Jack London was born on this day, January 12, 1876. Happy birthday to the man who wrote:
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
Jack London was a magazine writer, and achieved world-wide fame (during his lifetime) for his writing. Best-known for Call of the Wild, White Fang, and To Build a Fire, he had a robust and busy career as a reporter and social activist. Some of that stuff does not time-travel as well, but it is certainly an interesting look at the fights of the day, on the Left. He was a big unionizer, and wrote a lot about class war. He was a socialist. He had spent his formative years as a teenager bumming around, basically, getting jobs on ships (that took him as far away as Japan), working in canneries, and pan-handling. He did attend high school but he was essentially self-educated, a voracious reader. He wrote for the high school newspaper, about his experiences in typhoons off the coast of Japan, not the usual high school affair. He was determined to go to Berkeley and after busting his ass on the entrance exams and applications, he got in.
But London always kept a foot in the wild side. While attending Berkeley, he hung out in saloons frequented by sailors and pirates and rough trade. These were his people. He would end up writing about all of them.
He grew up not knowing who his father was. His mother had been living with a man prior to his birth, but all records (of any kind) were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, so whether or not the two made it legal is still not known. London, while at Berkeley, wrote to this gentleman (an astrologer, then living in Chicago), and inquired if he might be his father. The man replied bluntly that this could not be the case, as he was physically impotent, and it was also well-known that London’s mother basically “got around”. Jack London was crushed. It was this event that made him quit school and flee to the Klondike. He was following the gold rush of the 1890s.
His time in the Klondike was clearly formative: most of his best-known works come from that time. But it destroyed his health. He developed scurvy which would have long-lasting effects. His career as a magazine writer started for real after he left the Klondike. He became involved in politics and activism, and, like many people who grew up poor, he did not have grandiose ideas about his writing: His writing was his work, his way to make money, his escape from the drudgery of office work. This was the golden age of magazines, as well, and he benefited from the development of printing technologies (along with other benefits, such as better circulation, better mailing routes, all of the things that were bursting forth in the wake of the Industrial Revolution). His work reached a mass audience. He made a great living.
Some think his death was a suicide. He had been living with unbearable pain from kidney stones. He died at home.
The epitaph he chose was the first part of Psalm 118:22:
The Stone the Builders Rejected
(The second part of the Psalm, the part that completes the sentence is “has become the capstone”, but that is not included on London’s tombstone. Much food for thought there.)
Call of the Wild was one of those books I was forced to read in 8th grade (not even 10th or 11th grade, but 8th grade!) and absolutely LOVED. I was also forced to read The Red Badge of Courage in 8th grade, which I decidedly did NOT love, but Call of the Wild captured my imagination. It scared me. I remember being afraid of the wildness of the wolves and wanting Buck to go back home where he could be safe and warm. But then I also remember thinking: You know what? Running free through the snow and howling at the moon isn’t too shabby either. He’s doing what he knows best. But still: the transformation Buck has to go through, from a domestic pet to a wild pack-dog (and not just the wild pack-dog, but the leader of the pack) was fascinating to me. I was 12 years old, and I clicked with it. (Kudos, London.) I kept thinking, as I read it, as each chapter went on, “It’s not too late for someone to save him … someone needs to swoop down and save Buck … he can still go back!” But eventually there comes a point of no return. And Buck must get strong and alpha or he will not survive. It is as clear as the nose on his beautiful face what he must do.
There are lessons in this for all of us. It’s a brilliant book. It’s about animals, but the entire time I read it I kept inserting myself into Buck and wondering, “How would I do in this situation? How would I cope with all of that?”
You begin to realize that Buck is actually becoming himself, his true self, you begin to realize that his domestic days were the unnatural respite: being wild is who he really is. And it’s not just about who he really is: it’s a cellular memory of his own species, his deep course of understanding that “This is the way we wolves are.” By the end of the book it is incomprehensible to imagine Buck lying curled up in front of a fire and playing fetch with a little boy. Buck has not “reverted”. He has inhabited his true destiny. He is not a conscious animal, at least not in the way human beings are conscious. He does not reflect. But he knows that the sound of the pack calls something up in him, something primal and OLDER than anything he has ever known. The destiny of his biology.
There was something else that helped me click with Call of the Wild at such a young age. In the late 70s, there was a Charlie Brown TV special (different from all the rest of them) called What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! No other Peanuts characters are in it but Charlie Brown (briefly) and Snoopy. In it, Snoopy is, like Buck, taken from his cozy dog house and thrust into the wild life of being a Klondike sled dog. He, like Buck, must learn to fight for his food (or he won’t eat), he must learn to dominate the other dogs, because you cannot “play well with others” in this environment and survive. The whole special is deeply disturbing to our ideas of Snoopy (watch how he transforms in the clip below: look how big the teeth get, look how huge his mouth gets when he roars), and disturbing in general. This was a KIDS’ special. God bless the 1970s. For freaking out the children.
I didn’t know that what I was watching was an homage to Jack London’s book. All I knew was that Snoopy had huge fangs and it was such a terrifying world he was launched into … would things ever get back to normal?
A couple of years later, when I was much more sophisticated (ie: 12 years old), I read Call of the Wild and felt like the smartest person who had ever LIVED because I made the connection in my head: “OMG, that Charlie Brown movie was actually Call of the Wild!!” It was one of those moments of brain-growth, where you realize that the adults know something you don’t, that there are worlds of connections and references out there that you have no access to yet … but you will someday. If you learn enough, grow enough. It was a great moment, I remember it vividly. Yes, I was discovering Call of the Wild for the first time, but making “the Snoopy connection” in my head was far more important in terms of letting me know What a Big Deal the Book Was than the blurb on the back of the book. Damn, if Peanuts is referencing it, then it MUST be a famous book!
Here is one of my favorite excerpts from Call of the Wild.
EXCERPT FROM The Call of the Wild by Jack London
In the days that followed, as Dawson grew closer and closer, Buck still continued to interfere between Spitz and the culprits; but he did it craftily, when Francois was not around. With the covert mutiny of Buck, a general insubordination sprang up and increased. Dave and Sol-leks were unaffected, but the rest of the team went from bad to worse. Things no longer went right. There was continual bickering and jangling. Trouble was always afoot, and at the bottom of it was Buck. He kept Francois busy, for the dog-driver was in constant apprehension of the life-and-death struggle between the two which he knew must take place sooner or later; and on more than one night the sounds of quarrels and strife among the other dogs turned him out of his sleeping robe, fearful that Buck and Spitz were at it.
But the opportunity did not present itself, and they pulled into Dawson one dreary afternoon with the great fight still to come. Here were many men, and countless dogs, and Buck found them all at work. It seemed the ordained order of things that dogs should work. All day they swung up and down the main street in long teams, and in the night the jingling bells still went by. They hauled cabin logs and firewood, freighted up to the mines, and did all manner of work that horses did in the Santa Clara Valley. Here and there Buck met Southland dogs, but in the main they were the wild wolf husky breed. Every night, regularly, at nine, at twelve, at three, they lifted a nocturnal song, a weird and eerie chant, in which it was Buck’s delight to join.
With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. It was an old song, old as the breed itself – one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living that was so old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.
Seven days from the time they pulled into Dawson, they dropped down the steep bank by the Barracks to the Yukon Trail, and pulled for Dyea and Salt Waters. Perrault was carrying despatches if anything more urgent than those he had brought in; also, the travel pride had gripped him, and he purposed to make the record trip of the year. Several things favored him in this. The week’s rest had recuperated the dogs and put them in thorough trim. The trail they had broken into the country was packed hard by later journeyers. And further, the police had arranged in two or three places deposits of grub for dog and man, and he was traveling light.
They made Sixty Miles, which is a fifty-mile run, on the first day; and the second day saw them booming up the Yukon well on their way to Pelly. But such splendid running was achieved not without great trouble and vexation on the part of Francois. The insidious revolt led by Buck had destroyed the solidarity of the team. It no longer was as one dog leaping in the traces. The encouragement Buck gave the rebels led them into all kinds of petty misdemeanors. No more was Spitz a leader greatly to be feared. The old awe departed, and they grew equal to challenging his authority. Pike robbed him of half a fish one night, and gulped it down under the protection of Buck. Another night Dub and Joe fought Spitz and made him forego the punishment they deserved. And even Billie, the good-natured, was less good-natured, and whined not half so placatingly as in former days. Buck never came near Spitz without snarling and bristling menacingly. In fact, his conduct approached that of a bully, and he was given to swaggering up and down before Spitz’s very nose.
The breaking down of discipline likewise affected the dogs in their relations with one another. They quarrelled and bickered more than ever among themselves, till at times the camp was a howling bedlam. Dave and Sol-leks alone were unaltered, though they were made irritable by the unending squabbling. Francois swore strange barbarous oaths, and stamped the snow in futile rage, and tore his hair. His lash was always singing among the dogs, but it was of small avail. Directly his back was turned they were at it again. He backed up Spitz with his whip, while Buck backed up the remainder of the team. Francois knew he was behind all the trouble, and Buck knew he knew; but Buck was too clever ever again to be caught red-handed. He worked faithfully in the harness, for the toil had become a delight to him; yet it was a greater delight slyly to precipitate a fight amongst his mates and tangle the traces.
At the mouth of the Tahkeena, one night after supper, Dub turned up a snowshoe rabbit, blundered it, and missed. In a second the whole team was in full cry. A hundred yards away was a camp of the Northwest Police, with fifty dogs, huskies all, who joined the chase. The rabbit sped down the river, turned off into a small creek, up the frozen bed of which it held steadily. It ran lightly on the surface of the snow, while the dogs ploughed through by main strength. Buck led the pack, sixty strong, around bend after bend, but he could not gain. He lay down low to the race, whining eagerly, his splendid body flashing forward, leap by leap, in the wan white moonlight. And leap by leap, like some pale frost wraith, the snowshoe rabbit flashed on ahead.
All that stirring of old instincts which at stated periods drives men out from the sounding cities to forest and plain to kill things by chemically propelled leaden pellets, the bloodlust, the joy to kill – all this was Buck’s, only it was infinitely more intimate. He was ranging at the head of the pack, running the wild thing down, the living meat, to kill with his own teeth and wash his muzzle to the eyes in warm blood.
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew and that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.