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  • Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack London ed. by Kenneth K. Brandt and Jeanne Campbell Reesman
  • John Hay (bio)
Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack London, edited by Kenneth K. Brandt and Jeanne Campbell Reesman. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2015. x + 222 pp. Cloth, $40.00; Paper, $24.00.

For much of the twentieth century, anthologies of American literature either omitted Jack London's work entirely or included just a single short story, usually "To Build a Fire." In their introduction to Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack London, Kenneth K. Brandt and Jeanne Campbell Reesman acknowledge that London is largely known today as the author of both that story and The Call of the Wild, his most popular novel. But in the last ten years, with a host of new scholarship stressing his global presence, a much wider selection of his writings has been made available to educators. Appearing in 2007, the seventh edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (co-edited by Reesman) offered an unusually extensive London section, reprinting six different pieces ("The Law of Life," "To Build a Fire," "The Mexican," "The House of Pride," "Mauki," and a portion of "What Life Means to Me") and characterizing the author as a writer of the Pacific Rim. The Jack London of the twenty-first century promises to be much more than a purveyor of Arctic dog stories.

Fittingly, Brandt and Reesman's Approaches conveys both the literary richness and pedagogical appeal of London's many published works. Designed primarily for high school and college instructors, the volume begins with a terrific short section on "Materials," which includes both a clear description of available, affordable editions of London's texts for classroom adoption and an excellent overview of trends in London scholarship from the mid-twentieth century to the present. The bulk of the book consists of twenty-one essays devoted to teaching strategies gathered under four separate headings: "Intellectual and Cultural Contexts"; "Class, Politics, and Ideology"; "Intersections of Race and Gender"; and "Classroom Contexts." Most of the contributors focus on just one or two of London's texts, [End Page 71] so readers browsing for tips for teaching a specifi c novel or short story will be rewarded.

Approaches strikes a balance between advice for the most commonly assigned London texts—especially The Call of the Wild and "To Build a Fire"—and exposure to traditionally overlooked texts that may resonate especially well with today's students. On The Call of the Wild, for example, Brandt ("An Evolutionary Approach to The Call of the Wild and White Fang") situates the novel alongside separate evolutionary theories developed by Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley; Michael Lundblad ("The Nature of the Beast in The Call of the Wild") provocatively suggests that the loving relationship between Buck and John Thornton might be understood allegorically as "a displacement of queer desire between men" (157); and Alicia Mischa Renfroe ("An Old Favorite in a New Context") offers a perspective from a "literature and law" course, emphasizing London's reading of Rousseau's The Social Contract. Terry Reilly's essay, "'To Build a Fire' and Questions of Genre," is one of the anthology's standouts. Adapting his approach to his students' knowledge of their own environments, Reilly explains his different experiences assigning the story, first in the sultry climes of Miami, Florida, and then later in Fairbanks, Alaska—where "the temperature outside the classroom is almost as cold as it is in the story" (167).

"South of the Slot" and "The Night-Born" are two lesser-known London stories that several contributors agree resonate especially well with students and thus deserve more attention. Robert M. Dowling's brilliant essay on teaching "South of the Slot" ("'The Call of the Underworld'") explains how the story not only sheds light onto class conflict during the Progressive Era but remains relevant for issues of concern today, such as neighborhood gentrification and the widening income gap. Similarly, the complex narrative framing and gender-bending characterizations in "The Night-Born" suggest a tale more modern than its original 1911 publication date belies. Drawing on a wealth of pedagogical experience...


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