“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing…”
Trouble is brewing all right, and the trouble begins in the first sentence of The Call of the Wild—a sentence that concludes by revealing the fact that Buck, Jack London’s hero, is a dog. Few American novels are as tenaciously (doggedly) allegorical as London’s “beast fable.” Although we know that dogs are imbeciles on the order of a pre-verbal toddler, Buck often behaves, and thinks, exactly like a man—a man, incidentally, much like Jack London himself. Buck may not read newspapers, but he understands words, laughs, and expresses himself so eloquently that his master “reverently” exclaims, “God! you can all but speak!” And Buck can think too: he “imagines,” “wonders,” “divines” and “reasons it out”; he hates with “a bitter and deathless hatred” and he “accepts…with quiet dignity.” He can even “flee from the defence of a moral consideration.” Try to teach your dog that trick!
The other person Buck sounds like is Theodore Roosevelt, who then was serving his first presidential term. In the title speech of The Strenuous Life (1901), an essay collection published the year he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley, Roosevelt urged America to embrace its “manly and adventurous qualities.” The country, he argued, needed to build a larger army, compete for sovereignty of the seas, and engage in foreign nation-building, beginning with the Philippines, over which it had gained control during the Spanish-American War. But it was not just the federal government that needed to man up: every American citizen should refuse to “shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil,” and strive for a life of “toil and effort, of labor and strife.” America, and Americans, should reject “the doctrine of ignoble ease” that had emasculated the nation.
“Ignoble ease” is a good description of Buck’s life when The Call of the Wild begins. He lives in Judge Miller’s big house in the “sun-kissed” Santa Clara Valley, surrounded by poplar-shaded lawns and pastures, long grape arbors, orchards, a swimming tank, and berry patches—dog paradise, in other words. Buck passes his days hunting with the judge’s sons. At twilight he accompanies the judge’s lovely daughters on long rambles. At night he falls asleep beneath the judge’s feet by the roaring library fire.
Paradise is lost when a gardener’s assistant kidnaps Buck from the property and sells him to dog traders. After a series of transactions and an encounter with a brutal “dog-doctor,” Buck arrives in Alaska. The Klondike gold rush is in full fever, and Buck joins a succession of dogsled teams hired by prospectors. Gradually, he is hardened by endless skirmishes with his canine rivals and the Yukon’s extreme natural conditions (“not too cold” is how London describes 50 below zero). Buck becomes impossibly strong, ferocious, and cunning. By the novel’s conclusion Buck is no longer a dog. He is a wolf, or perhaps something even more exalted: a god.
London called The Call of the Wild a “parable of buried impulses,” but Buck’s impulses are not buried very deep. Mainly he wants to kill:
The blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived.
As might be clear from that last phrase, London was at the time a devoted disciple of Herbert Spencer, the British civil engineer who popularized the theory of Social Darwinism. (Spencer’s philosophy predated Darwinism—it was Spencer who coined “survival of the fittest.”) Social Darwinism would seem to be a philosophy ill-suited to Jack London, who ran for mayor of Oakland in 1901 and 1905 as a socialist. But The Call of the Wild, until the novel’s final line, channels both Spencer and Roosevelt as London tells the story of Buck’s ascension from docile pet to blood-lusting wolf. By the end Buck has been transformed into a monster—“the Fiend incarnate.” Even Cujo would whimper before him.
Yet there is something unsettling about Buck’s triumph. As Robert Hass puts it in an essay about London (which appears in Hass’s new collection, What Light Can Do), “the idea that man, at his best, is a wild predator is a dangerous idea.” It’s the same idea that led Roosevelt to believe America should impose rule on the “savage anarchy” of the Philippines. And it is the same idea that comforted the Gilded Age’s most rapacious plutocrats, who used Social Darwinism to argue that their gargantuan success, built on the backs of poor laborers, was part of the natural order of things. “The growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest,” proclaimed John D. Rockefeller Sr., after reading Spencer.
The question is whether London meant his parable to serve as an endorsement of the strenuous life, or a criticism of it. For most of the novel there seems to be no question: London’s all for the strenuous life. On nearly every page, as Buck overcomes his antagonists and bravely survives every trial set before him, London rhapsodizes the glories of virility. London continues his approach into the novel’s final sentence—at least until the very last, baffling clause:
“When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, [Buck] may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.”
What to make of that—“the song of the pack”? After 80 pages of rugged individualism, of murdering his rivals and living “alone, by virtue of his own strength,” why should Buck suddenly take comfort in joining a gang of fellow wolves? Are we supposed to conclude that Buck is now beyond the struggles of life, and has entered some kind of dog pantheon, taking his place among a pack of dog-deities? Or does this sentence mark the resurfacing of London’s socialist instincts, after having been repressed for the entire novel? Perhaps it is simply a case—and there are many—of London’s lyricism getting the best of him, causing him to forsake meaning for grand gesture.
The Call of the Wild achieved instant success and remains one of the most beloved American novels. But Roosevelt, for his part, was unimpressed. He accused London of being a “nature faker.” “I don’t believe for a minute,” he complained to a reporter, “that some of these men who are writing nature stories and putting the word ‘truth’ prominently in their prefaces know the heart of the wild things.”
Roosevelt, it seems, had little taste for allegory, and misunderstood which “wild things” London was actually describing.
Other novels published in 1903:
The Enchanted Island of Yew by L. Frank Baum The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox Jr. The Ambassadors by Henry James The Pit by Frank Norris Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Bestselling novel of the year:
Lady Rose’s Daughter by Mary Augusta Ward
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon 1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson 1922—Babbittby Sinclair Lewis 1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell 1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell 1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey 1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin 1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux1992—Clockersby Richard Price2002—Middlesexby Jeffrey Eugenides2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.
Jack London’s adventure stories made him one of the most popular writers of his day. In works such as The Call of the Wild, White Fang (1906), and Jerry of the Islands (1917) London makes animals into compelling leading characters, as engaging and sympathetic as any human protagonists. London’s animal stories do not anthropomorphize animals simply to play on the heartstrings of his audience. Some of his contemporaries criticized him for writing maudlin beast fables suitable only for children, but these critics misrepresented London’s books and misunderstood his literary aims. London resisted the sentimental beast fables of his day, which personified animals to manipulate the reader’s emotions. London’s stories, instead, reflect more substantial scientific and philosophical issues. His goal is not to make animals appear human, but to emphasize the hereditary connection that humans have with animals.
London was heavily influenced by the works of Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1859, and The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871). In The Call of the Wild, Buck’s experience follows Darwinian principles. He is molded by the changes in his environment, thriving because he possesses the necessary genetic gifts of strength and intelligence to adapt to his mutable circumstances. He is an example of a popular understanding of Darwin’s theories: survival of the fittest. Although raised in the domestic ease of Judge Miller’s estate, Buck learns quickly what it takes to endure the brutal world of dog-sledding—the “law of club and fang.” When Buck first learns to steal food from one of his French Canadian masters, readers are told that this “theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions.” The Call of the Wild also reflects London’s admiration for the works of nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In the North, might makes right, and Buck proves to be the animal equivalent of Nietzsche’s superman, possessing physical and mental abilities superior to those of the other dogs.
Buck, however, does not experience only raw nature. With John Thornton he returns to a more civilized existence. London’s dog stories shuttle between the poles of the domesticated and the wild, of the civilized and the natural. The Call of the Wild begins in a domesticated environment and ends in the wild. (Conversely, White Fang begins in nature and ends in civilization.) Thornton’s compassionate influence helps temper the savage ferocity Buck develops to survive in a crueler world. The wild instinct still remains. Buck’s love for Thornton compels Buck to be obedient, loyal, and altruistic, but his wild half keeps calling to him. Buck’s romp in the woods with the wolf that seems like a brother to him anticipates his complete surrender to nature when Thornton dies. In the end, Buck obeys the call of the wild.
The Call of the Wild suggests that the reader draw a corollary between the divided nature of Buck and that of every human being. Inspired by Darwin, London believed in the evolutionary continuity between animals and human beings. If human beings evolved from animals, then what exists on a lower level in animals must hold true on a higher level for human beings. London does not give Buck human qualities but suggests that animals and humans share common traits and experiences because of their evolutionary connection. Buck’s vision of the short-legged, hairy man sleeping restlessly near the fire symbolizes the primitive beast lurking within all civilized beings. Being an animal, Buck can completely surrender to his primitive half. London seems to celebrate the primordial throughout the book, lauding the “surge of life” Buck experiences when he hunts down prey, the “ecstasy” of tasting living meat and warm blood. For human beings the rift between nature and civilization is much more complicated. People cannot and should not revert completely to their animalistic ancestry. In White Fang, for example, human beings dominated by their primitive halves are degenerates and criminals. London deals more directly with this human struggle in The Sea-Wolf (1904), suggesting that for humans a balance between the brutish and the civilized is best.
Readers can also see how The Call of the Wild reflects London’s socialism. No single philosophical system satisfied London, so he accepted bits and pieces of many different, even contradictory ideas. When the ideas of Darwin or Nietzsche fell short in his estimation, those of Karl Marx seemed attractive. From a Marxist perspective, Buck can be interpreted as a representative of the oppressed, subject to the whims of cruel masters and their corrupt use of power. Under these brutal conditions Buck must do what he has to do to survive. He becomes a brute and a thief himself, struggling individually to fend for himself. Thornton’s benevolent, more equitable treatment encourages socialistic values in Buck. He cooperates with the other dogs, becoming productive and working for the good of the group. Without Thornton’s guidance Buck once again is left with his instinct for survival. Under corrupt power the Darwinian and Nietzschean principles of “survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” apply. Under such conditions, the primitive brute, the evolutionary residue of millions of generations, takes control out of necessity. With a less oppressive system, cooperation can flourish; the civilized half is nurtured and is able to contain the brute. Whether read as a demonstration of Darwinian ideas, an homage to Marxist socialism, or an engaging adventure, The Call of the Wild is considered by many critics to be the best of London’s dog tales. The story of Buck is the most popular of London’s many books.