Jack London’s fame as a writer came about largely through his ability to realistically interpret humanity’s struggle in a hostile environment. Early in his career, London realized that he had no talent for invention, that in his writing he would have to be an interpreter of the things that are, rather than a creator of the things that might be. Accordingly, he drew his plots, characters, themes, and settings from real-life experiences and published accounts.
London’s career as a novelist began shortly after the turn of the twentieth century with the publication of A Daughter of the Snows. It ended nineteen novels later with the posthumous publication of The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., in 1963. The novels vary widely in length, subject matter, and (especially) artistic quality, for while London could write bold, violent, and sometimes primitive short stories of immense power, depicting the frontier environment and the human struggle within it in memorable fashion, his novels oftentimes suffered from weakness of structure and excessive didacticism. London’s failure of invention, never a significant problem in his short stories, all too often surfaced in his longer works. Some critics have complained that a few of his novels (such as Burning Daylight) are not novels at all, but merely strings of short stories hung together by the merest contrivance.
London’s novels characteristically contain at least one of three different settings: the Canadian Northland, where he began his literary apprenticeship; the primitive South Seas and Hawaii, where his career began anew following a short decline; and the California wilderness—particularly the Sonoma Valley—where London retreated during the last years of his life.
Each novel also generally contains a philosophical focus. Popular at the time were Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, as interpreted by Herbert Spencer; Friedrich Nietzsche’s version of the superman, and, much later, the new psychology of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as well as Karl Marx’s theories of a new social order. All fired London’s imagination and provided fuel for his characters and plots, and their presence—particularly London’s version of the Darwinian survival of the fittest motif—lends credence to London’s claim for membership in the naturalistic school of fiction.
The Call of the Wild
London was at the height of his abilities when he wrote The Call of the Wild. He was dealing with the kind of subject matter, theme, and setting with which he was most comfortable. Written with vigor and intensity, the novel was intended originally as a companion story to “Batard,” an earlier short story. The story literally “got away from him,” as he explained in a letter to a friend, and he was forced to expand it to its present length. The book was written shortly after his return from the slums of the city of London. Wanting to escape the degradation and poverty he had witnessed there, London returned to the clean, frozen, beautiful world of the Northland, where the struggle for survival was elemental, uncomplicated, and fierce.
The story is that of a dog, Buck, who is kidnapped from his home on a California ranch and taken to the Yukon, where he is forced to pull heavily laden sleds for inhumane masters. To survive, Buck must adapt, falling back on primitive instincts. With domesticity stripped from him, Buck learns the ways of his ancestors; he learns the law of the club—that he will be beaten but will survive. Gradually, as he completes his initiation into the primitive, Buck learns to respond. He learns the law of the fang: that he must be quick to use his own fangs, before others use theirs on him. By adapting to his new environment, Buck survives, learns the instincts of his forebears, and finally, hears the true call of the wild.
Incredibly, London’s most successful novel was...
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- Critical Essays