Books on Tap read The Call of the Wild (other editions available) by Jack London at Champion Brewery on January 4. It was the perfect chilly night to discuss a book set in the Yukon. A short, spirited classic about the conversion of a pet dog into a wild, independent creature, it was either a re-read or vaguely familiar to all participants. In it, Buck, a large pet dog, is stolen and sold away from a California ranch to traders in Canada during the gold rush. Beaten into submission, he quickly adapts and then thrives as a sled dog. Eventually, he becomes fully feral and a legend in the woods. Inspired by London’s participation in the Klondike Gold Rush, the story was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and built on his earlier success with The Son of the Wolf.
The novel is told from Buck’s perspective, if not in his voice (see the title of this blog for a possible reason why). This choice by London intensifies Buck’s transition from pet to creature of the wild and cranks up the dramatic tension. For instance, we the reader understand why Manuel sells Buck from the ranch in California but come to understand later that Buck was more loved as a working animal with John Thornton on the trail than he ever was as a pampered pet. However, this style of narration did open up London to accusations of anthropomorphizing. Both Teddy Roosevelt and naturalist John Burroughs accused him of creating animals who were “men in fur.” London answered that The Call of the Wild and White Fang were instead “a protest against the ‘humanizing’ of animals,” and that they were motivated not by reasoning but by “instinct, sensation, and emotion, and by simple reasoning.”
According to one interpretation, the characters can be seen as political figures, a la Orwell’s Animal Farm. In that reading, the man in the red sweater is a stand-in for the USSR. It certainly succeeded as a non-political tale. None of the readers around the table were particularly struck by the political interpretation, we pick up on the influence of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (one of two books autodidact London took into the the Yukon, the other being Milton’s Paradise Lost). The brutal survival-of-the fittest ethos is vividly captured in scenes in which Buck fights both men and beasts making us wonder if the novel would be as heavily marketed to children if it were released today. Having read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in November, we compared the two self-consciously masculine writers. London won on all counts: description, emotion and heart.
We decided that the real antagonists were not the greenhorn America trio of Hal, Charles and Mercedes but Spitz. Buck has an actual relationship with Spitz and it is during their vicious fight that Buck first responds to that wild call. Mercedes is the only named female in the novel and she and the other two (an Indian and a sled dog) have one purpose: to give aid.
The call of the wild was a true physical pull, inspiring London to the most beautiful writing in the book. He evokes primordial humans and basic instinct in evocative language. Buck’s instincts quickly season him to life on the trail and prime him to hear that call, which hark back to those early humans and set up a cyclical relationship in which dogs are domesticated and made wild repeatedly. Buck’s own cycle of abuse on the trail is broken by this call. He is first aided by John Thornton, who of all the humans on the trail is the least ‘civilized’ and most respectful of Bucks strength and intelligence. Thornton is both a stand-in for London and an archetype of a frontiersman.
One reader thought the ending was unearned, in that Buck thrives while most of the dogs he worked with died. However, others thought that the end the story has become a myth and Buck a legend.
About the author and book
Maps of Alaska and the Yukon and Gold Rush routes
“Atavism” by John Myers O’Hara
Other works by London
Movie adaptations : 1935 (Clark Gable, Loretta Young), 1972 (Charlton Heston), 1997 (made-for-TV)
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
The Tiger: The True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Books on Tap Information:
- Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (February 1)
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander (March 1)
- Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt (April 5)
- We the Animals by Justin Torres (May 3)
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