- Jack London: The Paths Men Take ed. by Alessia Tagliaventi
Those interested in Jack London’s photography are likely already familiar with the significant text Jack London: Photographer, by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Sara S. Hodson, and Philip Adam. As an art historian with some knowledge of London’s photography, I was initially excited when asked to review the recent publication Jack London: The Paths Men Take, edited by Alessia Tagliaventi. London produced an extraordinary body of images, documenting his many travels in a clear style that demonstrates empathy, insight, and humor. While Jack London: Photographer is an extremely thorough text, I had hoped that Jack London: The Paths Men Take might add new insight into this important figure’s photographic output. Unfortunately, it does not. Moreover, I have been left with significant ethical concerns about the way the authors reproduce the ideas found in Jack London: Photographer and many of the photographs in this earlier text as well.
Jack London: The Paths Men Take seems to be somewhat of a composite production. In addition to her work as editor, Tagliaventi is the author of a brief preface. An essay entitled “Jack London: ‘I would rather live,’” by Davide Sapienza, is followed by four chapters, each named for an experience from London’s life: “The People of the Abyss,” “The Russo-Japanese War,” “The San Francisco Earthquake,” and “The Cruise of the Snark.” Each chapter begins with a one-page introduction, presumably written by Tagliaventi, followed by several pages excerpted from a relevant London text. The chapters also contain a number of photographs, some with additional excerpts from London’s writings that offer context for the photograph. Ruth Taylor is credited as translator. The publisher, Contrasto, is an Italian firm that produces books on art and photography, seemingly with a general audience in mind. [End Page 92]
It is possible that the editor and publisher intended to create a book on London’s photography that would appeal to a wide audience. Certainly London’s photography does have broad appeal: not only to London scholars, but also to those interested in early documentary photography (London’s work makes an interesting juxtaposition with that of his contemporaries, such as Lewis Hine), travel photography, and the history of photojournalism. However, I would note that a general-interest publication on London’s photography already exists. Although Jack London: Photographer is a scholarly text, Reesman, Hodson, and Adam write in a way that is accessible to nonacademic readers. Their publication also reproduces London’s photographs in high quality that credits their intriguing content.
Jack London: The Paths Men Take seems to be less clear in its intentions. An immediate issue with this text is the quality of Sapienza’s introductory essay. The writing is awkward, riddled with purple prose, baroque metaphors, and incomplete sentences. The reader wades through statements such as this one: “His story is an impetuous river carving into the spirit of the times and broadening its banks, but at the same time also shaped by it; it is the story of an explorer of men and minds searching for everyday stories to fashion into visions and ideas that were his and his alone” (Sapienza 10). While this may reflect the challenge of translating Sapienza’s language, of greater concern to me as a scholar is that the ideas presented in the essay are very thin, even though Sapienza has been credited as “the foremost Italian authority on London” (Raskin). Sapienza notes that he “sets out to prove” that London expressed himself both through his writing and his photography and that London considered his photographs “human documents” (Sapienza 10). However, this argument has already been made, in richer detail, in Jack London: Photographer. Sapienza does include footnotes citing both Jack London: Photographer and Earle Labor’s biography Jack London: An American Life, but these are given as the source of various quotations from primary sources (such as London’s letters) rather than to any ideas contained within either text. One might argue that Sapienza’s essay is meant to offer...