Friday, November 7, 2014

Jack London Reports: War Correspondence, Sports Articles, and Miscellaneous Writings. Edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard

Disappointing war stories, exceptional sports journalism
Jack London is one of America’s greatest fiction writers, but throughout his career he was quite a prolific author of nonfiction as well. Jack London Reports, published in 1970, is a collection of his journalism. The book contains 65 articles, divided into three categories: war correspondence, sports articles, and miscellaneous writings.

You would think that war correspondence would be something that London would excel at, but this section of the book is really an ordeal to get through. In 1904, London traveled to Korea to cover the Japanese-Russian War, but the Japanese military would not allow him to get anywhere near the actual combat, and his attempts to sneak off to the front lines were thwarted. London still managed to write 22 articles complaining about how he wasn’t being allowed access to the war, and his disappointment and disgust are palpable. The result is a series of boring stories about horses and dreary accounts of travel over muddy roads. Despite his animosity for the Japanese, London expresses admiration for their military precision, but he unsympathetically portrays the Koreans as if they were all dumb country bumpkins.

His attitude toward the Mexicans isn’t much better. His coverage of the American occupation of Veracruz in 1914 makes it clear that he views our southern neighbors as a nation of children who need a white savior to come and clean up their third-world mess. Even so, his writing on the Mexican Revolution is definitely better than his work from Korea. In his excellent essay “The Trouble Makers of Mexico,” he demonstrates a keen understanding of the complex web of Mexican politics. Still, though I have a personal interest in Mexican history, London still managed to bore me with most of these articles.

His sports writing, on the other hand, far exceeded my expectations, and I am by no means a sports fan. London wrote ten articles on the Schützenfest, a shooting competition that took place in San Francisco in 1901. There are also fifteen articles about boxing, culminating in the 1910 “Fight of the Century” between James Jeffries and Jack Johnson. I couldn’t care less about either one of these sports, but London’s writing is truly enthralling. He thoroughly examines the mechanics of each sport, its history and customs, and finds ingenious ways to connect modern athletic competition with the evolutionary survival of the fittest. These pieces are truly a cut above typical sports reportage.

The final section of the book includes 11 articles on miscellaneous subjects. About half of these can be found in other collections; the rest are rarities only found here, though they cover familiar ground. Standouts include “The Story of an Eye-Witness,” London’s account of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; “The Road,” a sociological study of tramp culture; and “Our Guiltless Scapegoats: The Stricken of Molokai,” about the Hawaiian leper colony.

This book begs comparison with The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, a two-volume collection of journalism by the author of The Octopus and McTeague, who started out as a staff writer for the San Francisco Wave. In most cases, Norris is the better journalist, able to draw interesting, poetic prose from even the most mundane subject matter, but London is by far the superior sports writer. His boxing analyses beat the heck out of Norris’s dull football stories any day. Overall, the articles contained in Jack London Reports are hit and miss. Only the most curious of London aficionados, or avid boxing enthusiasts, should delve into this book.

Articles in this collection:
The Japanese-Russian War (22 articles)
The Mexican Conflict (7 articles)
Sports Articles (25 articles)
Miscellaneous Writings (11 articles, listed below):
The Home-Coming of the Oregon
The Road
Housekeeping in the Klondike
The Terrible and Tragic in Fiction
Stranger Than Fiction
The Yellow Peril
The Story of an Eye-Witness
If Japan Wakens China
Navigating Four Horses North of the Bay
Our Guiltless Scapegoats: The Stricken of Molokai
My Hawaiian Aloha

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