Literature of attractions: Jack London and early moving images

Clayton, Owen (2013) Literature of attractions: Jack London and early moving images. In: Transatlantic traffic and (mis) translations. The University Press of New England, Durham, New Hampshire, pp. 197-220. ISBN 9781611684247, 9781611684292, 9781611684148

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During cinema's early years, Jack London was an international screen commodity. As Tony Williams states, 'His fiction became ideal movie material for the 1909-1912 period of small narrative mass production.' What remains unclear is London’s relationship with cinema in the years before the timescale mentioned by Williams, and whether film held any value for him other than as a new form of narrativization. Focusing on a transatlantic text of social ‘passing’, this essay demonstrates that London tried to make his writing more like film, and that his interest in cinema as spectacle was co-existent with its narrative possibilities. Cinema was a factor in London’s thinking as early as 1902, and its influence operated in a way that was qualitatively different from that which has been identified by previous London scholars.
In order to prove these claims, this essay examines The People of the Abyss (1903), a text of undercover social investigation which, I claim, bears film’s aesthetic imprint. The young Californian explored London’s East End for several weeks during 1902 disguised as an unemployed American sailor. When presenting his results, he adopted a structuring principle of showmanship and spectacle that he took from moving pictures. Since this move repeats the strategies of early film exhibition, I term it the 'literature of attractions'.

The writer was influenced by transatlantic films such as George Méliès ‘pre-enactment’ of the coronation of Edward VII. London watched Le Sacre d’ Edouard VII (1902) during its headline run at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. For him, the film substituted being able to witness the ceremony first-hand. This and other experiences with film affected the way that he wrote People, as well as how he framed, selected and ordered its accompanying photographs.
Another influence was Coney Island, which by this time included films shows, and which he had visited just before setting sail for England. Given that the ideological effect of Coney island was, as Miriam Hansen puts it, to create ‘an ostensibly classless, Americanized, community of leisure’, then we can understand why London compares the ‘Abyss’ into which the English poor fall with the apparently limitless opportunities available in America. The narrator of People is more of a showman, in the mould of the amusement park, variety performance and early film exhibition, than a slummer concerned with remaining incognito. At one point, he throws away his disguise in order to create a spectacle. At another, he prefaces the Royal procession by stating that the only comparable sights were ‘Yankee circuses and Alhambra ballets’ (p.138). Referencing his visits to Coney Island and the Alhambra theatre at the beginning, he shapes the chapter along the lines of a variety show, in which vaudeville and other live acts would precede the main entertainment.

London’s use of spectacle, particularly in his photography, is an essential aspect of his critique of the English class system. His photographs adopt various filmic tropes in order to become what Noël Burch calls, with reference to early cinema, ‘emblematic shots’; that is, images which function as allegorical or synecdochal representations of the text’s overall themes. Influenced both by American fight films and by Thomas Edison’s 1901 movie ‘The Gordon Sisters Boxing’, London presents the image of two women fighting as an allegory of the British working class. The fighting women of the East End are both comic and tragic: an oddity at which the reader is supposed to laugh, at the same time that they represent the author’s anxiety regarding the ‘degeneration’ of the English working classes, and the British Empire more generally.
The existence of a ‘literature of attractions’ helps us to think about the aesthetic conjunctions between writing and cinema during the years of the latter’s birth. The concept does not prove simply the latent appeal of early moving pictures across a wider cultural plane than has been acknowledged, but it also enables a greater appreciation of the specific cinematic innovations of authors at the turn of the century.

Keywords:Jack London, Early Film, Cinema of Attractions, Photography, Slumming, Digitised
Subjects:Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q323 English Literature by topic
W Creative Arts and Design > W630 History of Cinematics and Photography
Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q320 English Literature
Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q322 English Literature by author
W Creative Arts and Design > W640 Photography
W Creative Arts and Design > W632 History of Photography
Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q321 English Literature by period
Divisions:College of Arts > School of English & Journalism > School of English & Journalism (English)
ID Code:10667
Deposited On:05 Jul 2013 10:12

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