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A Century After His Death, Scholars Examine Jack London’s Enduring Legacy

Jack London pictured in a group negotiates with Japanese soldiers
Jack London, center left, negotiates passage with a Japanese officer in Korea during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Renowned as a writer, London's photojournalism has often been overlooked. (Huntington Library)


By Felicity Barringer

Jack London, the author and photographer who hurtled like a comet through the fabric of the American West in the early 20th century, burned with anger, a determination for social change and an hard-edged affection for the ragged ends of humanity. That picture was drawn by four specialists, who also offered insights into his complex and contradictory character at a symposium on “Jack London: Apostle of the American West,” at Stanford’s faculty club on Monday, September 19.

The session, which drew an overflow audience, was the debut event in ArtsWest, a new initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. It was sponsored by the Center and the Stanford University Libraries, and was moderated by Bruce E. Cain, the Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center. The event was recorded for later broadcast by the cable channel C-SPAN.

Update: Jack London: Apostle of the American West is now available to stream in its entirety on C-SPAN's website.

The tone of London’s era was outlined by Peter Blodgett, a panelist who is the Curator of Western Historical Manuscripts at the Huntington Library in San Marino. In the late 19th century, into which London was born as the illegitimate son of a high-born woman, the West was a place where extractive industries flourished. Simultaneously, the treatment of the men who did the hard work helped “dissent and opposition beginning to appear.”

London, with his commitment to socialism, was a part of the larger landscape.

Capturing The National Imagination With Tales Of The West

But, after an impoverished youth spent pirating oysters, sealing and prospecting in the Yukon, he published “Call of the Wild” in 1903. The tale, about a stolen and brutally-used sled dog who finds freedom in the life of a wolf, won London a worldwide following.

His swift rise from obscurity to celebrity at a time when, in the national imagination, when the West was, Blodgett said, a place that was brimming with a “flood tide of tales of adventure — the mythological West of unlimited opportunity and heroic episodes.” London’s hard-edged prose with its stark view of men’s encounters with the natural world fit right in.

Another panelist, Donna M. Campbell, a professor of English at Washington State University, added that “London encouraged reader to see works as extension of his life,” from poverty to oyster private to prospector, and embraced the celebrity brought him by “Call of the Wild.” The author Upton Sinclair drafted him into the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in 1905.

Jack London also spent time looking at poverty elsewhere — particularly London’s East End, where he went native among the poor of England by dressing in sailor’s gear and living in workingmen’s dormitories in 1902.

Like other western authors, he earned little regard from the eastern literary establishment, and returned the favor. Campbell described London giving an audience a short reading of some of Henry James’s sinuous prose, then banging the book down and asking contemptuously, “Do any of you know what this is about?”

Unheralded photojournalism work

A child sitting on a door step.
A child in London the author photographed in 1902. (Huntington Library)

But one of the more startling revelations by the panelists was London’s work as a photographer, with his lens trained, from below, on the human face and form. This was true both in Asia, where he covered the Russo-Japanese War as a journalist and in the poor sections of London, where, as the panelist Sara S. Hodson said, his work showed “he loved the promise and innocence of children.”

Jeanne Campbell Reesman, a professor of English at the University of San Antonio, and founder of the Jack London Society, said that the photographs of Melanesians and Samoans London took while traveling to Micronesia on his ketch the Snark, show London refused to view the natives as “the other.” His work, she said, “documented issues of lasting local and global significance — people as history.”

Reesman added that, no matter London’s firm belief in socialism, his life and his fiction fit the contemporary obsession with individualism, and he was a “strong and masculine hero of the age.” And in this early era of celebrity, Hodson said, “Jack London was famous for what he did and what he was about to do.” His nickname was Wolf.

Campbell added that London’s work set about “changing the course of American literature” — it “busted through the circumlocutions of genteel fiction.” London, who had bought and extended a Sonoma County ranch where hoped to practice his socialist ideals, died there 100 years ago, at the age of 40.

Inaugural Event for ArtsWest Initiative includes pop-up exhibition

ArtsWest, as an initiative, was inspired by Marc Levin, an affiliated scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. The panel discussion was accompanied by a pop-up exhibition, featuring first editions of “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” as well as Jack and Charmain London’s typewriter, which was curated by Natalie Pellolio, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in Art and Art History. The objects were lent from the extensive private collection of Sarah and Darius Anderson of Sonoma.

Read more about the ArtsWest Initiative

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