The Call of the Wild | Study Guide

Jack London

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Jack London | Biography


John Griffith Chaney, who later took the name Jack London, was born on January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. His mother was Flora Wellman; his father, William Chaney, was an attorney, journalist, and astrologer who deserted his family when Jack was an infant. Jack's mother married an American Civil War veteran named John London in late 1876. Soon the London family moved to Oakland. After finishing grade school, London decided to work rather than go to high school. He took a variety of jobs, including shoveling coal and patrolling the sea to catch people fishing illegally. Between jobs, he could often be found in a library, devouring novels and other books, including works by influential thinkers of the 19th century such as Herbert Spencer, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

During his later teens, London went on a seal-catching voyage to Japan, and his ship weathered a fierce typhoon. When he returned home, he entertained his mother with exciting tales about his journey. Flora suggested that Jack write down one of the stories and enter it in a writing contest. London did so and won first prize, beating out college students. Encouraged by winning the contest, he decided to become a professional writer. However, publishers showed no interest in his early works. As London endured long periods without work, he developed sympathy for the downtrodden. In 1894, he joined Kelly's Army, a group of workers protesting their unemployment, and he became an ardent socialist.

London was not satisfied with any one theory of social, economic, or biological system. London was impressed with the ideas of Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher in the late 19th century who coined the phrase, "survival of the fittest." Spencer was inspired by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection. In addition to Spencer and Darwin, London accepted some ideas from two other influential 19th-century philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Marx. Nietzsche wrote about a "will to power," in which individuals strive for self-perfection. Marx wrote about the advantages of individuals working in an associated, rather than in a competitive, way through cooperation, public ownership, or private management. From Marx's view, socialism's goal is freedom and independence for all individuals. In his own writings, London linked ideas about evolutionary adaptation with sociopolitical ideas of belonging and community. Thus, London's interest in socialism was a combination of evolutionary and political theories.

In 1897, out of work, London headed to the Yukon in northwest Canada to join the Klondike gold rush. Although he failed to gain a fortune in gold and suffered from scurvy due to his vitamin C deficiency, London amassed a wealth of stories to tell. After returning to California, he wrote a collection of stories set in the Yukon called The Son of the Wolf, which became a best seller in 1900. That same year, London married Bess Maddern. They had two daughters, but within a few years, their marriage fell apart.

In 1903, at age 27, London published the short novel The Call of the Wild, which instantly became a best seller and made him famous. The Call of the Wild tells the story of a dog named Buck who is kidnapped from his comfortable home in California and forced to work in the Yukon as a sled dog. During his experience in the wild, Buck reverts to his primal wolf nature. When writing the novel, London made extensive use of what he learned during his gold-rush days in the Yukon, such as how a sled-dog team works, how to pan for gold, and what life is like in boomtowns (towns that grow quickly due to sudden prosperity, such as those near gold or other precious resources). The far North also provides an excellent setting for the elemental struggle for survival and the idea that environment plays a strong role in development, both of which are central to The Call of the Wild.

After The Call of the Wild was published, many critics lauded London's bold, straightforward writing style, a sharp contrast to the more refined, subtle literary style of authors such as Henry James or the sentimental romances of the previous decade. Others, including President Theodore Roosevelt, criticized London for making the canine Buck behave and think like a human. To these critics, Buck's ability to reason and his strong love for John Thornton seemed unrealistic.

In 1905, two years after publishing The Call of the Wild, London married Charmian Kittredge, who shared his love of adventure and travel. The following year, London published White Fang, which reverses the process explored in The Call of the Wild by depicting a wolf that becomes domesticated. Like its predecessor, White Fang was a great success. In his lifetime, London wrote more than 50 works of fiction and nonfiction, hundreds of short stories, and many articles. Important works include The People of the Abyss (1903), a severe criticism of capitalism; The Sea Wolf (1904), a novel featuring a harsh, domineering hero; The Iron Heel (1908), a dystopian novel about a dictatorial government and a proletariat revolution; and John Barleycorn (1913), an autobiographical novel whose protagonist suffers from alcoholism, as London did for most of his life. London died of kidney disease on November 22, 1916, on his ranch in California.

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