Is Jack London’s The Call of the Wild a stirring defense of Social Darwinism or a critique of American individualism? In the latest in Nathaniel Rich’s 'American Dreams' series, he reviews Jack London’s 1903 bestseller and sees the shadow of Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Spencer, and Darwin.
“Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing…”
Trouble is brewing all right, and the trouble begins in the first sentence of The Call of the Wild—a sentence that concludes by revealing the fact that Buck, Jack London’s hero, is a dog. Few American novels are as tenaciously (doggedly) allegorical as London’s “beast fable.” Although we know that dogs are imbeciles on the order of a pre-verbal toddler, Buck often behaves, and thinks, exactly like a man—a man, incidentally, much like Jack London himself. Buck may not read newspapers, but he understands words, laughs, and expresses himself so eloquently that his master “reverently” exclaims, “God! you can all but speak!” And Buck can think too: he “imagines,” “wonders,” “divines” and “reasons it out”; he hates with “a bitter and deathless hatred” and he “accepts…with quiet dignity.” He can even “flee from the defence of a moral consideration.” Try to teach your dog that trick!
The other person Buck sounds like is Theodore Roosevelt, who then was serving his first presidential term. In the title speech of The Strenuous Life (1901), an essay collection published the year he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley, Roosevelt urged America to embrace its “manly and adventurous qualities.” The country, he argued, needed to build a larger army, compete for sovereignty of the seas, and engage in foreign nation-building, beginning with the Philippines, over which it had gained control during the Spanish-American War. But it was not just the federal government that needed to man up: every American citizen should refuse to “shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil,” and strive for a life of “toil and effort, of labor and strife.” America, and Americans, should reject “the doctrine of ignoble ease” that had emasculated the nation.
“Ignoble ease” is a good description of Buck’s life when The Call of the Wild begins. He lives in Judge Miller’s big house in the “sun-kissed” Santa Clara Valley, surrounded by poplar-shaded lawns and pastures, long grape arbors, orchards, a swimming tank, and berry patches—dog paradise, in other words. Buck passes his days hunting with the judge’s sons. At twilight he accompanies the judge’s lovely daughters on long rambles. At night he falls asleep beneath the judge’s feet by the roaring library fire.
Paradise is lost when a gardener’s assistant kidnaps Buck from the property and sells him to dog traders. After a series of transactions and an encounter with a brutal “dog-doctor,” Buck arrives in Alaska. The Klondike gold rush is in full fever, and Buck joins a succession of dogsled teams hired by prospectors. Gradually, he is hardened by endless skirmishes with his canine rivals and the Yukon’s extreme natural conditions (“not too cold” is how London describes 50 below zero). Buck becomes impossibly strong, ferocious, and cunning. By the novel’s conclusion Buck is no longer a dog. He is a wolf, or perhaps something even more exalted: a god.
London called The Call of the Wild a “parable of buried impulses,” but Buck’s impulses are not buried very deep. Mainly he wants to kill:
The blood-longing became stronger than ever before. He was a killer, a thing that preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survived.
As might be clear from that last phrase, London was at the time a devoted disciple of Herbert Spencer, the British civil engineer who popularized the theory of Social Darwinism. (Spencer’s philosophy predated Darwinism—it was Spencer who coined “survival of the fittest.”) Social Darwinism would seem to be a philosophy ill-suited to Jack London, who ran for mayor of Oakland in 1901 and 1905 as a socialist. But The Call of the Wild, until the novel’s final line, channels both Spencer and Roosevelt as London tells the story of Buck’s ascension from docile pet to blood-lusting wolf. By the end Buck has been transformed into a monster—“the Fiend incarnate.” Even Cujo would whimper before him.
On nearly every page, as Buck overcomes his antagonists and bravely survives every trial set before him, London rhapsodizes the glories of virility.
Yet there is something unsettling about Buck’s triumph. As Robert Hass puts it in an essay about London (which appears in Hass’s new collection, What Light Can Do), “the idea that man, at his best, is a wild predator is a dangerous idea.” It’s the same idea that led Roosevelt to believe America should impose rule on the “savage anarchy” of the Philippines. And it is the same idea that comforted the Gilded Age’s most rapacious plutocrats, who used Social Darwinism to argue that their gargantuan success, built on the backs of poor laborers, was part of the natural order of things. “The growth of a large business is merely the survival of the fittest,” proclaimed John D. Rockefeller Sr., after reading Spencer.
The question is whether London meant his parable to serve as an endorsement of the strenuous life, or a criticism of it. For most of the novel there seems to be no question: London’s all for the strenuous life. On nearly every page, as Buck overcomes his antagonists and bravely survives every trial set before him, London rhapsodizes the glories of virility. London continues his approach into the novel’s final sentence—at least until the very last, baffling clause:
“When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, [Buck] may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.”
What to make of that—“the song of the pack”? After 80 pages of rugged individualism, of murdering his rivals and living “alone, by virtue of his own strength,” why should Buck suddenly take comfort in joining a gang of fellow wolves? Are we supposed to conclude that Buck is now beyond the struggles of life, and has entered some kind of dog pantheon, taking his place among a pack of dog-deities? Or does this sentence mark the resurfacing of London’s socialist instincts, after having been repressed for the entire novel? Perhaps it is simply a case—and there are many—of London’s lyricism getting the best of him, causing him to forsake meaning for grand gesture.
The Call of the Wild achieved instant success and remains one of the most beloved American novels. But Roosevelt, for his part, was unimpressed. He accused London of being a “nature faker.” “I don’t believe for a minute,” he complained to a reporter, “that some of these men who are writing nature stories and putting the word ‘truth’ prominently in their prefaces know the heart of the wild things.”
Roosevelt, it seems, had little taste for allegory, and misunderstood which “wild things” London was actually describing.
Other novels published in 1903:
The Enchanted Island of Yew by L. Frank Baum
The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox Jr.
The Ambassadors by Henry James
The Pit by Frank Norris
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Bestselling novel of the year:
Lady Rose’s Daughter by Mary Augusta Ward
About this series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2013. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon
1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell
1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell
1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux
1992—Clockers by Richard Price
2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain