The Call of the Wild, a short adventure novel about a sled dog named Buck (a cross between a St Bernard and a Scotch collie) will be one of the strangest, and most strangely potent, narratives in this series.
Its author was a one-off, too. Jack London was a maverick, macho young man, the son of an itinerant astrologer and a spiritualist mother. As a boy, he led a criminal life, specialising in the piracy of oysters in San Francisco Bay. As a writer, he blazed briefly, lived hard and dangerously, and died from drink and drugs aged just 40, having written more than 50 books in 20 years.
London is the archetype of the American writer as primeval hero, the forerunner ofHemingway, Dos Passos, Kerouac and possibly Hunter S Thompson. To George Orwell, he was "an adventurer and a man of action as few writers have ever been". A devotee of Kipling's Jungle Book, London found his literary voice writing about a dog that learns to live at the limit of civilisation. He was inspired to embark on his dog story as a means to explore what he saw as the essence of human nature in response to a wave of calls to American youth urging a new start for the turn-of-the-century generation. London's mythical creature became his answer to the complex challenges of modernity.
The reader discovers Buck, a domesticated prize dog, as the effete pet of a Californian judge. When he is stolen by his master's gardener to settle some gambling debts, Buck passes through a sequence of owners representing the highs and lows of humanity. Sold into a kind of canine slavery as an Alaskan sled dog, Buck ends up in the Yukon of the 1890s Klondike gold rush, a milieu familiar to the writer. Eventually, he becomes the property of a salt-of-the-earth outdoorsman named John Thornton who recognises Buck's qualities and with whom the dog enjoys a deep, and affecting rapport.
Among many adventures, in extremis, Buck saves Thornton from drowning, but when his master is killed by Yeehat Indians, he gives in to his true nature, answers the call of the wild and joins a wolf pack: "Man, and the claims of man, no longer bound him." Here, London is not just writing about dogs. He is expressing his belief, which owes something to Rousseau, that humanity is always in a state of conflict, and that the struggles of existence strengthen man's nature.
London's chapter titles – "Into the Primitive", "The Law of Club and Fang" and "The Dominant Primordial Beast" – might appear to set London's literary agenda. But what projects The Call of the Wild towards immortality is London's urgent and vivid style, and his astonishing identification with the world he's describing. His capacity to involve his readers in his story, regardless of literary subtlety, is what many generations of American writers became inspired by. For this alone, he deserves to be remembered.
A Note on the Text
The Call of the Wild was first serialised in the Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1903 and was an instant hit. Jack London had already sold the rights to the novel outright for $2,000 because he wanted to buy an old sloop for sailing. Accordingly, the story was first published as a volume in America by Macmillan and Company whose editor, George Brett, played a crucial role in London's success as a writer.
London achieved overnight acclaim. Inevitably, there was envy. A forgotten writer named Egerton Ryerson Young claimed that London had plagiarised his 1902 book, My Dogs in the Northland. London acknowledged the influence and deflected the charge, saying he had already corresponded with Young on the subject.
HL Mencken, a most perceptive critic, wrote: "No other popular writer of his time did any better writing than you will find in The Call of the Wild… Here, indeed, are all the elements of sound fiction: clear thinking, a sense of character, the dramatic instinct, and, above all, the adept putting together of words – words charming and slyly significant, words arranged, in a French phrase, for the respiration and the ear."
Three more from Jack London
The People of the Abyss (1903); White Fang (1906); The Road (1907).
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