Saturday, December 03, 2005

Jack London

"The excellence of (London's) short stories has almost been forgotten." --George Orwell

It's been snowing here since dawn. It's just about five p.m. While Carol built a fire (no pun intended given tonight's topic), I did a supermarket and library run where I had a lucky find.

In my Chicago days I paid $100 for a hardcover copy of The House of Pride And Other South Sea Tales by Jack London. What made the book pricey was the fact that London had inscribed it aboard a ship to a woman he was gently but obviously hitting on.

The new Modern Library trade pb of London's South Sea Tales has no flirtatious inscription but it's sure got twenty-some excellent short stories.

Of the three I've read so far, my favorite is "The House of Pride" which is not unlike Maugham's "Rain" in that both deal with pious men who are the progeny of missionaries and who must fight their demons.

The contrast tells you a lot about the differences of the two writers. While "Rain" certainly gives you a great sense of the South Seas, the story focuses intently on the drama. In "The House of Pride" London gives you a slightly less dramatic through line but a lot more sociology about the Hawaiian island where this takes place. Maugham's masterpiece is the more emotionally violent tale but "Pride" is in ways more interesting.

London long ago fell out of literary favor with educators. I remember W.H. Auden's wan remark about Poe being taught in America as nothing more than a "respectable rival to the pulps." Except for "To Light a Fire," London isn't taught at all. As this edition contains a Reading Group Guide, maybe teachers will give him another well-deserved chance.

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