The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.
Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.
The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:
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. (The Call of the Wild)
And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:
The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)
Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.
But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.
The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).
I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):
The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.
Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.