Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rootless Lit: Call of the Wild

Credit: American Literature

Just finished re-reading Jack London's Call of the Wild on my Kindle. I downloaded 37 (!) works of Mr. London's. Free, you know.

Jack London: What I thought I knew

  • Call of the Wild
  • White Fang
  • To Start a Fire
  • Alcoholic
  • Yukon
  • Gold rush
  • Wanderer

Jack London: What I didn't know

Prolific writer. Until I sought out White Fang and Call of the Wild for download to my Kindle, I didn't realize what a prodigious writer Mr. London was. More than 20 novels, more than 20 collections of short stories, a number of plays. A list here.   

Racism. I also had no idea of the grotesqueness of his racism (as evidenced in his novel, Adventure).

Maybe not alcoholic. There is some debate on this score.

Here's a comprehensive chronology of Mr. London's life.

Call of the Wild

Synopsis: Pampered dog in California sold into canine slavery during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, taken up north to Yukon during gold rush times. Innocence, betrayal, brutality, indifference, acceptance, ignorance, greed, suffering, salvation, love, grief, transformation.

(Note: For packing list aficionados, here's a pack list of the typical "Stampeder" in the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush. Thanks to Adventure Learning Foundation, which strives to offer a "global classroom experience" through the prism of virtual, history-based expeditions.)

I first read Call of the Wild when I was in junior high school. The story of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd mix, gripped me as tightly yesterday as it did when I was a child.

It begins:

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. 

Mr. London's writing style is economical, often accomplishing two goals with one word. For example, with just a few words, he can deliver a full-color visual and set a tone.

"Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness..." In only three words ( groping, Arctic, darkness), the reader gets a physical picture of men reaching for something in a cold and dark place; a sense of the men's mental state - seeking out, fear, hardship - and a concise definition of the story's stage.

His writing is uncomplicated. "These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs ...." I like this redundancy - want dogs/dogs wanted - clearly, these men would get what they wanted, and there was no doubt what was in store for the dogs. 

To tell a good story, Mr. London did indulge in some anthropomorphism of Buck and other dogs in the book, but with the exception of the "did not read the newspapers" bit at the beginning, he didn't go overboard. To a great extent, the reader never forgets Buck is a dog, driven mostly by instincts,  moderated by experiences. This seems to conform with Mr. London's naturalistic world view. Mr. London espoused social Darwinism (and had an interest in eugenics) and Mr. London stays true to his philosophy in how he depicts both humans and animals in Call of the Wild.

Which, sadly, brings me to Mr. London's racism. I recently read his book, Adventure, for the first time. From the very first paragraph, I was appalled at language such as this:

He was a very sick white man. He rode pick-a-back on a woolly-headed, black-skinned savage .... the man-horse ...

Several pages later:

Stretched on the platform, side by side and crowded close, lay a score of blacks. That they were low in the order of human life was apparent at a glance. They were man-eaters. Their faces were asymmetrical, bestial; their bodies were ugly and ape-like.

And then:

With the automatic swiftness of a wild animal the black gathered himself to spring. The anger of a wild animal was in his eyes; but he saw the white man's hand dropping to the pistol in his belt. The spring was never made.


Seelee was more intelligent than the average of his kind, but his intelligence only emphasized the lowness of that kind. His eyes, close together and small, advertised cruelty and craftiness. ... His broken-fanged teeth ... As he talked or listened, he made grimaces like a monkey. .. 

Even though Mr. London is restrained in his anthropomorphism of Buck, the dog, in Call of the Wild, he does imbue him with certain  human attributes such as dignity, strong work ethic, love, sacrifice, and rage. 

Mr. London does the opposite in his book, Adventure, in his treatment of the Solomon Island slaves. He dehumanizes them. With few exceptions, Mr. London does not even award them names, whereas in the Call of the Wild, we learn a lot about Buck and a little about his canine colleagues, all of whom have names and distinct personalities. 

So while I loved Call of the Wild, I couldn't help contrasting Mr. London's respect for the intrinsic worth of the dogs versus the contempt he displayed for the Solomon Island men in Adventure. 

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