JL in the News: Jack London, a century on
Jack London, a century on
Yesterday, as Dennis Duncan has noted, was the seventieth anniversary of a controversial book – J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Shall Spit on Your Graves) by one “Vincent Sullivan” – who was really Boris Vian in a mischievous mood. Go back further, another thirty years: today, November 22, it is a century since the death of Jack London, another self-inventing and occasionally trouble-making author.
The author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, to name only the most famous of his many books – London was prolific to the point of publishing two, three or even four books a year. He was principled yet contradictory, absurdly self-mythologizing yet exceptionally talented. In one sense, death could not hold him back: his publishers continued to release new works into the early 1920s. In another sense, his premature death was the making of him: at the time, this could be seen as a “great life cut short in its prime”, as Joseph McAleer notes in the epilogue to Call of the Atlantic. “His demise granted a kind of legendary status.” McAleer quotes an advertisement of 1917 that could call London “the last of our classic writers to die”.
Not that the critics absolutely agreed with such statements. McAleer also quotes Katherine Mansfield, an admirer of London who had to concede that the book under review, Island Tales (1920; but first published a year earlier as On the Makaloa Mat), did not show the author at his best. George Orwell thought London excelled primarily as a writer of short stories rather than novels: “I earnestly beg you to read the collection of short stories published under the title When God Laughs. The best of Jack London is there”. In the TLS, meanwhile, White Fang received praise even as it was marked down for “affectations of diction” and “abstract analyses of the law of the wild” (“lumbering in vain after Kipling”). One of the posthumous crop, Jerry of the Islands, is found to be “perfervid” and suggestive of a new, thwarted direction for his work; all the same, there is the old combination of spurting blood and the fondness for an “excursus on heredity”, coming in “like a refrain”.
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