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 who achieved world-wide fame during his lifetime. Best-known for The 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 as his most famous works, but it’s all an interesting look at the fights of the Left during that era. He was a big unionizer. He wrote a lot about class war. He had spent his formative years as a teenager bumming around, pan-handling, getting jobs on ships (on which he traveled as far away as Japan), working in canneries. He did attend high school but he was essentially self-educated, a voracious reader. He wrote for the high school newspaper about living through typhoons off the coast of Japan (not the usual high school essay topic). 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 San Francisco earthquake, so whether or not the two made it legal is still not known. London, while at Berkeley, wrote to this gentleman (who was 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 1. he was impotent, and 2. Your mama “got around,” son. It was this event that made London quit school and flee to the Klondike, following the gold rush of the 1890s, but also running away from his own problems and heart-break.
His time in the Klondike was formative (his best-known books come from that time) but it also destroyed his health. He developed scurvy (a condition that would have long-lasting effects on him). His career as a magazine writer started for real after he left the Klondike. He became involved in politics and activism. Like many people who grew up poor, he did not have grandiose ideas about his writing: His writing was his work, a way to make money, an escape from the drudgery of office work or the brutality of manual labor. London “came up” during the Golden Age of Magazines as well, and he benefited from the better/faster printing technologies, wider circulation, better mailing routes, all of the developments bursting forth in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Because of all of these factors, his work reached a mass audience in a way it might not have in a different era. He made a great living.
He died at home. Some think his death was a suicide. He had been living with unbearable pain from kidney stones.
The epitaph he chose for his gravestone was the first part of Psalm 118:22:
The Stone the Builders Rejected
(The second part of the Psalm, the part that completes it is “has become the capstone”, but that is not included on London’s tombstone. Much food for thought here in the choice of epitaph, not to mention the choice to EDIT it, as only a writer would.)
The 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 did not love all of the books I was forced to read then, but Call of the Wild captured my imagination. I remember the reading experience vividly. 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: Running free through the snow and howling at the moon sounds amazing, and he is 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 behave in this situation? Would I survive? Would I buckle under? How would I cope with all of that?”
You begin to realize that the journey of the book is that Buck becomes himself, his true self, over the course of events. That the tame Buck in the beginning was the lie, the falsehood. His domestic days were not the norm, they were an 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, the deep course of understanding within him that “This is the way we wolves are.” By the end of the book it is impossible to imagine Buck lying curled up in front of a fire and playing fetch. 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, something older than anything he has ever known. The destiny of 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 called What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown! This was a different sort of Charlie Brown than the other specials. Charlie Brown appears only briefly. Snoopy is the sole star. 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 “playing well with others” in this environment means you starve or die. This is a special for CHILDREN, remember. The whole special is deeply disturbing to our ideas of Snoopy. (There’s a clip below. Watch how he transforms in it. Look how big his teeth get, how huge his mouth gets when he roars). It’s disturbing on every possible level. It is a nightmare. God, I love the 70s. An era that was not afraid to freak out the children.
I probably watched this thing when I was 7, 8 years old. I didn’t know that what I was watching was an homage to Jack London’s book. I hadn’t read it yet. I was in 3rd grade. All I knew was that Snoopy had huge fangs and he was starving and cold and far from home and it WAS a “nightmare.” I ached for things to get back to normal.
A couple of years later, when I was much more sophisticated (i.e.: 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, read enough. It was a great moment for me. I discovered Call of the Wild for the first time, but making “the Snoopy connection” in my head was far more important. Because making connections like that is part of developing a critical mindset, an aware mindset, an awareness of the threads running through the culture. Making that connection – more so than any ponderous Foreword to the book, written by a scholar – let me know What a Big Deal the Book Was. Damn, if PEANUTS references 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.