Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
White Fang, London’s fifth novel, and was a best-seller. It is one of his many stories set in the Klondike, where London lived from 1897 to 1898. He went there in search of gold and was part of the last gold rush in North American history.
The years of London’s life, 1876 to 1916, were roughly the period in which America changed from a predominantly agricultural nation to an industrial one. London wrote the novel during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, who rigorously enforced antitrust laws to break up business monopolies such as U.S. Steel and Standard Oil. These monopolies had justified themselves by arguing that competition in business was like competition in nature in which the natural law was, in Herbert Spencer’s words, a matter of “survival of the fittest.” Spencer was a strong influence on London, who based his view of nature on Spencer’s ideas and on his own experience in the Klondike and as a sailor.
At the same time, there was a strong labor and socialist movement in reaction to the poverty of the working people. London wrote essays and gave speeches for the movement. Karl Marx was another strong influence on London, especially in emphasizing the transition of society from capitalism to socialism through violence. However, London’s devotion to the labor movement was always superficial; he was more interested in destroying the old society than in building a new one. His attitude was more nihilistic than humanitarian.
Friedrich Nietzsche also influenced London’s writing of White Fang with the idea of the superman (although in this instance it is a “superdog”) and of the worship of power. White Fang is strong enough to defeat almost all dogs in one-to-one combat. He is also intelligent enough to perceive that humans have more power than animals and that whites have more power than Native Americans. Here again, London’s racism, which was an embarrassment to his socialist colleagues, shows itself.