If they were asked who they think the greatest American writer is, most American scholars or readers wouldn't think of Jack London. And if his name were suggested, he would quickly be dismissed.
This man has been relegated into the youth literature department since the day he died (1916) and nearly one century after his death, his reputation the world over is about the same: a good writer for teenagers, period.
Ain't life unkind? Perhaps the only American writer with an "oeuvre", along with W. Faulkner. His works range from exotic short stories (Pacific islands and great north as setting), autobiographical novels (John Barleycorn for example), sea novels (the Sea-Wolf) or sociological inquiries (People of the Abyss, written in London in 1902) as well as war correspondent in Korea or Mexico. He even played a part in a 1913 made movie. Who will ever see this film?
Now, this is very subjective of course but in my opinion, his best novel is called the Star Rover which is altogether an extraordinary lyrical piece of literature and a ferocious denunciation of the penitentiary conditions in California (based on a personal account).
Jack London was a self proclaimed socialist, although a very unconventional one. He would rather be labelled "libertarian" in modern terms I suppose. He thought it his duty to fight the realm of the golden calf and the oppression of the masses in the name of profit and economic wealth. That may be the main reason why the American intelligentsia rejected him and eventually belittled him to a junior writer status.
He was very proud of his Americaness but was also a fierce enemy of the system as he so eloquently demonstrated in the Iron Heel.
A French publisher (Francis Lacassin) decided some 30 years ago to propose to the French audience the complete works of Jack London. More than 50 books were published. Another one started a revised publication 5 years ago. Is there any American publisher with the same edition?
When I suggest he's the greatest American writer, some will protest and will mention E. Hemingway. Tah! Hemingway... A drunken big mouth, adept of wild game in Africa (talk of respect for life and nature) and bull fighting. (hint: I don't like E. Hemingway).
There are other great writers in America but none with such an extended range of works, so different, so excellent. And what an amazing life Jack London the Californian led!
Now, really, reading some novels and shorts stories by Jack London should be made compulsory in all American schools. And not only Call of the wild or White Fang. Which are great of course but which shouldn't make forget The Star Rover or The Iron Heel (compulsory reading too!)
Jack London: the greatest American writer ever!