Source of book: Audiobook from the library (but I own this too.)
As part of our quest to visit the western National Parks, we take a longer camping or road trip each year. To get me through the miles, particularly when I am towing our trailer, we listen to audiobooks. I try to keep a good balance between kids books, and classics.
Earlier this year, a friend brought a book of “campfire stories” along, and had me read them on cool evenings around the campfire. One of those was Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” a classic of the implacability of nature to man’s folly. Having read that, I decided it was probably a good time to listen to London’s best known work, The Call of the Wild.
London was perhaps the best known of the naturalist writers of the early 20th Century. His novels and stories portray a highly Darwinistic view of nature, devoid of sympathy, governed by survival of the fittest, and ruled by instinct. London was not wrong about this. Nature is cruel. Well, not “cruel” in the moral sense. As London also noted, mankind is the only creature that kills and hurts for fun. In fact, this is one of the great contrasts in London’s writing. Nature is Darwinistic. Mankind is capable of a difference, both good and bad. Mankind engages in senseless cruelty. Mankind fails or refuses to acknowledge the laws of nature, and finds himself dead as a result. But mankind is also capable of genuine love and goodness.
All of the above is on full display in The Call of the Wild.
The basic story is pretty simple. Buck, a large and magnificent dog of mixed heritage, is stolen from his owner in the Santa Clara Valley, and sold north to work as a sled dog in the Yukon, during the gold rush. London knew this area pretty well, having prospected a bit himself. Buck first works for a government dispatcher running mail between outposts. He defeats the current lead dog, and becomes the leader. After that, he works for a different official carrying heavy loads. However, a season of running wears him out, and he is sold along with the rest of the team near the end of the season. Unfortunately, he is purchased by a naive couple and her brother who set out for the Yukon to look for gold. Overweight, underprepared, and too late in the season, they set out, only to reach utter disaster at the hands of relentless Nature. Fortunately for Buck, he is taken in by John Thornton, who shows him the first real love he has had in a long time. After a few memorable episodes, Buck finds himself growing wilder with time, and reverting to his roots as a wolf. When Thornton and his partners are slaughtered by Native Americans, Buck’s last tie to civilization is broken, and he becomes fully wild.
I read this book (and its companion, White Fang - which we didn’t get to on this trip) back in my teens. I suspect a lot of people did experience it at that age, either as as school assignment or just because it is one of the books you read in your teens. In any case, I read White Fang first, which gave me a different perspective on the two books. In some ways, The Call of the Wild seemed to be a lesser book. It was shorter, and the “growing wild” idea didn’t appeal much to me at the time.
Rereading it, though, by itself, I think I appreciate better what London was trying to do. The short length actually means London wrote concisely, and created a perfectly balanced and tautly written tale. I was struck this time by the parallel structure, the sense of direction in the narrative, and way that every detail matters.
I like long books just fine. I mean, Anthony Trollope and Henry James, right? But there is something to be said for disciplined writing of shorter narratives too. I have always loved short stories for this reason.
Last time I read this, I think I missed the way the incidents are parallels throughout. The opening theft and the final wilding after the massacre. The powerlessness of the beginning with the newfound power at the end. The contrast of the dispatchers and their innate knowledge of the rhythms of nature, and the arrogant prospectors who are broken by nature. The cruelty of the man in the red sweater who breaks Buck to servitude, and the kindness of Thornton, who, while he keeps Buck from going completely feral, also aids the transition by his own closeness to nature. The middle episode of running heavy loads transitions from Buck’s rising action to leadership to his increasing break with civilization. There is a lot of craft in the plotting and writing.
Other observations: I had forgotten how violent this book is. More accurately, I had forgotten how violent the humans are in this book. I recalled the animal violence well enough. Eat or be eaten, kill or be killed. The law of nature and all. But, perhaps because I remembered the violence better in White Fang, I forgot how much there is in The Call of the Wild. London seems to envision a good portion of humanity as animalistic at best, and brutal at worst. There are times when I agree with him. Not always, but sometimes. And more these days in the era of Trump.
Secondly, and this was no surprise, London is a bit racist. Not much of a surprise for 1903, of course. And also not a surprise for someone of that era who was strongly Darwinist. But this is a complex issue when it comes to London, as it is for Mark Twain, another person progressive for his era, yet with glaring blind spots. Both tended to view Native Americans as lesser - and London wrote a rather xenophobic diatribe on the peril of Chinese immigration. (This wasn’t that long after the Chinese Exclusion Act. The thing with London is that he was self-aware that racism itself has no rational basis, and noted that he suspected that his fears about China might turn out to be as silly as other “race fantasies.” Furthermore, like Twain, he wrote stories that humanized minorities more than his predecessors and contemporaries. Also complicating things was the fact that London believed strongly in determinism: that is, that environment determines behavior. He thus believed that poverty caused crime, for example, and that abused children grow up to be abusers. Because of this, he advocated for socialism, on the grounds that good outcomes required equal starting points, a point that later Civil Rights Activists would adopt as their own.
I find Jack London to be best in small doses. The brutally naturalistic viewpoint can be a bit overwhelming at times, and you kind of want to see some decent humans after a while. Although, to be honest, they can be in short supply in literature - and sometimes in real life too. But London does make you think. He is certainly an antidote to the sort of nature-worshipping story that views animals as if they were fuzzy little humans, and not living according to Nature’s laws. Never forget that that snuggly, purry cat you love will heartlessly slaughter and eat rodents and birds. I find nature to be beautiful, but it is also deadly and cruel if one fails to respect it. Perhaps London’s most unique contribution to the literature, then, is to write animals that think like animals. Buck isn’t just a human who can’t really talk. Rather, he acts according to instinct, according to nature, and according to his circumstances. And yet, he is a sympathetic and nuanced character; and one of the finest animal characters in literature.
In re-reading this, with the kids, I was reminded that London was an excellent writer, whether or not you agree with his philosophy or not.
A side note: I am (as regular readers will know), an avid hiker. The kids and I put on about 120 miles or so a year together, and I often get more than that in. One of the things that stuck with me from reading Jack London was that nature can be unpredictable - so always leave a margin for error and the unexpected, and hike prepared. Thus, we always hike with snacks, a first aid kit, and windbreakers. I have assisted other, less prepared hikers numerous times. Be prepared, be safe, stay alive.