From the Desk of Jay Williams: Writing about Jack London

Jay Williams is the senior managing editor (ret.) of Critical Inquiry. He is the author of Author Under Sail: The Imagination of Jack London, 1893–1902 (Nebraska, 2014), editor of Signature Derrida and The Oxford Handbook of Jack London, and general editor of the forthcoming thirty-volume complete works of Jack London. His new book, Author Under Sail: The Imagination of Jack London, 1902-1907 (Nebraska, 2021) was published in February.

I became interested in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century supernaturalism within naturalism and realism around 1980. In fact it was in a seminar in grad school led by Professor Joseph Ridgely, a Poe scholar. We read The Octopus, and I was struck by the fact that Vanamee is somehow psychic or otherwise in touch with other realities. And I remembered, from Martin Eden, that Jack London’s mother and father were spiritualists and that there was an odd, otherworldliness to the book, which ends in a dramatic suicide.

I was already hooked on possible alternative realities. I first dropped acid in 1972. Then I read Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I decided that one must live one’s education, not inscribe it and memorize it or even read for it. One had to live! Little did I know that this injunction was made repeatedly, in print and among friends and lecture audiences, by London. That would come later. In high school, I painted my eyeglasses Day-Glo colors and wrote bizarre and very dark poetry. I was reading Camus and Sartre in French class, and the foreword to The Theater of the Absurd. I philosophized about the connections between the kairos of the absurd and the kairos of the acid tests. The Grateful Dead were my house band, too.

When I began serious work on London, for my dissertation on The Star Rover, I noticed how many ghosts appeared in his work. I was building connections between London and Norris. I began to notice how much London’s works violated the supposed norms of the class of fiction in which he had been placed: realism and naturalism. His work didn’t seem grounded in the day-to-day as others were, and neither were his writings driven by Spencerian evolutionary ideas or even Spencer’s dictates about writing style. I made my first archival discovery: London’s essay “The Phenomena of Literary Evolution” had been completely ignored by London scholars even though it offered a truer understanding of London’s style than Spencer’s “The Philosophy of Style.”

I began to explore other ways of reading London. I found Chuck Watson’s essay “Up from Spirituality” (after I had devoured his The Novels of Jack London). The Star Rover’s metaphysics can’t be explained simply by his disavowal of them or that they are a parody or ironic commentary. Robert Peluso and I used to argue about this in grad school. I wanted to get behind London’s thorough knowledge of metaphysics and why he kept using both fiction and nonfiction to express something that seemed to be debate-worthy. And if it were debate-worthy, then perhaps it seemed irresolvable, especially since the debate kept coming up. He couldn’t let it go. It bothered him. In fact, it was as if it haunted him. Ghosts in his fiction and his uneasy relationship to his own imagination appeared connected.

The question was, for London, where does the immaterial world come from? There were plenty of possibilities. London investigated them all. In fact, one can track the maturity of his work along the same historical lines as the development of  psychoanalysis: from Stone Age, barely vocal demonstrations (Before Adam), to nineteenth-century spiritualism (“Planchette”), to Freud (“On the Makaloa Mat”) and beyond. One can also track his continual drug—morphine, hash, and others—and alcohol use—absinthe, whiskey, and others—as a technology for spiritual exploration. The ghostly White Silence became the ghostly White Logic.

I find London, his work, and his times to be an incredibly rich and complicated area of study. I’m extremely fortunate to have a press that fully supports my efforts. Matt Bokovoy and I have worked together for longer than he has been at the University of Nebraska Press. Some of those who helped me the most in the early days are gone, but I’ll thank them anyway. Susan Ward was an early supporter; I met her at the Huntington in 1983. She gave me her list of editors and the publications they worked for. I was tracking down London’s correspondence pertinent to The Star Rover. (At that time, the only published letters were in King Hendricks and Irving Shepard’s volume.) Hensley Woodbridge is another early influence. I met Susan Nuernberg (another UNP author), Chris Gair, Clarice Stasz, Lenny Cassuto, Andrew Furer, and others at early Jack London symposia. Jonathan Auerbach became a mentor of sorts. I know I am forgetting people—the drawback of working in the same field for thirty years. All of them, in one way or another, helped me write Author under Sail. Like the circle of friends and fellow cultural workers among whom London found himself, we have formed a loose, collaborative workforce. We are pledged to continue to study London in new ways, advancing London studies, we hope, in unforeseen ways.

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