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Paying Respects to an American Legend--Finally

October 13, 1994|SUSAN JAQUES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1903, after much dickering, Jack London received a flat fee of $2,000 for his second novel. The publisher did not believe that the story of a dog's struggle for survival in the Alaskan Klondike would do well with the public.

Nearly a century later, "The Call of the Wild" is still doing well--in more than 80 languages.

During his lifetime, London's stories and novels sold so well that he became the first American writer to earn more than a million dollars.

Yet for all of his popularity and commercial success, London never gained respect in literary and academic circles. And even though his writings span a wide range of subjects and locales--from the lepers of Molokai to the homeless of London's East End--critics have pigeonholed London as a writer of juvenile dog stories.

That image is starting to change. A small but dedicated group of scholars is renewing interest in London, revealing a complex personality who figures importantly in American literature and California history.

And Hollywood is taking notice again. Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner are working on a film biography about London, and a movie version of London's autobiographical novel "Martin Eden" is also in the works.

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Recently, about 100 members of the Jack London Society made a pilgrimage to the Huntington Library in San Marino, a mecca for London scholarship. The library houses the largest collection of London material, including manuscripts, correspondence and about 10,000 photographs. And within the musty leaves of London's scrapbooks, volumes of clippings reveal that the native Californian made front-page news as a war correspondent, world traveler and adventurer.

But the most popular writer of the day was conspicuously absent from the reviews of the era's most important literary critic, William Dean Howells.

"London was poor and illegitimate, without much formal education," explained symposium organizer Jeanne Campbell Reesman of the University of Texas at San Antonio. "He was from the West Coast instead of from Boston. He was a socialist. All those things didn't sit well with the Atlantic Monthly critics."

It wasn't only his background. London upset the academic Establishment by challenging assumptions about gender and race. Today, this deep sense of social justice adds to his appeal.

"There aren't many American male fiction writers who treat women as sympathetically or compassionately as London," said Clarice Stasz of Sonoma State University, author of "American Dreamers: Charmian and Jack London" (St. Martin's Press, 1988).

Stasz believes that the macho persona London helped perpetuate in the press was a facade to sell books.

"He would be on all the talk shows today," she said. "But few people know that London loved to hear his wife play Chopin and read aloud Romantic poetry to friends. And he was incredibly generous. The money was going out just as fast as he made it."

Another factor behind the growing interest in London is the range of his work. Over his 20-year career, London kept to a dizzying writing schedule of 1,000 words a day. The result is a body of 200 stories, 20 novels and 400 works of nonfiction.

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But it was one work in particular, "Martin Eden," that hooked a young reader, Earle Labor, about 40 years ago in Navy boot camp. Since then, Labor--now Wilson Professor of American Literature at Centenary College of Louisiana--has been studying, teaching and preaching the London gospel.

Along with Louisiana State University English professor Robert C. Leitz III and London's great-nephew I. Milo Shepard, Labor edited more than 1,500 of London's letters to family, friends and publishers. Publication of the correspondence in 1988 by the Stanford University Press is seen as a watershed event, opening the field to serious scholarly attention.

The letters represent the most authentic portrait of London that will ever be presented, Leitz said, because the author is telling his own story. Last year, the three collaborated on "The Complete Short Stories of Jack London."

Literary executor Shepard, whose grandmother Eliza London Shepard was London's stepsister, was the one who decided to finally open up London's life to scrutiny.

"London gave away the holographs or tore up his manuscripts, but when Charmian came along, she kept every scrap of paper," Shepard explained.

Now, with greater access to London, scholars are filling in the missing pieces and correcting misperceptions about London's life.

In a biography to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux late next year, Labor plans to address such topics as London's love affair with socialist Anna Strunsky, his relationship with his stepsister, the cause of his premature death in 1916 and his achievements.

"Contrary to published stereotypes of London at the end of his life as an alcoholic, drug-ridden, burnout case, he was undergoing a crucial personal and philosophical transformation," Labor said.

London packed a lifetime plus into 40 years. A year before his death he wrote: "I have been luckier than many hundreds of millions of men in my generation have been lucky, and, while I have suffered much, I have lived much, seen much, and felt much that has been denied to the average man. Yes, indeed, the game is worth the candle."

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