Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Jack London: An American Life (I)

Just yesterday afternoon (Saturday) I finished reading Jack London: An American Life by Prof. Earle Labor; it's taken him a lifetime to research and write the book. Before I talk about the text, though, I want to tell you about my history with Earle--a history that changed my life in so many ways.

When I returned to teach at Harmon Middle School in Aurora, Ohio, in the fall of 1982 (I'd been gone four years--teaching at Lake Forest College, Western Reserve Academy, and Kent State University), I found that the school had adopted a new literature anthology for the 8th graders--Ginn and Co.'s Exploring Literature (1981). The final selection in the book is Jack London's The Call of the Wild (1903), a book I had never read. (I found out later that the Ginn editors had bowdlerized a bit.) Oh, I knew some of the story, all right. When I was a kid, I read the old Classics Illustrated version many, many times . And I'd read two other books by London--The Sea-Wolf (college) and Martin Eden, his autobiographical novel (in some ways), a novel I'd read in high school, in study hall, for a reason I cannot summon from memory. I liked them both. I'd also read the Classics version of White Fang--also many, many times. But that was it.

I don't like teaching things I don't know much about, so in 1982-83, I embarked on a Jack London journey that would culminate fifteen years later with the publication of an annotated edition of The Call of the Wild (Univ. of Okla. Pr., 1995) and a YA biography of London (Scholastic Press, 1997). Along the way, I read all fifty of London's books, visited his terrain (and homes) in the Bay Area, hiked over the Chilkoot Trail (which is prominent in Wild), read every biography of London, and on and on. I was fully consumed by a London-mania.

But in the middle of all that--right in the middle--was Earle Labor, who taught at Centenary College of Louisiana. In 1990 Earle, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, offered a six-week summer workshop on Jack London for teachers out at Sonoma State Univ. in Rohnert Park, Calif., a spot very near the Jack London Ranch (then a state park; now, in other nonprofit hands). It was a program I had to apply for (I think there were fifteen of us from all over the country), and I was thrilled when I got word I'd been accepted. I drove out that summer and had a wonderful time (though, back in Ohio ... an awful family illness and death eventually cut short my time out there by about a week). Each of us in the seminar had to do a project. I decided to do annotations for Wild. There were just so many things in the book that I knew nothing about--place names and locations among them. (Where was Lake Laberge? And College Park? And Dyea, Alaska? And on and on?) Earle enthusiastically supported the idea--and me. I got a pretty good start going that summer, then continued when I got home.

I remained in touch--often--with Earle over the next few years, and he was very helpful when I approached the Univ. of Okla. Press about publishing a fully annotated edition. Earle also read over my work, made suggestions and corrections, and became my greatest cheerleader. (Later, he also read a draft of my YA biography and saved me from some problems with it, as well.)

My Jack London mania mellowed by 1997; I had turned to Mary Shelley and was now pursuing her story with the same obsessive passion as I had chased London's). But Earle and I still stayed in touch. I saw him now and then at London events and conferences. He sent me some chapters of the biography of London he'd been working on for decades. I was enormously humbled and honored by his request and managed a few tiny suggestions.

And what had humbled me? Earle Labor is the world's leading authority on London. No one has ever known all he knows about London and his works; no one will ever again know a tenth of it. Although he has published many books and articles about London throughout his career (and co-edited both the definitive editions of London's letters and short stories--both 3 volumes, both with Stanford Univ. Press), it was The Biography that was consuming him. And now, at 85 years old, Earle Labor has finished that book, has released it to the world.  And it is a wonder.


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