Jack London’s name is familiar to many of us who read his dog stories as teenagers. I think I was just into my teens when I first read The Call of the Wild and White Fang, and I think I read them at school, not from the bookshelves at home. What I didn’t know until I Googled for his dates just now and found his page at Wikipedia, was that Jack London was a much more versatile and socially progressive author than I had ever suspected:
John Griffith “Jack” London (born John Griffith Chaney) January 12, 1876 – November 22 was an American novelist, journalist, and social activist. A pioneer in the then-burgeoning world of commercial magazine fiction, he was one of the first fiction writers to obtain worldwide celebrity and a large fortune from his fiction alone, including science fiction.
Some of his most famous works include The Call of the Wild and White Fang, both set in the Klondike Gold Rush, as well as the short stories “To Build a Fire”, “An Odyssey of the North”, and “Love of Life”. He also wrote of the South Pacific in such stories as “The Pearls of Parlay” and “The Heathen”, and of the San Francisco Bay area in The Sea Wolf.
London was part of the radical literary group “The Crowd” in San Francisco and a passionate advocate of unionization, socialism, and the rights of workers. He wrote several powerful works dealing with these topics, such as his dystopian novel The Iron Heel, his non-fiction exposé The People of the Abyss, and The War of the Classes.
Knowing this, I can now see that even in this early work, London’s social conscience was at work…
Wikipedia describes The Call of the Wild as a novel, perhaps because it is written in chapters. But it is only 88 pages long, which makes it more of a short story – or perhaps a short novella than a novel. It is the story of a dog called Buck which is stolen from a comfortable life on a ranch in California, beaten into submission by his new handler, and sold as a sled dog in Alaska where the Klondike Gold Rush is taking place. Buck is a cross between a St Bernard and a Scottish Shepherd, so he is massive and immensely strong, and he adapts well enough to his brutal new life. He learns ‘the law of the club’ and he learns the survival skills he needs, including the ability to bury himself in the lee of the wind for shelter and contend with the pecking order amongst the other dogs in the team. He also learns to hunt, to supplement his rations, and disquietingly, London invokes hunting as a natural human instinct too:
All that stirring of instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the blood lust, the joy to kill – all this was Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.
There is an ecstasy which marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes to a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. (p. 34)
Hmm. Speaking for myself, while I feel quite cheerful about despatching mosquitoes, I haven’t ever felt the slightest moment of blood lust or a joy to kill. So, no, I don’t agree with London’s contention that it’s natural human instinct.
It’s not a story for the squeamish. First of all there is the brutal treatment of the dogs from their handlers, the best of whom are François and Perrault, French-Canadian dispatchers from the Canadian government, and the worst of whom are a trio of incompetents who fail to correctly calculate how much food needs to be carried for the dogs and who extend the number of days for the journey with late starts and loads falling off their sled. They beat most of the dogs to death when, starving and exhausted, the dogs can’t go on, and there’s a certain poetic justice in what happens to them when they fatally ignore yet another piece of well-meant advice. But there is also extreme violence among the dogs, the worst of whom is Spritz, who contends with Buck for dominance in the team. If you love dogs as I do, this part of the story is hard to read.
Redemption comes for the human race in the form of Buck’s saviour Thornton, who rescues him in time to escape the last folly of Hal, Charles and Mercedes and who nurses him back to health. Buck then comes into his heroic phase on the gold fields, winning a bet for Thornton by pulling a massive load that no normal dog could manage, and saving Thornton’s life when he falls into a freezing river near some rapids. But one day Buck returns from his excursions alone into the wild to find that his devoted master Thornton has been killed by a (fictional) tribe of Yeehat Indians. He avenges this death by killing them all, and then is himself attacked by wolves. One of the wolves recognises him from a previous encounter in the forest, and it is at this point that Buck’s ancient instincts emerge and he answers the call of the wild. He lives out the rest of his life as a wild dog, becoming known as the Ghost Dog of the Northland Legend, when he returns each year to mourn at the site of Thornton’s death.
What might have surprised London’s readers, back in 1903 when the story was first published, was the brief paragraph at the end of chapter 2. The chapter begins with a frank assessment of the savagery into which Buck has been thrust, because Manuel the gardener’s helper had treacherously sold him:
Buck’s first day on the Dyea beach was like a nightmare. Every hour was filled with shock and surprise. He had been suddenly jerked from the heart of civilisation and flung into the heart of things primordial. No lazy, sun-kissed life was this, with nothing to do but loaf and be bored. Here was neither peace, nor rest, nor a moment’s safety. All was confusion and action, and every moment life and limb were in peril. There was imperative need to be constantly alert; for these dogs and men were not town dogs and men. They were savages, all of them, who knew no law but the law of club and fang. (p.15)
Chapter 1 shows who was responsible for this:
Buck did not read the newspapers, and he did not know that Manuel. one of the gardener’s helpers, was an undesirable acquaintance. Manuel had one besetting sin. He loved to play Chinese lottery. Also, in his gambling, he had one besetting weakness – faith in a system, and this made his damnation certain. For to play a system requires money, while the wages of a gardener’s helper do not lap over the needs of a wife and numerous progeny. (p.7)
And yet at the end of chapter 2, as Buck finds his ancient ancestors howling down through the centuries, London reminds us that Buck’s plight has occurred as a token of what a puppet thing life is:
… because men had found a yellow metal in the North, and because Manuel was a gardener’s helper whose wages did not lap over the needs of his wife and divers small copies of himself. (p.23)
Having damned Manuel in chapter 1, London now seems to be saying that his perfidy arose because his wages were too low, and perhaps we can also read the yellow metal as the catalyst for profiteering at any cost to man or beast…
As well as The Call of the Wild, this Oxford World’s Classics edition includes White Fang, and five famous short stories – ‘Batard’, ‘Moon-Face’, ‘Brown Wolf’, ‘That Spot’, and ‘To Build a Fire’.
Author: Jack London
Title: The Call of the Wild, White Fang and Other Stories
Publisher: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories (Oxford World’s Classics)