Jack London was born John Griffith Chaney in 1876 and became a hugely successful American writer of fiction within his fairly short lifetime. I had absolutely no idea just how prolific he really was. He wrote about twenty novels, the most famous of these being The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea Wolf and Martin Eden. He also wrote a great many short stories, and many critics consider this form to be where his real talent as a writer lay. I can’t comment on these because I haven’t read any of the short stories. All I can say is that if this is so, and if White Fang and Call of the Wild are anything to go by, then they must be pretty splendid.
I’d completed White Fang (1906) before I started Call of the Wild (1903) - I didn’t check their chronology. Another thing I didn’t know is that Call of the Wild is considered his great masterpiece, and I can probably appreciate this; it is in some ways tighter and leaves the reader with a more haunting sense of ‘the wild’ that we have all evolved from. Both novels still make an impact on the reader even after just over a hundred years. In fact the only thing that dates either book is an occasional archaic word or phrase. London in both books manages to give the reader an insight into the instincts and thoughts that drive his animal lead characters without ever descending into any toe-curling anthropomorphism e.g. (to be spoken in cute children’s voices):
White Fang: Hi there. What are you?
Fluffy: (coyly) I’m a rabbit. What kind of animal are you?
White Fang: I’m a wolf. My name’s ‘White Fang’. What’s yours?
Fluffy: (A little more confidently) They call me ‘fluffy’.
White Fang: (giggles) That’s a funny name. Would you like to be friends, Fluffy?
Fluffy: More than anything in the World.
They are both equally page-turners. The books are like mirrored reflections and in this way complement each other; I can only imagine that this was London’s aim. Call of the Wild follows its canine main character Butch from his life of domesticated ease in North America through his abduction to the wilds of Alaska, suffering deprivation, human cruelty but some kindness too, up to the book’s conclusion when the ‘wildness’ in his being comes to the fore. The books speak to those instinctual voices buried deep in our genetic heritage, that are triggered and flicker to life at certain moments: when confronted by the sheer majesty of a virgin landscape untouched by man; the sight of a bird of prey in flight; the grace, agility and almost invisible stillness of wild creatures accidentally observed.
White Fang, the titular hero of the later book, takes an opposing but parallel path to Butch in Call of the Wild. White Fang is a wolf-dog, raised amongst wolves and slowly domesticated. He is brutalised by the human masters he encounters, and because of his wolf pedigree is despised and attacked by the huskies amongst which he is forced to live. He has become completely isolated, a savage loner by the time he is shown kindness for the first time by Weedon Scott. White Fang becomes entirely devoted to Scott and he refuses to be parted from him even when his master returns home to California from the Yukon. I suppose the ending might be considered by some to be a little sentimental and contrived; I found it perfectly agreeable and very satisfying, but then, I’ve never had much affection for the post-modern style ending.
These remain great books and thoroughly deserve their classic status.