AN INTERVIEW WITH SUSAN I. GATTI, Ph.D.
Professor of English
Q: Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
A: My fascination with Jack London began in an odd way. I am not sure what anyone would make of it, but I spent a lot of my childhood reading encyclopedias, especially biographies of famous people. One day, when I was about eleven, I was reading the encyclopedia and noticed the famous picture of Jack London aboard the Roamer—the windblown London in the black leather jacket. I read the article and was fascinated by what I had read. I am certain that at some level I was an "English Professor in the Making"; all literary topics and figures were interesting to me, but this one was unusual. I'll say it: he was attractive, direct in his glance and powerful. I had never heard of Jack London, but I decided to start reading. That was in the late 1950's and I'm STILL reading.
Q: In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
A: I think London is now being looked at more frequently and favorably, thanks—I suspect—to a more varied and optional approach to literature. He is problematic, of course, because of some attitudes that emerge in his texts; but newer approaches in critical theory situate London in his times and offer more options for understanding him and his writing.
Q: In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?
A: I have taught several London courses. (Incidentally, I teach in Western Pennsylvania, where John London may have come from. There are many Londons in our area; it's a common name in Clearfield County, where my father was born.) In one course, I taught London along with Herman Melville—in a dialogic way. Both addressed many of the same issues—labor, literary professionalism, nature, philosophy, to name a few. I try to emphasize London's versatility and willingness to experiment with genres and to explore a wide range of issues. This point anticipates the next question. London has been limited by his success with a few works. But students who read "The Star Rover" or "The Iron Heel" or his less well-known short stories are amazed at London's bold confrontation with gender issues, politics and clashes between individuals and anonymous power mechanisms. He's clearly a writer for today. Students readily pick this up.
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'm not sure that "misunderstandings" are as prevalent as lack of knowledge of London's repertoire. Those who move beyond the helpful and familiar "dog stories"—and there were comparatively few of those, as we know—are amazed. The task for teachers and London scholars/devotees is to make others aware of what London managed to produce in his brief life.
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: For young readers, the adventure stories are still a good starting point. I think that any preconceptions about London can be applied to any pre-millennial writers. The challenge is the same. How do teachers or supporters of good literature of any era invite a new readership to older literature? Sadly, voluntary reading is less popular among younger persons—as some surveys have suggested. The period in which London wrote is unfamiliar to many readers. But London's ability to create strong characters and move a story along makes it easy, I think, for less historically savvy readers to enter the reading experience. Their own curiosity, coupled with the support of a teacher, will lead them to a deeper inquiry of the contexts. London can be read on many levels. Entry level is good: that's where most of US entered.
Q: Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
A: Many have been explored. But the introduction of newer critical theories—and the hybridization of existing theories have invited fresh readings or new approaches to scholarly debates. Biography has been a major concern in London studies—chiefly because scholars are still waiting for the definitive biography. There are new currents in biography/autobiography studies. Untapped? I'm not sure if I can pinpoint any one area. Fortunately, London was a prolific writer; his primary works are a vast territory in themselves.
Q: What are your own current areas of London research?
A: I've ventured more into London and ecology. This aspect of London is relevant to today's environmental concerns. He was way ahead in addressing human predation of species and depletion of resources.