My 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?