AN INTERVIEW WITH TONY WILLIAMS, (PhD, University of Manchester)
Department of English
Please trace the origin of your interest in Jack London.
My interest in Jack London began from a personal perspective in the early 1980s. During that era I was one of the victims of Thatcherism. This was an evil and destructive system that reversed the former humanitarian mode of consensus politics which had been agreed upon by both political parties since World War II. Like many, I suffered periods of unemployment and relegation to temporary jobs after graduating from university. A friend recommended I read THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS. The book was a revelation since I previously regarded Jack London as the author of THE CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG. There I found an author who experienced the devastating results of a ruthless system of capitalist exploitation which both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were bringing back to both America and Britain.
The value of Jack London for me lay not just in the exciting style of his writing, but his emphasis upon struggling to overcome harsh conditions. He had a very personal resonance for me which still remains today when things have now become much more worse, that is, except for those who benefit from the system, or who conveniently turn a blind eye to what is going on around them.
In higher education American literature studies, does London have a high "standing"?
I don't think he has the "high standing" he really deserves. He is a writer who can not be appropriated into the a-historical and a–political discourses of postmodernism. He has a very strong social message, no matter how much the academic establishment attempts to deny this. Hence, his socialism, which was part of his personal integrity as a man and a writer, cannot fit into a system of higher education which is becoming more and more aligned with the corporate model today. London's writings all teach us to question the dominant establishment. But, as he aptly defined university education correctly as "the passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence", he does not really belong there. His real role is outside the establishment inspiring others as he did those working–class readers in the early twentieth century, and those soldiers in World War I who read him during those long, boring periods, before they had to go over the top. Ken Loach's former collaborator, Jim Allen, (who I was privileged to meet in the 1980s) spoke of his influence in a very positive manner. This is the type of audience London really needs, not an educational establishment seeking to use him for their own ends, or a student body coping with high tuition increases, and outside jobs to make ends meet. This latter group really cannot appreciate an author in such a pressure-cooker system that exists in higher education today. His real role is now within educational Web sites which can disseminate the significance of his life and message; as well as the various reading groups who admire his work across the country.
In teaching London's works, what do you emphasize and hope your students understand?
Since I teach Film Studies, I have little opportunity to teach Jack London. But, whenever his name crops up in discussions, I try to emphasize his significance within the historical context in which he operated. For example, the recent Ken Burns documentary on Jack Johnson mentioned London as a person who held ideologically racist views which were common in his era. But, Burns never included the fact that although London personally identified with "the great white hope", he expressed his admiration for Jack Johnson. I feel that, if London had lived beyond his 40 years, and knew more about the diversity of black culture, he would have changed his views radically. After all, the man was flexible and capable of change. He never held fixed views, but looked at the facts at his disposal, and made what he held were honest evaluations.
Aside from the "He was a writer of dog stories" canard what are some of the misunderstandings about London and his works?"
I think we all know what they are. Irving Stone's SAILOR ON HORSEBACK did a lot of damage, and Russ Kingman spent the latter part of his life finding out the facts, and correcting historical information. But, I think London's relationship to the dynamic discourse of literary naturalism has been neglected. I don't think he rejected it entirely, but adapted it to fit his own literary concerns. Also, London was first and foremost a socialist writer. He identified with the oppressed, and urged the necessity for struggling against harsh conditions in order to make a better world. London was a humanitarian, an early advocate for animal rights, and someone who spoke against injustice on all levels. I feel, that were he with us today, open to all the influences and alternative ideas available to us today, he would be in the forefront of those protesting against the concentration camps set up in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. He was an American, but someone who never went along with injustice, the attack on human rights, and torture in general. I've just finished reading Sterling Hayden's 1963 autobiography WANDERER, where he mentions the influence of Jack London. Hayden attempted to make a film version of THE SEA WOLF after he underwent the humiliation of "naming names" during the blacklisting period. WANDERER very much articulates London's "call of the sea" in many, indirect ways. Deeply traumatized by his behavior in this dark era, Hayden turned to Jack London for salvation in terms of recognizing the author's integrity, and attempting to find a different lifestyle from what he had experienced in the Depression and "tinseltown". Hayden's experience of the Great Depression resembles London's encounters with poverty and social alienation. That is another example where Jack London was relevant to the life experiences of one person, and I'm sure there are many more instances of this which also relate to our present situation.
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?
Again, his humanitarian message, and the necessity of struggling against a harsh environment, whether it be environmental (the Klondike, the "Terrible Solomons"), or social deprivation and poverty, which we know has returned today with a vengeance, in a world going "back to the future" of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover, where the rich again exploit the underprivileged in society. There are many features in London's work which would appeal to a future generation.
Are there untapped areas of London scholarship? Please give some examples of research that needs to be done.
Definitely so, London's commitment to socialism, and his role as an activist through his writings, deserves further research. But in this frightened, a–political climate which universities are a part of, I doubt whether this is even possible.
What are your own current areas of London research?
Again, I've moved in other directions, but I still do the occasional contribution. I've recently written again on the film versions of Jack London for a Cambridge University Press anthology on (20th Century Authors edited by R. Barton Palmer. My current work on literary naturalism has also resulted in returning to Jack London. For example, an article I wrote on AMERICAN PSYCHO for EXCAVATIO, the journal of the Emile Zola Society and research in naturalism, used many comparisons to the work of Jack London, especially BURNING DAYLIGHT. Indeed, Ellis's ruthless neo-capitalist serial killer is a late twentieth-century version of those atavistic robber baron predators who appear in London's fiction. However, if the situation emerges, I will return to London again. I still have all his novels, journal articles, as well as fond memories of Hensley Woodbridge, who was so crucial in bringing London to a wider audience, and inviting as many people to become involved in this revival. He did not have the traditional "insecurity of malice" (a term Stanley Kubrick used about Hollywood) that features in the worst examples of badly behaved academics.
Professor Williams's research interests include: Representations of Viet Nam in Literature and Cinema, Film and Literature, Classical Hollywood Cinema, The Writings of Jack London and James Jones, Hong Kong Cinema, Film Genres, and Naturalism and Cinema.