By Laura Schmidt
On this day in 1950, Philo M. Buck, Jr., passed away. You can find a number of photos of Professor Buck in our UW-Madison Collection. He was one of the founders of the Comparative Literature department at UW-Madison, which was one of the first departments like it in the country, and he served as chairperson of the department until his retirement. Buck was an extremely popular teacher and he was regarded as one of the best American scholars of his time, but before he became a monolith in his field, he wrote a small critical essay about Jack London in 1912.
London had already established his international fame, but Buck’s essay, “The American Barbarian,” upset him so much that he started a correspondence with the University of Nebraska rhetoric professor. What had offended London the most was Buck’s accusation of him being an individualist and not a socialist. “For heaven’s sake re-read [Martin Eden],” he writes in his first letter. Buck apologizes and admits, “the public has long since forgotten my article,” but does not back down from his original ideas. This spurs London on and they start to argue about the basic value of a critic.
The letters grow increasingly heated until London dictates a letter that not only calls Buck a, “pulseless propagandist,” but also rants in all caps, “NO MARK OF THE PASSING RIPPLE OF [BUCK] IS TO BE FOUND IN THE LIVES AND INSTITUTIONS OF THE MEN WHO LIVED WITH HIM AND AFTER HIM… PHILO M. BUCK, JR., WAS TOO OCCUPIED WITH THINKING ABOUT THINGS TO DO ANYTHING.” Buck never responded to the letter or wrote about London again.
When King Hendricks, the editor of their collected letters, asked Buck about their relationship, he, “never found any bitterness or resentment,” in Buck. This was their private correspondence and Buck had no interest in becoming famous, but nevertheless these letters are an amusing footnote in literary history. If you want to read their letters and the essay in question, pick up Hendricks’s book Creator and Critic: A Controversy between Jack London and Philo M. Buck, Jr., which was published by Utah State University Press in 1960.
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About the author: Laura Schmidt is a first year SLIS student who works as a metadata assistant for UW Digital Collections. She would love to pick a fight with Jack London.