lundi 28 mars 2011

The greatest American writer

Were they 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!

32 commentaires:

Anijo a dit…

Jack London was also a drunk

"I was carrying a beautiful alcoholic conflagration around with me. The thing fed on its own heat and flamed the fiercer. There was no time, in all my waking time, that I didn't want a drink. I began to anticipate the completion of my daily thousand words by taking a drink when only five hundred words were written. It was not long until I prefaced the beginning of the thousand words with a drink".
~Jack London

And as you know, I don't much like Schopenhauer because of his views on women. So any critique of Hemingway should be made in light of more than a particular aspect of what kind of person that he was.

Anyway, Here is an interesting book

Jack London: an American original By Rebecca Stefoff

Few writers of the early 20th century were more popular than Jack London, or more controversial. His personality and his work both made strong impressions on all who encountered them. People either loved London and his writing or scorned them--there was no middle ground. Even after he died he continued to arouse strong feelings. In the decades following London's death, literary critics dismissed much of his work as crude and primitive. Many scholars came to regard London, once viewed as one of the leading literary voices of his day, as a minor writer of little lasting importance.

Jack began his long battle with alcohol at an early age.

Anijo a dit…

Jack London is often compared to Sinclair Lewis.

Both London's and Lewis's novels received mixed reviews when they appeared, but Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman are correct when they criticize in The Iron Heel the "cloying sentimentality" of the narrator, and they are at least reasonable to claim that the hero is a "relentless bore". If Everhard is a bore, it is because London's work is oftentimes more of a polemic than a novel, and his hero serves too often as a mouthpiece for the author's economic, social, and political beliefs without advancing the plot

Comments by Gore Vidal:

When Jack London had come to Yale to speak for socialism, Lewis had met him. Although Lewis was to be, briefly, a card-carrying socialist, he was never much interested in politics, but he very much admired the great Redskin writer, and he got to know him at Carmel.

London wrote short stories for a living. Unfortunately, he had trouble thinking up plots. Although Lewis was not yet making a living from short stories, he had thought up a great many plots. So, in 1910, Lewis sold Jack London fourteen short story plots for $70. Two became published short stories; the third the start of a not-to-be-finished novel. Lewis later described London at that time as someone more interested in playing bridge than sea-wolfing. He also described how “Jack picked up James’s The Wings of the Dove…and read aloud in a bewildered way….It was the clash between Main Street and Beacon Street that is eternal in American culture.” Well, eternity is a long time in bookchat land.

Anijo a dit…

H D Thoreau is on my list of great American writers for this time period when Jack London was writing. Thoreau is similar to London. They were both literary journalists. Also for this same time period, I would have to include Samuel Clemens.

Flocon a dit…

Jack's addiction to alcohol is a well known fact. He even wrote a book about his pathological dependance on gin and whisky, John Barleycorn, which I mention in the post.

You shouldn't pay attention to the text Schopenhauer wrote about women. It's a bit like saying you don't much like Mozart because you'd learned he used to slap repeatidly his little sister...

Now the man Schopenhauer may be disliked at will, for all intents and purposes he wasn't a Teletubby character... ☺

"any critique of Hemingway should be made in light of more than a particular aspect of what kind of person that he was."

I agree with you. As a matter of fact I have read two books only by Hemingway. The old man and the sea and Paris is a moveable feast which definitively isn't enough to have a comprehensive understanding of the writer.

De Thoreau j'ai lu Resistance to civil governement 6 months ago. I started Walden just after I was through with the later but it wasn't the sort of book I was ready to read then.

I learned he was somehow associated with libertarianism in October when Ned introduced Ayn Rand to me.

De Mark Twain j'ai lu Huckleberry Finn et Tom Sawyer bien sûr mais aussi Life on the Mississippi qui m'a beaucoup plu il y a trois ans and also that one.

Il n'y a d'article sur la grenouille qu'en français! Do you mean frog like froggy? :-P

Il y a quelques mois les mémoires de S.Clemens ont été publiées aux US and they sold extraordinary well I learned. But we had an exchange about that (re the use of the n. word)

J'aime beaucoup London pour la variété de ses sujets. Je sais qu'il y a beaucoup de très bon mais aussi un peu de médiocre.

Nobody's perfect ;-)

Also I read his books in French so I can't say anything about the literary qualities of his writing.

Flocon a dit…

I was interested in the little trivia mentioned in the article about the jumping frog.

So I followed the link (note 4 at the bottom of the page) and arrived here.

And what is to be read among the comments?

Hilarious. Great slap at the French, too, which is never out of place

I understand SF had to be a tad "annoyed" after he has been subjected to this sort of, say, "silliness" on a daily basis for months on.

On the other hand it's on Google books so any asshole from any country can write whatever pleases him/her.

Also I'm a bit surprised this short story enjoyed such a tremendous success after it was published 1865. OK, it's a funny little story but imho there's nothing to write home about...

Bon, Clemens avait 30 ans et il faut bien commencer. By the way, Schopy published his World as Will etc. at the same age... [Please don't slap me Anijo ;-)]

Anijo a dit…

Schopy was a pessimistic misogynistic philosopher. Clemens was an author and a humorist. It's like comparing apples with oranges. I'm assuming that you were just joking anyway.

Christine a dit…

J'ai moi aussi une grande affection pour Jack London! Je suis vraiment contente que vous lui ayez rendu hommage; il est un peu cantonné en littérature jeunesse avec l'Appel de la forêt ou Croc Blanc. Je ne connais pas ses nouvelles, mais j'ai lu il y a une vingtaine d'années son beau roman, sensible et très engagé, Martin Eden et je le porte toujours en moi. Ce livre pose la question de de la culture: vit-on plus heureux grâce à elle? Est-on ainsi plus ouvert d'esprit?
Martin Eden, pauvre marin fruste décide pour l'amour d'une belle, de s'"éduquer": il travaille comme un fou, dévore des livres, suit des études en même temps qu'il travaille pour gagner sa vie. Il écrit encore et toujours. Pour elle. Parvenu à une vraie "réussite", il s'aperçoit enfin que la bourgeoisie cultivée à laquelle il voulait ressembler porte et ressasse des idées étroites...
Jack London force l'admiration: c'est pour moi l'aventurier un peu dingo, le fin observateur de la société de son temps, de ses tourments, un socialiste sincère.

Saviez-vous Flocon que le livre de chevet de Lénine était un tout petit livre de Jack London Construire un feu?

Flocon a dit…


Comme tous les garçons j'imagine (ceux qui lisent à tout le moins) j'ai découvert London à 11 ou 12 ans dans la bibliothèque verte (avec cette couverture).

j'ai dû lire Croc blanc à cette époque et j'en suis resté là mais je gardais à Jack une place pour "plus tard".

Il n'y a que 5 ou 6 ans que j'ai lu une bonne quarantaine de ses titres en 10/18 dans l'édition de Lacassin.

J'ai lu Martin Eden et votre résumé me le remet en mémoire, merci.

Malheureusement quand on se lance dans ce genre d'intégrale, arrive un moment où la lassitude gagne (c'est mon cas). Je n'ai pas gardé de souvenir marquant de Martin Eden qui est pourtant, je le sais bien, auréolé d'une grande réputation.

Je garde un souvenir admiratif et émerveillé du Vagabond des étoiles. Extraordinaire!

Ses nouvelles du Pacifique ou du Grand Nord sont envoûtantes.

Il a écrit des oeuvres de critiques sociales comme Le peuple des abîmes ou le Talon de fer. Très fort, vraiment très fort.

Ce qui me fait le considérer comme le plus grand écrivain américain c'est la diversité de sa production. Il a tout essayé, du roman à la nouvelle, de la poésie au théâtre. Il a vraiment créé une oeuvre.

Et quelle vie il a mené!

"Saviez-vous Flocon que le livre de chevet de Lénine était un tout petit livre de Jack London Construire un feu?"

Oui car lacassin nous en informe dans une de ses préfaces. L'article wiki est insignifiant mais l'article en anglais est plus substantiel.

Quel lecteur ce Lacassin!

Flocon a dit…


I'm afraid your mind's definitively made up about Schopy because of this unimportant text of him which is totally irrelevant re his philosophy.

These 15 pages he wrote simply recall the overwhelming dominance of these values in our western world 160 years ago. Like everyone else Schopen was the product of his time.

It would compare to American black people having their mind made up about Clemens because he repeatedly used the word nigger.

Clemens also was a product of his time and despite the use of the n. word he's worth reading, isnt'he?

Je me souviens que Jack London était très fier de son nom et qu'il avait une certaine proclivity to believe there existed some kind of white supremacy.

Another product of his time...

Ce qui pourrait être l'occasion d'une réflexion sur l'origine des valeurs, leur évolution, le rôle des individus de génie dans le questionnement des valeurs, (is "good" really that good? What is the worth of such and such value?).

----> On the Genealogy of Morality

Anijo a dit…

Although Shopy's diatribe on women makes me think less of him, I do still find him to be an interesting philosopher.

Anonyme a dit…

Flocon: I don't entirely share your evaluation of Hemingway. When I was a teenager, I was captured by his work. I read everything he published. But later in life, I was compelled to re-evaluate him as a writer and a model for action.

I still acknowledge his substantial contribution to English prose. His spare, clear, and efficient style is now so much the ideal in English writing that it is a cliche. Are you aware that there is an annual competition to produce a parody of the Hemingway style? In brief, his impact on English letters is profound.

But I now see that the scope of Hemingway's accomplishments is limited. For example, he writes exclusively for men. Women appear in his work, at worst, merely as mirrors to reflect the thoughts of the men in his stories, or, at best, as helpful, supporting props for the actions of men. I invite your attention to Hemingway's descriptions of Harry's wife in "The Snows of Kilimajaro" or of Sister Cecilia in " The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio".

But Hemingway aspired to more than success as a writer. He offered a model of life and morals for the genuine, true man. The real man was to aspire to his ideal of fearlessness and truth. See, for example, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber". I was to learn, to my disillusionment, that Hemingway was a fraud as a guide to the admirable life. He was, in fact, a selfish and often cowardly cheat, who did not hesitate to trample over his wives and friends when it was to his advantage.

But he was a great writer of English prose, for impressionable young men.


Flocon a dit…


Yes, I admit I wrote carelessly about Hemingway who I didn't actually read.

As a matter of fact, I used him as a counter figure in order to bolster my point about London.

I didn't know about that yearly literary competition you refer to nor did I know that his style was an ideal for English literature.

As a non native speaker of English I'm in the same situation that I was with London: I have no clue whatsoever about Hemingway's literary merits.

Since you mentioned three stories he wrote I went to see what were The gambler, the Nun and the radio and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber both of which I never heard of before.

This is when I learned that The Snows of the Kilimanjaro actually is a collection of short stories whereas I've always thought it was another novel like For whom the bell tolls etc.

See, you've taught me three points I wasn't aware of when I woke up two hours ago. The Internet is magic!

As pertains Hemingway's use of women characters in his writings, I kinda remember London was much more compassionate and caring with his literary female characters.

After I've browsed the English article on Wiki I found some confirmation that the man wasn't afraid to slightly distort reality when he found it convenient for the sake of his reputation.

That seems to have been the case toward the end of WWII in Europe.

Again I concede the part of this post about Hemingway was a bit off handed since I wanted to enhance Jack London's literary achievement.

I should have been more cautious since I don't know jack re Hemingways' literary merits.

Anyway, both men led extraordinay lives and their personalities were second to none. I just have a softer spot for the Californian than for the Illinoisan...

Be it only for the scope of their respective oeuvre which is one reason I mentioned in order to praise London's accomplishment and declare him the greatest American writer. Of course, it's just my unqualified personal opinion, 't goes without saying...

There's much more diversity in London's works than in any American writer I can think of.

Flocon a dit…


If you liked Schopenhauer's views on women you'll love Nietzsche's views on women

Les femmes n'ont jamais été un sujet particulier de réflexion pour les philosophes de l'antiquité (I can't think of anything Plato wrote about them).

Aristote est un cas à part et ce n'est que la récupération de sa philosophie par la théologie chrétienne qui a fait perdurer ses vues jusqu'au sortir du Moyen-âge.

Je n'ai pas connaissance de textes de Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant etc particulièrement consacrés aux femmes.

D'une façon générale, les philosophes occidentaux se consacrent à l'étude de l'homme (human being) sans distinction de sexe.

Schoppy and Nietzsche ont exprimé les opinions personnelles de deux bourgeois allemands du XIXth.

As I wrote previously, Schopenhauer's text is unrelated to his sytem whereas Nietzsches's views are at the core of his thoughts.

My friend has this for you.

Hint: Nietzsche was sexually frustrated.

Schopenhauer fall in love with nineteen year old actress singer Caroline Medon in 1821.

One afternoon in 1821 while waiting in his apartment for a rendezvous with Caroline, he was Irritated by the continuous gossiping of next door neighbor the 45 year old seamstress Frau Marquet with several friends on the landing. Schopenhauer open his door and told her to do her gossiping elsewhere. Marquet was offended by Schopenhauer interruption and refused to move. The very angry Schopenhauer threw her down the stairs.

Frau Marquet filed a charge of assault against Schopenhauer, and the court gave him a small fine of twenty thaler. When she learned that Schopenhauer was a rich man, she file an appeal claiming that the fall paralyzed her rigth side. Schopenhauer contested the case. Six years later he lost the case and was order to paid Frau Marquet fifteen thaler per quarter as long as her injury exist. She claimed the injury persisted until her death twenty years later. After her death Schopenhauer wrote in his journal in Latin "The old woman dies, the burden departs".

Gold diggers aren't an American specific trait...

That biographical incident may help understand Schopenhauer's grievance against women... Not to forget his tumultuous relation with his mother.

Anijo a dit…

SemperFi said:
His spare, clear, and efficient style is now so much the ideal in English writing that it is a cliche.

This reminds me of the well-known joke:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To get to the other side.

Some possible answers by famous people are circulating around the internet such as the following:

I have a dream! I have a dream of a day, when all chickens can cross roads without having their motives called into question!
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

To cross, or not to cross, that is the question.
~William Shakespeare

To die. Alone. In the rain.

The imagined answer by Hemingway is meant to be humorous because it demonstrates his efficient style.

Anijo a dit…

This notion of how women are portrayed and discussed in writing and philosophy throughout the years opens up a wide topic.

I am very much aware of Nietzsche's views on women. In fact, over the years of reading I ran into, again and again, negative portrayals of women. I had a friend many years ago who suggested that I read Robert Heinlein as he thought that I would appreciate how women were portrayed by him. I was pleasantly surprised to find strong, intelligent women in his novels. Turns out that Heinlein had a strong, intelligent wife.

Ned Ludd a dit…

As much as I like London, the major American writer for me in the 20th Century was John Steinbeck. I am surprised no one has mentioned him.

In the 19th, undoubtedly it was Mark Twain.

Flocon a dit…


You seem not to be that much of an Hemingway fan, are you?

I suppose it's the social critique of Steinbeck's books which appeals to you.

Je m'aperçois que j'ai lu la moitié des titres de Steinbeck in the early 80s. As usual j'ai à peu près tout oublié mais je me souviens cependant que j'avais aimé Tortilla Flat et Cannery row.

I can't remember if I've read East of Eden???

J'ai très peu lu Twain mais j'ai l'image d'un auteur très "dispersé".

Ned Ludd a dit…

"dispersé" est injuste, sûrtout après parlé de ma diversité de London.

Comme j'ai dit une autre fois, il faut lire "Following the Equator". Aussi il faut se souvient que Twain était vice-président de la league contra l'imperialism. Sûrtout il a denouncé l'occupation des Philippines par les EU et celui du Roi Belge, Léopold, au Congo.

Flocon a dit…

C'est vrai que "dispersé" est un peu contradictoire avec la diversité que je reconnais à London.

D'un autre côté j'ai écrit que j'avais l'image d'un auteur dispersé, ce qui n'est pas un jugement mais juste l'expression de mon ignorance.

Sans doute n'aurais-je pas écrit "dispersé" si j'avais lu davantage S.Clemens puisqu'au fond il n'y a pas davantage de "cohérence" chez London.

Another prejudice of mine...

Flocon a dit…

Ned, You got me thinking about the use of "dispersé" that I made...

I probably had in mind the impression that Twain could as well be thoughtful in some works and not so serious in some other books.

Hence the fuzzy image I have of some sort of lack of coherence when compared to London who didn't resort to humour in any of his books as far as I remember.

Not that it is in any way a drawback by Clemens, it just that I've read next to all London's titles and next to nothing from Twain.

Had it been the other way round I may have another opinion. I would have been biaised anyway...

Ned Ludd a dit…

I am still surprised that no one seems to be a fan of Steinbeck. As you mentioned, he could use humor-and style-as in "Tortilla Flats" and "Cannery Row". He also could be dead serious as with "East of Eden" and "Grapes of Wrath". One dealing with a well-off family and the other with worker who has become an icon, Tom Joad.

Steinbeck wrote clear concise English.

Mention should also be made of Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis. Lewis had humor and also wrote a book like London's "Iron Heel", "It can't happen here".

Unfortunately, I in high school I had "Main Street" and "Babbit" on the reading list and I was too young to appreciate the satire.

Some books require a bit of maturity and experience.

Flocon a dit…

"I am still surprised that no one seems to be a fan of Steinbeck"

You shouldn't be that surprised Ned, firstly because the audience at Shall we talk? doesn't count by the thousands and secondly probably no one really questions the preminence of Steinbeck.

I wanted to celebrate Jack London in this post for I think he is undervalued which isn't the case with Steinbeck.

Not that I'm a fan of him yet I liked all his books I read. It happens that I have some particular fondness for London.

Now, when I write he was the greatest, this statement is to be taken with a grain of salt.

I read Babbit some thirty years ago but I have no souvenir of this book --> Wiki.

Upton Sinclair was in touch with jack London, that's how I came to know him.

As you write "Some books require a bit of maturity and experience".

I would add knowledge of the context. And there are many books which require etc.

Flocon a dit…

Speaking of Steinbeck, here is an article in this morning edition of the NYT.

Anijo a dit…

Re Steinbeck. Now that's embarrassing..

Flocon a dit…

Je ne connaissais pas ce titre de Steinbeck.

By the way, my friend already knows about that research and its findings.

Have you read Jack London Anijo?

Anijo a dit…

I am ashamed to admit that I've only read the following:
To Build a Fire
The Call of the Wild
South Sea Tales (I have this book on my bookshelf)

Flocon a dit…

There's no being ashamed Anijo, as a Frenchman I haven't read one single line of Zola for example...

Nor have I read Courir sa vie... ;-)

Sea-wolf is a great novel. Too bad some 30 pages are dedicated to an absurd love story between the narrator and a nurse(?).

This episode is a stain on a masterpiece.

I'm not surprised you didn't read more of J. London (also, there are so many other million books to read) he's been so widely underated by American literary scholars since the day he died...

Anijo a dit…

Some pictures of two books in my bookshelves which I have read (and I just a took a picture of them).

Une page d'amour


Le Ventre de Paris

Flocon a dit…

Ton édition du Ventre de Paris se trouve dans la collection Folio chez Gallimard.

je ne l'ai pas lu comme je t'ai dit mais l'action se passe ici, là où tu as déjeuné au Pied de cochon...

La destruction des Halles Baltard est un massacre urbaniste commis par Pompidou en 1972. Que sa descendance soit maudite jusqu'à la 50ème génération!

Ned Ludd a dit…

Pour Zola, je recommends une trilogy vers la fin de sa vie, "Les Trois Villes". Le prémier est "Lourdes"(incrédible), suivi par "Rome" et "Paris".

Quant à l'urbanisme, deux autres catastrophes sont la Tour Montparnasse et Le Sacre Coeur.

Ned Ludd a dit…

Je voulais dire "incroyable".

Flocon a dit…

Les trois villes de Zola m'a toujours étonné, je n'ai pas la moindre idée de ce dont il s'agit. Merci d'en parler --> Wiki.

Retour après a quick look at Wiki. Manifestement il ne s'agit pas de guides touristiques sur Lourdes, Rome et Paris...

Effectivement cela donne envie de lire ces romans.

On a fini par s'habituer au Sacré-Coeur...

Quant à la tour Montparnasse c'est son emplacement qui est une catastrophe, la tour elle-même est plutôt réussie. Mais pas à la place de l'ancienne gare Montparnasse :-(

Faisons crédit à Giscard d'avoir sauvé la gare d'Orsay (Where O. Welles shot The trial) qui était destinée à la démolition et qui est à présent le superbe Musée que tu connais.