The Call of the Wild

call of the wildMy daughter had some summer reading to do for her English class next year. She had to choose a “classic,” so she picked The Call of the Wild, by Jack London. I had actually never read it, nor anything else by London, so I decided to read it with her.

When Miranda finished it, she came in to see me. “What did you think?” I asked. “Well,” she said, and looked at me. I raised an eyebrow. “Well. It wasn’t the very best classic I’ve ever read.” And that, friends, is a fair assessment. It wasn’t terrible by any means, and there were some interesting things about it, but it was not the very best classic I’ve ever read.

The best and the worst thing about this book is that Jack London is ALL IN. He is a storyteller the way the Ancient Mariner is a storyteller, staring you in the eyes and not letting you go. He is going to tell you what it’s like to be a dog-turning-wolf in the Klondike if it costs him his sanity. First is he going to describe the impossible conditions that kill animals and men (and the very occasional woman):

A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

Can you feel it? Can you? CAN YOU. Then he is going to tell you about the dog’s emotions and motivations:

He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

All of this is wonderful if you are convinced by it, and embarrassing if you are not. I am not. London has a Darwinian-derived (but not really scientific) theory that there is something morally good about being the best, the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, the most cunning. I don’t subscribe to such a theory, and I’d be interested to hear Toni Morrison talk about London’s obsession with whiteness.

One observation: as I was reading this, it reminded me very strongly of Kipling. Part of it is the phrases like “the law of club and fang,” which could actually have been cribbed from Kipling, and part of it is the use of dialect, and part of it is the power of his storytelling. Maybe, too, there’s something about writing from outside mainstream society, where people engage in behavior they otherwise wouldn’t, and it becomes feasible to write from the point of view of an animal. Does he remind anyone else of Kipling?

In any case, he led a fascinating life and was an astonishing Socialist, but this didn’t make me want to go on and read a lot more of his work, I’m afraid. What about you?

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15 Responses to The Call of the Wild

  1. writerrea says:

    I keep meaning to read it. I read a bio about London (Wolf: The Lives of Jack London), and he himself was fascinating–what an interesting life.

  2. I read “The Call of the Wild” by London, in which a tame dog goes wild, and what I think has to be regarded as its companion piece, “White Fang,” in which a wolf becomes tame (what will you, there are funny rules about what you have to read for comprehensive exams in grad school! We also had to read H. Rider Haggard, who is as bad or worse than London). All of these books were apparently part of the average moderately well-educated person’s fare (or at least man’s, since I doubt that too many late Victorian-early 20th century women read adventure tales). Remote parts of Africa, Asia, the “frozen North,” anywhere distant enough that the reader could not impose too harsh a realistic standard on fiction supposedly realistic or naturalistic already, those where the chosen realms. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, of course, just voicing how I learned to regard them, and take them with a huge grain of salt. I agree with you and your daughter: sometimes all one can say about an author’s efforts is a strong, dubious, and resounding “Well.”

    • Jenny says:

      Haggard has got to be a hoot, though. Right? That’s right out of realism. I haven’t read any yet, but someday, someday.

      • One of the funniest bits of Haggard, and I can’t think of who called my attention to this, I had clean missed it, is that either in “She” or “King Solomon’s Mines,” the landscape is closely and carefully described, in such a way that it seems to mimic, suggest, portray, or otherwise delineate a shape like a woman’s private parts. Given the primitive attitude to women in general in Haggard, one wonders whether it was intentional (and therefore deliberately misogynistic) or just his subconscious working overtime. I wish I could remember which of the two books it’s in, but I’m sorry, I don’t. But when you get to them, you will no doubt see for yourself. You’re right, he’s a “hoot and a holler.”

  3. Amazing how little we – I, I mean – notice any of that “laughing wisdom of eternity” around the survival story and wolfpack fights and so on, which I read with avidity.

    It has been about a million years, otherwise, since I read the book. At one point, before I knew who Nietzsche and maybe even Darwin even were, much less what they had written, I had read quite a bit of London.

    How into dogs is your daughter? I remember the dog stuff as feeling right (caveat: memory from a million years ago).

    • Jenny says:

      I think she probably chose the book because it was about a dog, which, fair enough. The survival parts are the best parts, but then if you start to notice that the dog has many of the characteristics of a person, it breaks down at those bits too. There’s a dog fight where Buck, fighting with his head as well as with his survival instinct, uses “the old shoulder trick,” which dogs, you know, don’t actually do. But if you’re a kid, it goes over fine.

  4. Jeanne says:

    I think London might be one of those writers you need to read before a certain age in order to love him. My daughter was very into dogs and wolves, and she read this and White Fang when she was in fifth grade and loved it (also Julie of the Wolves).

    • Jenny says:

      Miranda’s going into 8th grade, and I think might have just-barely graduated from the ideas (but not the vocabulary! she complained a lot that it was hard to understand, especially the French-Canadian dialect.)

  5. lbloxham says:

    Tennyson: nature “red in tooth and claw.” Another source?

    • Jenny says:

      Undoubtedly! Part of the point of Call of the Wild is that this is the hardest imaginable life for men and beasts. Kill or be killed.

      I found the Kipling I was thinking of, and of course it’s the “Law for Wolves”:

      Now this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky,
      And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die.

  6. whatmeread says:

    The dog seemed to have some surprisingly sophisticated thoughts. A lot of anthropomorphism

    • Jenny says:

      I agree to some degree, though I think London tried to keep it from a dog’s perspective. It was the way the dog had complex thoughts about being at one with his environment, and dreams about human cave ancestors, that got to me. That was odd.

  7. readerlane says:

    I read this book first when I was ten and loved it, but rereading it recently, I’m mystified why — I can only think I read selectively–reading the parts about the dog and not the rest. Reading at that age I was used to skipping over parts that didn’t make much sense to me, including dialect. Can’t say he reminds me of Kipling, who is capable of nuance and subtlety, neither of which I found here…

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