Literature

An introduction to: The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual by General Editor John D. Morgenstern

In 1975, a contributor to the short-lived T. S. Eliot Review characterized the state of Eliot scholarship as an incomplete mosaic, with “the primary materials for research [. . .] either in jumbled disarray or missing entirely.” While a glut of memoirs flooded the literary marketplace, serious scholars lacked the “fundamental research tools” to fill in the gaps in the fragmentary tableau: “No Complete Works of Eliot [. . .] no critical edition of Eliot’s poems (save The Waste Land Facsimile) [. . .] and no Complete Letters of Eliot” had appeared in the decade following the poet’s death. Nearly a half-century later, comprehensive, award-winning critical editions of his letters, poetry, and prose have at last permitted scholars to see Eliot whole.

These landmark editions are the fruit of the T. S. Eliot Editorial Project, a multi-year endeavor launched a decade ago at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of an international team of editors, scholars now have access to nearly the full record of Eliot’s writing life, with the balance scheduled for publication over the next several years. As of January 2019, the editorial project had published more than 7,600 pages of brilliantly annotated letters in eight volumes supplemented by an online gallery; nearly 5,500 pages from Eliot’s prolific prose writings in six monumental volumes featuring more than 700 previously uncollected items; and two richly contextualized volumes of his complete poetry, including 200 poems not featured in Faber’s original Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909–1962. More is on the way: two additional volumes of prose; perhaps a dozen volumes of correspondence, including 1,131 letters to his paramour Emily Hale still under seal in Princeton’s archives; and a critical edition of Eliot’s complete plays are currently underway. The editions have prompted a renewed appreciation for Eliot as a man of his time, as a discerning critic of both literature and of the twentieth century, and as a poet whose art and ideas cross cultural, media, and linguistic barriers.

poetry

Cover of Poetry  (June 1915), courtesy of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University

Scholars have now embarked on the decades-long task of coming to terms with more than a million words previously inaccessible or unattributed to Eliot. The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual provides a venue for this ongoing critical reassessment, and essays in the first two volumes draw on newly available primary materials to revise longstanding critical narratives, to place Eliot’s work in fuller historical contexts, and to ensure his enduring presence in the new modernist studies.

Volume 2 of the Annual, recently published by Clemson University Press in association with Liverpool University Press, celebrates the T. S. Eliot Editorial Project in a cluster of essays contributed by esteemed members of the editorial team: Jewel Spears Brooker (coeditor of volumes 1 and 8 of the Complete Prose), Anthony Cuda (coeditor of volume 2 of the Complete Prose), Jayme Stayer (coeditor of volume 5 of the Complete Prose), David E. Chinitz (coeditor of volume 6 of the Complete Prose), and John Haffenden (general editor of the Letters). Each editor recounts a particular challenge or unique discovery from their editorial experience, providing a small sense of the enormity of their task and of the tremendous implications their work has for our understanding of the twentieth century’s preeminent poet and critic.

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The cover of the first edition of Prufrock

Volume 2 also marks the centenary of Eliot’s first poetry collection, Prufrock and Other Observations. The volume opens with articles that provide new contexts or entry points for the poems collected in Prufrock. The first essay in volume 2, Frances Dickey and Bradford Barnhardt’s “My Madness Singing”: The Specter of Syphilis in Prufrock and Other Observations,” provides both. When Faber released the revised first volume of Eliot’s correspondence in 2009, it included a letter drafted by his father, Henry Ware Eliot, Sr., which reaffirmed for early reviewers the family’s puritanism as a source of the sexual dysfunction commonly ascribed to Prufrock (and to the poet ventriloquizing behind him): Henry Ware, Sr. expressed his “hope that a cure for Syphilis will never be discovered,” calling the virus “God’s punishment for nastiness.” Dickey and Barnhardt place this remark, and much of Eliot’s first collection, in the context of a transatlantic public-health campaign that aspired to contain the spread of venereal disease by instilling fear in young men. Allusions in Prufrock to pox marks, madness, and even hair loss (all symptoms of venereal disease) illustrate the deep mark this fear campaign left on the young poet and provide a common context between Eliot’s early verses and other literary responses to the public campaign, including Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Elisabeth Däumer (“Prufrock’s Gestures”), Rachel Trousdale (“The Right to Smile: Humor and Empathy in Prufrock and Other Observations”), and Christopher McVey (“T. S. Eliot, Modernism, and Boredom”) likewise offer previously overlooked contexts and fresh readings of these early poems. Together, these essays demonstrate the potential for Prufrock to delight and surprise even the most learned readers well into its second century in print.

For the full list of contributions to volume 2 of The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, please visit our website. To learn more about the Annual or to submit your work for consideration in a forthcoming volume, please visit the Annual online.

 

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Literature

‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography – In Conversation with Brandon Yen

‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography considers William Wordsworth’s use of iconography in his long poem ‘The Excursion’. Through the iconographical approach, the author steers a middle course between The Excursion’s two very different interpretive traditions, one focusing upon the poem’s philosophical abstraction, the other upon its touristic realism. We caught up with author Brandon Yen to discuss this recent publication.9781786941336

Firstly, could you tell us a bit about ‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography and what compelled you to focus your research in this area?

The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography offers close readings of a rich array of images that had a wide currency in late Georgian England. By contextualising these images, I seek to rediscover their cultural patterns and to bring a series of visual etymologies to bear upon Wordsworth’s use of iconography in his long poem The Excursion (first published in 1814), as well as in his other major works, including The Prelude. I pay particular attention to the complex ways in which iconographical images respond to, amplify, or challenge the pursuit of paradise in the post-revolutionary context – a quintessentially Wordsworthian theme which still resonates with us today.

Tree images had a vital role to play in the germination of this study. I had always been interested in the cultural meanings and physical forms of trees, having encountered many amazing trees in various parts of the world. Amongst my favourite is the splendid hornbeam near the Fen Causeway in Cambridge, which always greeted me warmly, rain or shine, snow or hail. This arboreal interest drew my attention to the recurring images of trees in The Excursion. I then discovered how tree images were used not only by Wordsworth but also by many of his contemporaries to express contentious socio-political ideas. Further research showed that a wealth of other images also had remarkable rhetorical power. I wanted to restore the rhetorical potential of these images and to see how they could contribute to our understanding of the nuances of Wordsworth’s poetry.

Why did you choose The Excursion to be the main focus in this study of Wordsworth’s iconography? Can you share any favourite quotes with us which particularly emphasise the point you are making in your study?

Wordsworth’s mind brims with images. We think of the immense beech near Alfoxden House, whose branches sagged down and rose again like those of a banyan tree. More than forty years after he had left Alfoxden, Wordsworth still remembered vividly how many boughs the beech had had. The Excursion is characterised by the variety, density and beauty of its natural images. These images function very differently in this poem than in Wordsworth’s other works because of The Excursion’s fictional and conversational form. Writing to Catherine Clarkson in January 1815, Wordsworth draws attention to the illustrative function of natural imagery within The Excursion’s dialogues: ‘Do not you perceive that my conversations almost all take place out of Doors, and all with grand objects of nature surrounding the speakers for the express purpose of their being alluded to in illustration of the subjects treated of.’ Often, these are both real things that exist physically and iconographical images that are imbued with wider meanings. I set out to explore the complex ways in which their latent meanings contribute to The Excursion’s central arguments.

My favourite image in this context is Wordsworth’s seashell. In Book V of The Prelude, Wordsworth mentions an allegorical dream in which he meets a traveller in an Arabian desert. The Arab is transporting a ‘Stone’ and a ‘Shell’ to safety in the face of an impending apocalypse. The Stone is Euclid’s Elements, whilst the Shell is poetry, which conveys to its listener a ‘loud, prophetic blast of harmony’. The image reappears in Book IV of The Excursion, where the Wanderer compares the physical ‘Universe’ to a ‘Shell’. Through this shell, the ‘ear of Faith’ hears ‘Authentic tidings of invisible things’. This musical metaphor occurs in many of Wordsworth’s well-known passages – in the France Books of The Prelude and in ‘Mutability’ in Ecclesiastical Sketches, for example – to suggest an inherent meaning and order underlying the apparently disjointed, inexplicable events in the world, such as cataclysmic developments in politics and crises in religion. In The Excursion, many visual images also embody ‘tidings of invisible things’ that enrich our understanding of the poem and of Wordsworth’s poetry in general.

Could you tell us more about the five categories – envisioning, rooting, dwelling, flowing, and reflecting – you refer to in your book?

The book is organised around these five categories of images; I use the present participles to capture a sense of the ‘active principle’ propounded by the Wanderer in Book IX. I look closely at how these apparently marginal images contribute to the central themes of paradise lost and paradise regained in The Excursion. The chapter on ‘envisioning’ reveals the changing perceptions of abstraction and prospect views around the period of the French Revolution. It asks how these perceptions bear upon the Solitary’s vision of ‘Glory beyond all glory ever seen’ in Book II and analyses the implications of the vision’s intertextual and intratextual connections with other verbal and pictorial images. Moving away from visionary insubstantiality, the next two chapters – on ‘rooting’ and ‘dwelling’ – examine grounded images. The chapter on ‘rooting’ considers Wordsworth’s shaping of the major characters of The Excursion in arboreal terms, exploring the ways in which trees in the poem not only covey a nostalgia for the ‘sylvan scenes’ of Eden but also witness and commemorate deaths and sufferings, which are integral to the post-lapsarian condition. Images of ‘dwelling’, like trees, are grounded in ‘the very world’ into which the characters seek to reintegrate the Solitary. I study a cluster of ‘ideal’ cottage images – as well as relevant images such as flowers, light, hermitages and temples – to show how they are iconographically constructed to counterpoise the Solitary’s present Lakeland cottage. The concluding chapter analyses the ways in which the iconographical reconfiguration of the post-revolutionary world in The Excursion involves ambiguous uses of water. It demonstrates that the functions of ‘flowing’ and ‘reflecting’ tie in with the poem’s central concerns with perspectives and its unresolved ending.

How does this volume pave the way for future research on the topic?

The Excursion raises many questions that have yet to be fully explored: prosody and form, colonialism and imperialism, sound and silence, paganism and Christianity, education, capitalism and industrialisation, amongst others. I hope my book will encourage readers to think more about these questions. On the other hand, I also hope it will lead to further research on visuality in Wordsworth’s poetry. We live in a world awash with visual images that tend to be ephemeral – easily available but quickly skimmed through and soon forgotten. Not so in Wordsworth’s time.

What are you going to be working on next?

My next book focuses on Wordsworth’s Irish journey of 1829. As an accompaniment to this new project, I’m collaborating with Trinity College Dublin to mount an exhibition on ‘Ireland and the English Lake Poets’, which will be open in Trinity’s Old Library in spring 2019. I’m also thinking about developing an illustrated book on Wordsworth’s trees as a sequel to Wordsworth’s Gardens and Flowers: The Spirit of Paradise (co-written with Peter Dale).

For more information on ‘The Excursion’ and Wordsworth’s Iconography please visit our website.

 

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Literature

Readings in the Cantos – Five Minutes with Richard Parker

To celebrate the release of Readings in the Cantos, we caught up with Richard Parker to discuss changing perspectives on the Cantos and what we can learn from Pound’s discarded works.

Could you tell us a bit about The Cantos and why they have been so widely studied?

The Cantos are one of modernism’s longest poems, begun in earnest around 1915 and incomplete at Ezra Pound’s death in 1972. They cover decades of political and cultural history through which Pound was always near the centre, with his readings of the world around him and of the past and the future powerfully revealing throughout and often perplexing. I think it’s the extensiveness of this poem as a cultural document that has led to its ubiquity in academic circles – whichever portion of it you turn to you’re taken in many directions, with the reader keenly encouraged to learn about periods of history they’re unlikely to have known about and to engage with fascinating bodies of work that are ignored by most other twentieth-century writers. Pound’s intense political engagement makes his work even more fascinating, as we read this poet who has such a developed understanding of the modernist cultural world get things so catastrophically wrong with his political attachments leading up to the Second World War. All of these things, added to Pound’s ubiquity as a cultural scene-maker throughout the years of High Modernism, make The Cantos compelling to read in its context, while the complexity of Pound’s methods and sources make for a distinctively immersive reading experience.

What is the effect of examining single or small isolated groups of Cantos? Did you find that they can be interpreted differently when assessed in this way?

The rationale for this book developed from the London Cantos Reading Group, which has been running at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London since 2006. We decided to organise the group by reading one Canto a session, approached in a non-linear fashion according to the interests of invited guests and group members. It seemed sensible to us to look at a Canto a session because of the complexity of the poem and the unlikelihood of arriving at coherent readings of the wider poem, while also not wanting to get bogged down in line-by-line readings in the way that reading groups which have sprung up around James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake often do. We felt that Pound’s ideogrammic method (which works through the juxtaposition of “subject rhymes” within, across and between Cantos) demands that we approach the text in a way that gave us enough space to read at least some of those ideograms, and approaching it non-chronologically served to emphasise those connections, with rhymes from the earliest parts of the poem repeating throughout and Pound’s distinctive connective technique illuminated across the decades of the poem.

The benefits of reading the poem in this way extend to writing about it. Attempts to offer a homogenous reading of the whole poem, and even of shorter sections of it, have often failed to account for its true complexity. We believe that bringing a multitude of critics together with differing understandings and approaches is the best way to draw out the multiplicity of Pound’s poem. All of the pieces are written with an awareness of the poem as a whole, yet the close focus of the writing allows us to consider each iteration of a subject rhyme in its proper context.

This book, the first of three volumes, draws focus on groups of Cantos from the Ur-Cantos. What can we learn from these early, discarded works?

Helen Carr’s piece on the Urs in Readings in the Cantos volume 1 offers an extensive explication of the context in which Pound began his long poem and the many different approaches that he tried as he began his project. Pound’s poem remains heterogenous throughout, but the beginning is particularly eclectic, with Pound self-consciously running through a series of different possible approaches to his project. In the Urs Pound grapples with Browning, Homer, Ovid, Anglo-Saxon poetics and much else, experimenting with different voices and compositional strategies, before lighting on the Cantos-method that would come to define his project. It is incredibly helpful to watch him draft and edit here, with his rejected starting points offering key insights into the way his eventual voice developed.

At this moment we see Pound’s incredibly influential version of literary modernism emerging for the first time, with the gestation of the Ur-Cantos offering a privileged insight into the aesthetics of a wider movement. It is, therefore, fitting that Readings in The Cantos begins with these sections which would be much changed in later versions of this poem. In their variousness, they gesture towards the approaches we have taken here, with diversity becoming the key editorial consideration in this project.

How does this volume pave the way for further research into The Cantos?

This book should serve as a reference resource for readers looking for information on particular sections of The Cantos, providing an ideal starting point for a research project. The essays offer insight into the current state of critical thinking about The Cantos and in that they should offer ways forward – elaboration out of and disagreement with these essays will offer a multitude of routes forward.

This volume and the volumes that will follow feature an impressive cross-section of today’s significant Poundians, and of writers on modernism more generally. Dipping into Readings in The Cantos offers a primer on modernist studies, we hope that the essays here will provide ways into some greatly rewarding critical oeuvres.

At the same time as offering this summation, it is a crucial element of this project that The Cantos are approached heterogeneously here, the essays offering examples of the variety of critical approaches that can be taken towards Pound’s long poem. In this, the collection offers examples of critical practice to follow and to contradict. While these essays necessarily foreground the kinds of source-hunting with are synonymous with Pound studies, they also move away into more speculative territories which will prove fertile for all readers of modernism.

Richard Parker teaches at Birkbeck College and the University of Surrey and writes on Ezra Pound and various modernisms. He is the editor of ‘News from Afar: Ezra Pound and Some Contemporary British Poetries’ (Shearsman 2015).

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Literature

Changing perspectives on W.G. Sebald, 5 minutes with Uwe Schütte

How can we re-think W.G. Sebald? Uwe Schütte discusses the controversial nature of the writer, Austerlitz and his new book W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald has been described as one of the greatest writers in living memory and believed by many to have been a possible winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Could you tell us a bit about W.G. Sebald and what differentiated his work?

Yes. In fact, the former secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, has confirmed that Sebald was on the list for the Nobel Prize, along with Jacques Derrida and Ryszard Kapuściński. His sudden death in December 2001 prevented him from receiving the accolade. More interesting, though, is the German Academy for Language & Literature’s exclusion of Sebald from consideration for the Büchner Prize, the country’s most prestigious literary award. It is widely-known that Sebald was barred from many German literary honours because award committees always included members who objected loudly to him. He was not a safe choice, deemed too controversial in Germany because of his critical writings.

Throughout his career, Sebald attacked celebrated literary figures such as Alfred Döblin or Alfred Andersch. Particularly controversial were his Zurich lectures on the silence of post-war German literature on the Allied bombing campaign that destroyed huge swaths of the country, released in English as The Natural History of Destruction. Some people falsely accused him of revisionism or selective reading, while others were admonishing him for his failure to discuss certain texts.

Whatever anger his lectures provoked was forgotten two years later upon the publication of his next literary work. Austerlitz was immediately hailed as a masterpiece and a moral triumph—a German writing a serious book about a Jewish life haunted by the Holocaust.

It is this ambivalent, complicated picture about Sebald that I aim to stress in my book. The contradictions and the controversial reception of his writings is what I wanted to stress in particular. Too many casual readers, particularly in the Anglophone world, hold a one-sided image of him.

Sebald died shortly after the publication of Austerlitz, which follows the life of a refugee child from Czechoslovakia. What stands out about this work?

Austerlitz is certainly his most popular and successful book, yet, I think that in comparison to his other books, it is far from the masterpiece that many see in it. As I explain in my book, Sebald seemed to have had problems mastering this long-form type of the writing. This was the first time he strayed from the more essayistic mode of writing he developed in his earlier collection of stories. Also, there is the obviously unresolved question of Sebald’s appropriation of the life story of Susi Bechhöfer, who migrated from Munich to England on a Kindertransport as a child.

Undoubtedly, Sebald was a brilliant writer, but he had his limitations. Austerlitz is the book where these limitations come to the fore. It is so sad that his death made it the end of his oeuvre – I would have loved to read his next book, which he had already started working on.

Personally, I think his magnum opus is The Rings of Saturn, a book like no other I have ever read.

Austerlitz famously features one sentence describing the concentration camp Theresienstadt that runs for an astonishing seven and a half pages. What is the significance of this?

Sebald wrote masterfully in German. His dialect is distinctly Bavarian, rich with slightly outdated expressions and complex syntax, resulting in labyrinthine sentences. As has been repeatedly observed, his German cannot be adequately rendered in English, though his translators, working under his supervision, did an amazing job. In the German original, the sentence you refer to stretches over many pages. Anthea Bell’s award-winning English translation uses semicolons to stitch seemingly countless subclauses together, whereas in the original German there is one long syntactic flow. Sebald was heavily influenced by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, who loved beginning books with a pages-long sentence. But in the case of Austerlitz, Sebald’s literary aim is to find a stylistic equivalent to the monstrosity of the Nazi language by composing a monstrous sentence. Monstrous both in terms of form and content, that is to say, in its hyperbolic length and the replication of inhuman Nazi terminology which he had lifted from H.G. Adler’s book on Theresienstadt.

Sebald was a writer and an academic. How did his critical writings feed into his literary work?

Sebald was first and foremost an academic, and the majority of his writings are critical in nature. Over more than three decades, he produced a remarkably broad scope of partisan works that eschewed academic conventions. This includes scathing and sometimes unfair polemics against his most hated nemeses as well as very empathetic and passionate essays in which he clearly identified with the subjects of his research.  Since very few of these critical writings are available in English, this dimension of Sebald’s legacy is largely unknown to his Anglophone readership. The unique convergence of critical, autobiographical and literary modes of writing  can be seen in A Place in the Country, a collection of essays on Alemannic writers mostly unknown in the English-speaking world (such as Johann Peter Hebel, Gottfried Keller or Robert Walser).

The book first appeared in 1998, but it would take more than 15 years for the English edition to become available (superbly translated by Jo Catling). My introduction aims to show Anglophone readers Sebald’s identity as a writer residing somewhere between two countries, two languages, two modes of writing. In addition, I try to show how he tried to reconcile this rift that defined both his life and his works. To that end, I also discuss his literary works in the chronological order in which the German originals appeared.

You knew Sebald personally, as he was your PhD supervisor. How does it feel to write about an author that you knew so well?

You are right, it is an odd situation. I probably couldn’t have written about him while he was still alive. My first book on him, a general introduction in German, appeared in 2011, ten years after his death. Since then, I completed a detailed academic study of his critical writings and a smaller book on his poetry, in addition to an edited volume that rectifies many misconceptions about his works. I was provoked by the many flawed academic and popular distortions that govern the image of Sebald scholarship, to put the record straight, in a way.

How do you think this book paves the way for further research into the works of W.G. Sebald? Is there another perspective from which you would like to see his work observed?

Well, everyone is entitled to their perspective, obviously—however flawed it may be. My book is primarily a general introduction, aimed at students and broad readership, and therefore not so much a contribution to scholarship. But if it stimulates fellow Sebald researchers to at least reconsider their perspectives, I wouldn’t mind.

 

Uwe Schütte is Reader in German at Aston University. He has published numerous articles, essays and reviews on German-language literature and popular music and twenty books (mainly in German) on German language and literature including four on W G Sebald and his work.

 

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Literature

Jack London, evolutionary psychology and existential primitivism. Five minutes with Kenneth K. Brandt

Liverpool University Press and Northcote House Publishers are thrilled to introduce the first Writers and their Work title of the new partnership, Jack London. We caught up with author Kenneth K. Brandt to find out what we can expect from the book…

Can you tell us a bit about Jack London and his work?

Jack London was born in California in 1876 and died at age 40 in 1916, having authored 50 books. London grew up in the working class and managed to become an “oyster pirate” on San Francisco Bay, traverse the Pacific on a sealing voyage, tramp across North America, join the Socialist Labor Party, drop out of college after one semester, prospect for gold in the Klondike, and become a critically acclaimed and financially successful writer—all by age 24. It was a life of adventure, and also one of frenzied excess by conventional standards, with no shortage of drinking, smoking, and carousing. Daring, outspoken, politically radical, amazingly imaginative, and emotionally complicated, London was a vibrant and flawed embodiment of contradictory—and peculiarly American yearnings. Works like The Call of the WildWhite Fang, “To Build a Fire,” “The Apostate,” and The Sea-Wolf capture the harshness of Darwinian struggle and the atrocities of capitalist exploitation that the author encountered throughout his hardscrabble youth and on his varied travels. London was a prolific writer who benefitted from a growing readership during the early 20th century in what has been called the “Golden Age of the Magazine.” He designed his narratives to appeal to a popular audience and serious readers alike. In a 1913 letter, he described his fiction technique: “On the surface is the simple story any child can read—full of action, movement, colour. Under that is the real story, philosophical, complex, full of meaning. One reader gets the interesting story, the other sees my philosophy of life.” While often action-oriented, his writing tends to dramatize a variety of serious ideas from thinkers who defined his era and remain relevant to our own: Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, Spencer, as well as Jung and Freud.

Your book incorporates a wide range of theoretical developments in London scholarship. How did you organize the book to assess London’s writings?

The book focuses primarily on London’s major writings, along with a few lesser-appreciated texts, to help readers engage the depth, diversity, and complexity of his thematic interests. I chart the philosophical influences and literary contexts in which London formed his fiction technique and developed themes that focus on reciprocal ethics, Darwinism, alienation, the interplay of agency and determinism, and his development of a pragmatic idealism. I also examine London’s responses to colonialism and race, particularly in his Pacific fiction. Overall, my approach offers a useful introduction for readers less familiar with London, and for more seasoned scholars, it incorporates new perspectives related to evolutionary psychology, existential primitivism, and animal studies.

What have you found in your examination of London’s works? How does he engage with and challenge the social, political, and philosophical revolutions of his era?

For starters, London was one of the first major writers to engage the biological reality that humans are essentially another animal. He vigorously challenged the notion of human exceptionalism in his era and argued that efforts to establish human entitlement were motivated more by hubris than by valid scientific inquiry. In regard to our own species, London was deeply intrigued by the coexistence of individualism and communalism, and much of his writing centres on the tensions between our egotistic instincts for self-preservation and our inborn cooperative tendencies. Though he recognized that interactions between biology and culture were intricately entwined, on a general socio-political level, London thought that capitalism tended to accentuate our selfish, predatory tendencies, while socialism tended to evoke our more prosocial, altruistic behaviours. His dystopian novel The Iron Heel and even his ‘caveman’ novel Before Adam, highlight how an egotism-altruism conflict is at the core of most of our personal, political, and ecological relationships. In the book, I assess London’s nuanced appreciation of evolutionary theory as conceptualized by Darwin, Huxley, Spencer, and others. His response to evolution is considerably more textured than commonly appreciated. The ‘animal’, for instance, is often a positive category of being in his writing, while humanity is burdened by rationality and devitalized by overcivilization. London, though, does not sponsor a simplistic primitivism or a naïve return to nature. Still, in contrast to his Victorian predecessors, he is more interested in recovering certain instinctual drives rather than subduing them.

How do you think this book will pave the way for further research into the works of Jack London?

When it comes to evolution, literary scholars have traditionally focused on the ruthlessness of social Darwinism, ‘animalistic’ savagery, and instinctual selfishness. Of course, these biases are understandable because such antisocial subjects are plainly present in London’s fiction, but brutish instincts alone do not fully encompass his work’s crucial thematic implications. London’s writing consistently represents what is now termed evolved morality—social instincts, altruism, and solidarity. He recognised that our cooperative inclinations are intrinsic to what it means to be human—instinctually and culturally. The lone wolves never survive for long in London’s fiction. My book examines how his work anticipates recent theories on the prosocial aspects of evolved morality as developed by the primatologist Frans de Waal and the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. Foremost, I hope my book will lessen the divide between the humanities the sciences and show that both fields have much to offer one another. I also hope the book will encourage further research in literary studies and other disciplines that will support a more holistic consideration of how the complex interrelationships among human instincts and cultural influences combine to shape a variety of behaviours and social arrangements.

 

Kenneth K. Brandt is a Professor of English at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the Executive Coordinator of the Jack London Society, the editor of The Call: The Magazine of the Jack London Society, and the co-editor of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Jack London.

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