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White Fang | Context

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Klondike Gold Rush

One of the greatest gold rushes in history began in August 1896 when three young men discovered gold in the Yukon, a wild, mountainous, and unpopulated area of northwestern Canada. The following year, thousands of gold prospectors poured into the Northland with hopes of striking it rich. However, many men's dreams were thwarted by disease, murder, and suicide, which ravaged the shabby tent towns housing thousands of desperate prospectors.

London traveled to the Yukon in 1897 for a few months before developing scurvy, a Vitamin C deficiency. The horrific sickness and death around him bolstered London's belief that in nature, only the strongest survive. Later, London wrote of the experience in "Which Make Men Remember": "The horses died like mosquitoes in the first frost, and from Skaguay to Bennett they rotted in heaps."

To make the trek into the Yukon, where more than a ton of gold was said to be buried, many prospectors used sled teams to transport their heavy supplies. The trials of running a dog sled as well as the relationships London built with the animals were primary inspirations for both The Call of the Wild and White Fang. By August 1898 most of the 100,000 prospectors returned home completely broke, London included. Writing of the scurvy that left him in debilitating pain, London said, "I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy," but this wasn't entirely true. He also came home with wild stories of the ruthless terrain and the fierce animals that survived there. Many critics say his experiences in the Klondike, an area of the Yukon near the Klondike River, are what forged London into an author.

Darwinism

London was deeply inspired by biologist Charles Darwin's theories of evolution, which dominated the scientific world at the time of London's birth. Darwin was interested in how modern humans might have evolved from other organisms or descended from a common ancestor. London was particularly interested in the related idea of social Darwinism, in which only the strongest survive "natural selection" to pass their superior genes to the next generation. This idea yielded the well-known phrase "survival of the fittest."

This struggle for survival is a dominant motivator for White Fang. More than any other animal in the story, White Fang is determined to survive regardless of his hostile surroundings. In this novel, White Fang survives mistreatment by adapting to civilization. However, London did not advocate civilization as the sole means for survival. In contrast, Buck in Call of the Wild (1903) survives by abandoning civilization and embracing the wild. While the two novels seem to put forth opposing arguments, the common thread is adaptation. Because White Fang and Buck are fit for survival, they are equipped to adapt to their environments as needed.

Naturalism

Many critics praise White Fang—and most of London's other works—for its representation of naturalism, a literary technique which seeks to establish scientific observation of the world. Naturalism grew out of the realist's desire to hold a mirror to the world. However, the naturalist wants to do so with the objectivity of a scientist, without commentary.

Adhering to the naturalist characteristic of distance, London wrote about White Fang's experiences objectively, without sentimentality. His objectivity wasn't enough for some critics, however, who claimed White Fang was too personified to truly belong to the genre. One such critic was President Theodore Roosevelt, who called the fight between White Fang and Cherokee "the very sublimity of absurdity." In response, London argued, "I endeavored to make my stories in line with the facts of evolution; I hewed them to the mark set by scientific research, and awoke, one day, to find myself bundled neck and crop into the camp of the nature-fakers."

London was also captivated by the naturalist idea that humans are not controlled by fate or free will but by instinct. A combination of environment, genes, and biology dictate destiny. Because this idea is animalistic, London often chose to feature animals as main characters, suggesting the primacy of primitivism over civilization. However, the character of White Fang is influenced by the traits of both the wild wolf ancestor and the tame domestic dog. It is the environment that dictates which force will yield the greatest opportunity for survival.

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