- Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack ed. by Kenneth K. Brandt and Jeanne Campbell Reesman, and: Call of the Atlantic: Jack London’s Publishing Odyssey Overseas, 1902–1916 by Joseph McAleer
These two books present different aspects of Jack London (1876–1916)—one focusing on the works of the famous fiction writer taught at the undergraduate and graduate levels, the other on the unconventional notion of authorship London displayed as he managed to become, by many accounts, the most popular American author in the world today.
London’s two dog stories, Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), are literary classics that have never gone out of print. But his dog stories are not representative of his forty-four published works and hundreds of short stories and essays, which cover a wide range of topics. While Joseph McAleer states that “the diversity of his writings was a distinct advantage” (160) in commanding attention and influence overseas, the editors of the mla volume, Kenneth Brandt and Jeanne Reesman, present London as an “ideal choice for the classroom” since he “offers an eclectic range of subjects, settings, styles, and political orientations” (ix).
As a businessman, London is often seen as haunted by his failed experiments. The 15,000-square-foot “Wolf House” he built in Glen Ellen, California, at an estimated cost of $75,000 in 1913 dollars, mysteriously burned down before he could move in. The hundred thousand fast-growing hardwood eucalyptus trees he planted on his 1,400-acre ranch as a cash crop twisted when dried and proved unsuitable for use as piers or railroad ties. His yacht, the Snark, built at great personal expense following the 1906 San Francisco [End Page 469] earthquake, had to be sold for a pittance less than two years into his planned seven-year trip around the world. However, London seemed to thrive on experimentation and was extremely successful as a writer in spite of his failures as a businessman. As Friedrich Nietzsche once observed, “A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions—as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.”
McAleer’s book focuses on the man “behind the public persona” to “reveal a side of the author’s life that has been overlooked by academics and critics . . . namely London’s publishing odyssey overseas” (xii). True, the history of London’s business dealings with his American publishers, editors, and agents has only recently been explored in Jay Williams’s Author Under Sail (2014), and both books contribute to a new and exciting direction in London studies. Not only do they provide in-depth examinations of previously undocumented aspects of London’s life and works, they also present entirely fresh understandings of London’s character as an author that have been arrived at by firsthand readings of the many far-flung and often hard-to-access primary source materials that have been preserved.
McAleer presents his findings as a story that can change our perception of London in many intriguing ways. First, he tells us that in 1905 London’s publisher, George Brett of Macmillan, sent London a copy of a newly released book, A Publisher’s Confession, by Walter Hines Page. Page, a partner and vice president of Doubleday, Page & Co., “warned authors that loyalty to one publisher was far more important in the long run than hopping from firm to firm in search of a more lucrative contract” (2). McAleer characterizes London’s daring or perhaps downright stupid behavior (both explanations are possibilities) in his publishing odyssey overseas by thoroughly documenting his repeated refusal to learn this lesson, his constant flirtation with disastrous results, his forgetfulness, his mendacity, his obsession with “every minute detail,” his bullheadedness, and his tenacity. With astute succinctness, McAleer states that London “held all the cards—and was his own...