mardi 2 octobre 2007

The greatest American writer.

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!

9 commentaires:

Greg a dit…

Jesus - you've read all these Jack London novels? I agree he's underrated, but you appear to know more about American literature than I ever will, so I'll leave the ranking to you.

Anonyme a dit…

Hi Greg,

As a matter of fact, I have read all the novels and other titles that are mentionned in the post. Plus many others.
London has written many short stories too.
But I haven't read all what he wrote.
Out of the 53 something books that have been published in French I must have read some 40...
I remember in particular his Sea-Wolf which would have been a tremendously great novel, had it not been spoiled with more or less 25 totally ridiculous pages worth the Arlequin collection. Too bad.
London is said to have been "forced" to add a romantic episode by his publisher who thought the novel could better sell... :-(

Have you read one of London's pieces?


LASunsett a dit…

Honestly, I can't say I have read any of his books. I tend to read more European classics, although I did read one great American novel that stuck with me. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

In school, I had to read TKAM, Silas Marner, Great Expectations, The Odyssey, the Iliad, and some other lesser known works. I have also read The Prince by Machiavelli. Right now I am reading The History by Heroditus (translated by David Grene, some Greek scholar from U. of Chicago).

Greg a dit…

Have you read one of London's pieces?

I know I read White Fang and Call of the Wild in school, and I remember enjoying them. But that was it. I'm always wondering what to read next, and I never think of American classics. Maybe I should go for Sea Wolf or People of the Abyss next.

Anonyme a dit…

I remember you once mentionned "To kill a mockingbird" and I thought I should read it too.
But have you noticed how the books that leave you with the best souvenirs are generally the one which have taken you by surprise? Those you may not have heard of before, or very vaguely, but seldom those which were recommanded to you?

You will easily tell me that recommanding London's books may rather be paradoxical since too much praise may well be counterproductive...

Each one prefers to make one's own discovery and would reluctantly admit to being influenced by other's readings...

Nevertheless, may this selection of titles by the great Jack be kept somewhere in one corner of your memory and eventually, someday, you'll have the opportunity to read one, having forgotten that, long ago, there was a recommandation for such or such book.


Anonyme a dit…

Salut Greg,

People of the abyss would be a good choice because it isn't a literary work where your tastes could interfere but a contemporary report of the Londonian squalor at the beginning of the XXth.


LASunsett a dit…


//You will easily tell me that recommanding London's books may rather be paradoxical since too much praise may well be counterproductive...//

Not always.

When you want to learn about things, recommendations are a valuable source. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising there is. I like your taste in art. There's always the chance I would like other things you like to, to include books. But admittedly, it is always a risk that a recommendation will not always translate into a good experience.

Always remember that we ardent capitalists are risk-takers. We thrive on it. ;)

Growing up in So Cal gave me an appreciation for films, or cinema, as Euros refer to it. I think if you'd know my list of favorite movies, two-thirds of them you would probably enjoy too.

I watched a French movie the other day, Au Revoir, Les Enfantes. I thought it was very well done and very interesting to watch, despite the fact I had to watch it with subtitles.

Blue Marble a dit…

I found this blog casually.
I found your comment about Jack London very interesting.
I read a collection of his short stories when I was around 12. They translated the selection in Spanish as "Fragmentos del Futuro". There, I learned about utopian socialism, - this was the way they were labelling the stories - and I never thought or I could imagine the political connotations that these stories had.

For me, it was just a sci-fi book like many other books I would read afterwards. Books written by Ray Bradbury, George Orwell or Isaac Asimov.

At that time, the book made me think a lot. I always thought of the future of the world. That's why I liked sci-fi and I preferred it to history but as now I'm thinking about it, I see all the political connotations of all these books and how they have made me the person I am now.

Flocon a dit…

You're right Blue Marble, this part of Jack London's work is probably the least know among all his books and yet, it's one of the most extraordinary. How modern it is and with such understanding of the human nature.
My guess is that this unpolitically correctness of London was also a reason why he was quickly relegated in the harmless youth literature department by the American literary establishment.