AN INTERVIEW WITH JACK LONDON SCHOLAR
Susan M. Nuernberg, Ph.D.
Chancellor's Leadership Fellow
Associate Professor of English
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
I wanted to understand modern American civilization, most aspects of which were solidifying in the late 19th- and early 20th-century. Jack London, better than any other single writer, provides a wide-angle lens for viewing the social and intellectual milieu of that period.
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
I teach London's The People of the Abyss in American Literary Realism and Naturalism, along with "South of the Slot", "The Apostate", "How I Became a Socialist" and "What Life Means to Me." I want the students to see that he was intellectually honest and above all, a writer of ideas. We come to London after reading Riis' How the Other Half Lives and Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, so they readily grasp his materialistic approach, his compassion for the underdog, and his critique of capitalism.
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
One gross misunderstanding is based on the seriously flawed notion that his literary vitality suffered a decline between 1906 and 1911. As anyone can see, this is simply untrue. London wrote some of his best short fiction including "To Build a Fire" (1908) and "The Apostate" (1906) during this period.
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?
I find that London's writing continues to appeal directly to readers, including college students today, regardless of how little they know about him or his times. In fact, once they read him, they say they want to read more of his works. I think they find his perspective refreshing and compelling. Having captured the spirit of romance and adventure, he brings experiences to life that in the hands of another, lesser, writer would seem dated.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
London's consuming interest and experiments in sustainable agriculture deserve further investigation.
What are your own current areas of London research?