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Why People Love to Hate Jack London.

First, a clarification: Only some “people love to hate Jack London.” Most people love to love Jack London. Witness the fact that more than a century after his death, all but a handful of his fifty-plus book titles remain in print worldwide. His masterpiece The Call of the Wild (1903) has been translated into nearly one hundred languages and Braille. London’s works clearly have a lasting universal appeal.

I’ll share a personal example: During the 1990s I directed four Summer Seminars for Teachers on Jack London, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Each seminar included fifteen of America’s finest teachers, plus one teacher from overseas. The first of these was a woman from East Germany after “The Wall” had been dismantled. Next was a teacher from the Philippines. Third was a professor from Albania, who gave me A History of American Literature, (2003) published by Tirana University. Featured on the cover are portraits of two famous authors: Jack London and Mark Twain; the chapter on London is the longest in the book. Fourth was a young teacher from Congo:

“I was born in a jungle village,” he told us. “My father was killed when I was a boy, and I migrated to Brazzaville. There I learned French and read The Call of the Wild That book inspired me to survive.”

Even many lesser-known Jack London titles have made impacts overseas. His dystopian novel The Iron Heel (1908) has been praised by such dignitaries as Leon Trotsky, Anatole France, and George Orwell. Paul Siegel attests that it “continues to sell throughout the world in millions in many translations.” A couple of years ago I got an edition of London’s longest novel, The Valley of the Moon (1913), translated into Mongolian. Prior to that Russian scholar Vil Bykov sent me an inscribed copy of London’s short stories that he had translated, telling me it had sold out its first printing of 200,000 copies in two weeks. More recently, Italy’s premier London scholar, Davide Sapienza, has translated not only such classics as The Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf (1904), and White Fang (1906) but also less-familiar titles like The Star Rover (1914). Li Shuyan teaches Martin Eden (1909) at Beijing University, attesting that “whatever happens in the critical world, London will go on enjoying the admiration of Chinese readers.”

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Professor Shuyan’s reference to “the critical world” leads me to explain why a minority of people love to hate Jack London. The “critical world” comprises the literary elite and the academic snobs, aptly indicted by Eric Miles Williamson as the “Ivy Mafia.” For more than a century members of this group have either ignored London completely or branded him as a popular hack who wrote some entertaining stories for kids about dogs and wolves in the Northland.

Another personal example: Sixty-odd years ago I chose to pursue my doctorate at the University of Wisconsin because its American Literature program was arguably the strongest in the country. “You’ll be smart to choose Wisconsin over your offers from Harvard and Yale,” my elder colleague John Willingham advised me. “Study under Frederick J. Hoffman. His latest book The Twenties (1955) is definitive, and he’s the premier voice in twentieth-century American lit.”

Professor Hoffman was indeed a powerful voice, in the classroom as well as in the wider scholarly world. Every one of his lectures was a work of art. After a couple of months, believing he was the ideal person to supervise my dissertation on Jack London, I worked up the nerve to broach the subject:

“What topic are you proposing?” he asked me.

“Jack London.”

“I can’t help you. London’s not really a twentieth-century author, and I don’t know that much about him.”

Later I read in his The Modern Novel in America (1951) that “Jack London is an interesting sideshow in the Naturalist carnival.”

Like Hoffman, with a handful of exceptions, members of the mid-twentieth-century academic world did not...


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