working with the London collection and with the researchers who came to the library to use it and who corresponded with me about it, I began to see just how vast and varied London's life and writing career were. I had to start learning more about London in order to provide assistance with those using the archive of his papers. At the same time, I began to get to know some of the London researchers and found them to be remarkable in their openness and their willingness to share their knowledge. This made me sit up and take even more notice of London and his writings. Then, I attended the first symposium of the Jack London Society in 1992, and I was hooked. The people I met, the papers I listened to, the things I heard about London all started me on a path of reading and learning.
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
London has not been widely read in higher education, apart from one or two of his best known short stories. But, I see signs that this is changing substantially. Increasingly, educators and students are recognizing that London was a major American author, and not just of dog stories. There is a growing awareness of his powers as a writer, especially in his short stories.
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
London has been viewed as a "popular writer," largely because his books were bestsellers during his life. As a popular writer who made a lot of money from his writings, he is seen as a lightweight, rather than a serious author. That view is diminishing as more people actually read his works and discover the richness and depth to be found in them. A second misunderstanding about London is the long-standing view that his later writings are inferior, that as his health failed he not only was not the writer he had been, but he also developed a negative, depressed view of life. Both these misconceptions can be discarded by just reading his stories. With the Stanford University edition of the complete short stories, one can read straight through all his stories in chronological order, which enables one to see that the late stories are remarkable and that in them London had begun to explore new territory in his thinking and writing. Far from being depressed in his outlook, London continued to be excited by new ideas and philosophies that he encountered, and this is evident in his late stories.
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?
London, like all major authors, produced timeless works that speak to anyone in any time period. His stories and novels reach beyond the time and setting in which they take place and bring life's larger issues to his readers. The Klondike tales, for example, aren't merely the stories of men and women during the 1898 gold rush. Rather, they tell of people's life-and-death struggles to survive in a hostile environment, their efforts to surmount the most elemental, fundamental dangers and challenges that life can throw at them. In other words, London's stories speak to life's basic condition and to people's efforts to survive and build a better life while confronting that condition. These are timeless themes that are never out of date or old-fashioned.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
There is a lot more research to be done on Jack London, on both his life and his works. Given his full and varied life, the enormous quantity of works that he produced, and the heft of the archive of his papers that documents his life and writings, the opportunities for research will never be depleted. I want to focus on two areas of study that might not come to mind first for most people. Some day a biography needs to be written on Charmian London, and one on Eliza London Shepard. They were both remarkable women who deserve study on their own, and I would love to see both projects happen.
What are your own current areas of London research?
Jeanne Campbell Reesman and I are working on book of London's photography that will reproduce a selection of the more than 12,000 photographs that are housed at the Huntington and at the California Department of Parks and Recreation. I also continue to work on various aspects of London's non-fiction book, The People of the Abyss.