Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Jack London’s Nonfiction

A career overview
Jack London
Jack London is best known as one of America’s greatest fiction writers. Over the course of his brief life he produced 22 novels and 197 short stories, yet throughout his career he was a prolific author of nonfiction as well. Because he lived such a fascinating life, many of London’s nonfiction works are based on his own experiences. He was an adventurer who traveled the world, and many of the places he visited show up in both his fiction and nonfiction. For example, he wrote many travel articles and essays on issues related to favorite destinations like the Klondike, Hawaii, and the islands of the South Pacific. Periodicals occasionally hired him as a celebrity journalist to cover major events like foreign wars or championship boxing matches. He was also a public intellectual, offering his views on political, philosophical, and sociological matters. His political preference toward Socialism is unapologetically evident in such works. In addition, as a man of letters, London also reviewed books, wrote essays on literature, and penned articles providing practical advice to aspiring writers.

It has taken me four years, but I have finally finished reading (or rereading) and reviewing London’s complete works. I previously posted a summary of The Novels of Jack London and a list of his Best Short Stories. With this overview of London’s nonfiction, I’m wrapping up the last few pieces of his vast body of work. All of the books listed below have been previously reviewed at Old Books by Dead Guys. Click on the titles below to read the complete reviews.

The People of the Abyss (1903)
Investigative journalism, sociology
London goes incognito to immerse himself in the poverty stricken squalor of London’s East End and reports on the destitute casualties of the Industrial Revolution. (3 stars)
Highlights: Chapter 19, “The Ghetto,” is the book’s best and most representative chapter.

War of the Classes (1905)
Political essays
These seven essays provide the basics of Socialism through London’s eyes. It’s the best and most complete look into his political thought. (4.5 stars)
Highlights: “The Tramp,” “The Scab,” “The Class Struggle,” “Wanted: A New Law of Development”

The Road (1907)
Memoir and essays
London combines his personal experiences as a cross-country hobo with a sociological study of tramp culture in nine entertaining chapters. (5 stars)
Highlights: The whole book is great. “Holding Her Down” is the best chapter.

Revolution and Other Essays (1909)
Essays and one short story
The best work in this hodgepodge collection is the one piece of fiction, “Goliah,” but there are also a few good political essays that continue the arguments begun in War of the Classes. (3 stars)
Highlights: Besides “Goliah,” the best entries are “What Life Means to Me” and “The Dignity of Dollars”

John Barleycorn (1913)
Though it’s not a complete autobiography, it’s the closest London ever came to one. Here he tells the story of his complicated lifelong relationship with alcohol. (5 stars)
Highlights: Read the whole book.

The Cruise of the Snark (1913)
Travel memoir
London’s attempt to sail around the world in a yacht of his own making may have been a failure, but he managed to compile a book’s worth of travel memories on his voyage through the islands of the South Pacific. (2 stars)
Highlights: Surprisingly dull overall. The most memorable destinations are Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas and the leper colony of Molokai.

Posthumous collections

The Human Drift (1917)
Essays, short stories, drama
Cobbled together just after his death, this collection of unimpressive leftovers contains a mixture of essays, articles, and stories, a book review, and two really bad plays. (1.5 stars)
Highlights: None, really

Jack London Reports: War Correspondence, Sports Articles, and Miscellaneous Writings (1970)
Edited by King Hendricks and Irving Shepard
Mostly newspaper articles that London wrote, falling into the three categories listed in the book’s subtitle. (3 stars)
Highlights: All the sports writing is excellent, plus “Our Guiltless Scapegoats: The Stricken of Molokai”

Jack London on the Road: The Tramp Diary and Other Hobo Writings (1979)
Edited by Richard W. Etulain
Diary, memoir, essays, and short stories
A collection of London’s writings on hobo life, both fiction and nonfiction. The previously unpublished “Tramp Diary” chronicles his travels with Kelly’s Army, a cross-country protest march of unemployed laborers. (3.5 stars)
Highlights: “The Apostate,” “The Tramp,” and “What Life Means to Me” are excellent, but can all be found elsewhere. “The Road,” not to be confused with the book of the same name, is also good.

Jack London: The Unpublished and Uncollected Articles and Essays (2007)
Edited by Daniel J. Wichlan
Journalism and essays
26 pieces of short nonfiction that have never been previously published in any collection. For long-lost rarities, there’s a surprising amount of good material included here. (4 stars)
Highlights: Many, including the controversial essay on evolution “The Salt of the Earth,” and articles like “Washoe Indians Resolve to Be White Men,” “Jack London Sees Movies Made of His ‘Sea Wolf’,” and “Jack London Goes to a Burlesque Show”

Jack London, Photographer (2010)
Edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Sara S. Hodson, and Philip Adam
London took over 12,000 photos during his lifetime, but this is the first book to seriously consider his place in the history of photography and photojournalism and treat his pictures as art. (5 stars)
Highlights: Portraiture was his strong suit. He photographed people of many different nations and cultures.

Uncollected Essays and Articles
These pieces sometimes show up in “Complete Works” ebook collections, but do not appear in any of the collections listed above.

“Editorial Crimes—A Protest” (available online)
First published in the February 1901 issue of Dilettante
In this article intended as advice for aspiring authors, London complains about all the editors who were slow to respond to his submissions or failed to pay. (2.5 stars)

“Phenomena of Literary Evolution” (available online)
Published in the October 1900 issue of The Bookman
London explains the modern tendency toward brevity in literature as the product of the evolution of the reading public who, becoming more intelligent over time, no longer wants everything spelt out for them. (3.5 stars)

“Again the Literary Aspirant” (available online)
Published in the September 1902 issue of The Critic
London discusses how writers must please both editors, who are driven by profit motive, and critics, who establish the reputations of the worthy. An overly long and verbose treatment of the obvious. (2 stars)

“What Communities Lose by the Competitive System” (available online)
Originally a lecture, then published in the November 1900 issue of Cosmopolitan
London indirectly pushes Socialism by pointing out the many and varied wastes of time, money, and human effort that are inherent in the Capitalist system. Here his views on business sound a lot like those of Edward Bellamy. (3.5 stars)

“The Impossibility of War” (available online)
Published in the March 1900 issue of The Overland Monthly 
Due to technological advances in modern weaponry, any army choosing to attack is opting for a losing proposition. This, coupled with the economic expense of battle, will mean the end of war. London argues his point well, but of course he was wrong. (3 stars)

I have not included in this list of nonfiction works the three-volume Letters of Jack London, edited by Earle Labor; one reason being because I haven’t read it yet, but also because I think letters not intended for publication fall under the category of biographical research rather than literature. Many volumes of biography and literary criticism have been published on London, several of which I have reviewed here at Old Books by Dead Guys. Eventually when such reviews reach a critical mass I will compile another omnibus post on London biography and criticism, comparing and contrasting the various analyses of this great author’s life and work.

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