(April 2, 2014)

Dr. Earle Labor: The biographer behind the adventurist

SHREVEPORT, LA — American author Jack London has been called "America's Greatest World Author" and his book, The Call of The Wild, "America's Greatest World Novel." In fact, he is one of the most extensively translated American authors today. But—for once—this story is not about Jack London but one of his most lauded biographers: Dr. Earle Labor, Centenary Emeritus Professor of American Literature.

Dr. Earle Labor in the 1960 Yoncopin yearbook
Dr. Earle Labor in the 1960 Yoncopin yearbook

Labor first became interested in the writings of Jack London as an eighth grade boy in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma.

"Many of us boys spent our 'free' time stropping our pocket knives on the upper sides of our boots and testing the blades by shaving the fuzz on our forearms," said Labor during an interview with The World of Jack London. "After a while, waiting to grow a new fuzz-crop, I explored the small library in our cloak-room and found a thick volume bound in dark red cloth titled Jack London's Stories for Boys. Opening the book on a page titled To Build a Fire, I was hooked at once."

Later, while Labor was at boot camp at the U.S. Naval Recruit Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland, he picked up and read a 25¢ paperback edition of London's Martin Eden. Labor considered it the most powerful book he had ever read.

"I determined then and there that if and when I ever went back to study for a doctoral degree, Jack London would be the subject of my dissertation," said Labor.

Now respected as the premier world-wide Jack London authority, Labor has devoted much of his academic career to London, is a personal friend of his descendants, and has published nearly one hundred articles and ten books on Jack London. His most recent book is Jack London: An American Life, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

This book earned much praise from prominent publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Beast, and Publishers Weekly. A review by Booklist commended London:

Labor's unceasingly vivid, often outright astonishing biography vibrantly chronicles London's exceptionally daring and wildly contradictory life and recovers and reassesses his complete oeuvre, including many powerful, long-neglected works of compassionate, eyewitness nonfiction. Let the Jack London revival begin.

"I said to my wife, Gayle, 'I'm beginning to think it's a pretty good book after all.' The Booklist review in particular blew me out of the water. It's like a dream come true," said Labor.

Jack London: An American Life
Earle Labor's Jack London: An American Life

The most recent commendation of the book transpired this March when Labor received the 2014 Spur Award for Best Western Nonfiction Biography. The Spur Awards, given annually for distinguished writing about the American West, are among the oldest and most prestigious in American literature.

A staple of the Centenary experience, Labor has been part of the College family for 59 years. His journey to Shreveport started back in 1955 while he was working as an assistant sales manager at Haggar clothing company. Labor received a call asking if he would be interested in teaching at Centenary.

"I had been working for Haggar for a year at the time. It was a good job, but the intellectual challenge of men's pants wore thin after about six weeks. I had been an instructor at SMU and in the Navy, and teaching spoiled me," said Labor.

Shortly after becoming established at Centenary, Labor left to earn his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin and returned in 1959.

"Although I've never actively sought a position elsewhere, Dr. John Dawson, President of Adrian College in Michigan...appointed me recipient of the Lyman Edwin Davis Chair of English Literature, Chair of the Humanities Division, and Head of the English Department in 1962," said Labor. "With a family to support, I could hardly reject the 50 percent increase in salary. I might have spent the rest of my academic career at Adrian—or perhaps have accepted any one of several administrative offers at other institutions—but I chose instead to return to Centenary in 1966. Why? Because I had found something very special about this College: a genuine hospitality, congeniality, and academic integrity that was due—in considerable measure, I'm sure—to both its distinguished history and its spiritual heritage. I've never for a moment regretted becoming a member of the Centenary family. As evidence, witness my five children, my wife, and my eldest son's wife—all of whom are Centenary alumni."

Labor taught the first course on London ever offered in the United States as a Visiting Professor at Utah State University in 1966, and he presented the first Jack London course in Western Europe as a Fulbright Lecturer at the University of Aarhus in 1974. After returning from Denmark, he worked to initiate a student-teacher exchange program between the University of Aarhus and Centenary College.

In 1974, Labor's Jack London, the first book-length critical study of this celebrated author's works, received a "5 Star" rating in The West Coast Review of Books. The 1988 Stanford University Press three-volume edition of London's Letters, co-edited with Robert C. Leitz and London's great-nephew Milo Shepard, was accorded front-page reviews in both The New York Times and The London Times Literary Supplement.

Later in 1988, with the encouragement and support of Milo Shepard, Centenary alumnus Samuel Peters, and then College President Donald Webb, Labor established Centenary's unique Jack London Museum and Research Center. He directed four Summer Seminars for Teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which have included participants from Germany, the Philippines, Albania and the Congo.

Jack London Research Center
Chris Million, an Emmy award-winning producer and director, and Dr. Earle Labor in front of the Jack London Research Center.

After years of dedicating hours upon hours of study and research to the life and works of Jack London, Labor was honored as the Jack London Man of the Year 2011 by the Jack London Foundation. The award was presented at the 41st Annual Jack London Banquet in Sonoma, California.

In addition to his works on Jack London, including the widely reviewed Stanford editions of Jack London's letters and short stories, Labor has published essays on other major figures such as Henry James, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Labor was honored in 2000 by election into the International Association of Professors, and in 2007 received a letter of commendation from the Director of Secretariat, University of Aarhus, for his "untiring contribution to international understanding and scholarly cooperation." Among his numerous other honors are memberships in the Omicron Delta Kappa Society and Phi Beta Kappa Society. In 1991, he was honored as Humanist of the Year by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities; and in 1999, the Shreveport Times cited him as one of the 100 Influential People in Northwest Louisiana over the Past 100 Years.

Although his career has been abundantly full in the academic arena, the biographer enjoys various hobbies outside of literature including weight lifting.

As an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University, Labor inaugurated the school's first weightlifting course in 1947. He coached and lifted the SMU team to victory in the 1948 Dallas Open Championships. Prior to entering the U.S. Navy in 1952, Labor held the Texas AAU Light-Heavyweight title. Later, upon his arrival at Centenary in 1955, he recruited physical education instructor Gene Perkins and sophomore Joel Sermons to represent the Shreveport YMCA. The three lifters, joined by heavyweight John Foster, competed successfully at meets throughout the Ark-La-Tex area the following year.

Weight lifting
Dr. Earle Labor (center) at a weight lifting competition.

Labor continued lifting while pursuing his doctorate. He was a consistent medalist in the Wisconsin State Championships until retiring from active competition in 1959, when he returned to Centenary as an assistant professor of English.

In 2012 Labor was recognized for his many contributions to the world of weightlifting during the USA Weightlifting National University Championships. Professor Kyle Pierce, Founding Director of the USA Weightlifting Development Center at LSU-S, introduced Dr. Labor who then presented awards to the medal winners of the competition.

Beloved by his students and colleagues, Labor was honored twice as Centenary's Outstanding Teacher. The numerous awards and published works of his academic protégés attest to the success of his mentoring. As the man behind the fascinating and infamous Jack London, Labor is nothing short of remarkable himself.