Super-Mongrels of Indeterminate Breed
The team-dogs were swept back against the cliff at the first onset. Buck was beset by three huskies, and in a trice his head and shoulders were ripped and slashed. The din was frightful. Billee was crying as usual. Dave and Sol-leks, dripping blood from a score of wounds, were fighting bravely side by side. Joe was snapping like a demon. Once, his teeth closed on the fore leg of a husky, and he crunched down through the bone. Pike, the malingerer, leaped upon the crippled animal, breaking its neck with a quick flash of teeth and a jerk, Buck got a frothing adversary by the throat, and was sprayed with blood when his teeth sank through the jugular. The warm taste of it in his mouth goaded him to greater fierceness.
—Jack London, The Call of the Wild
Jack London’s The Call of the Wild was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1903 before being bound as one volume in a novella. Raised by a mentally unstable mother, London served in the San Francisco Bay fish patrol, criss-crossed the country as a hobo, and sought his fortune in the Klondike gold rush in the bitter northern cold of the Canadian Yukon before writing this story. But while London personally had little luck panning for the “yellow metal,” his fictionalized depiction of life in the Arctic announced his success as a writer on the world stage.
At the turn of the 20th century, dogs were prized in the harsh Northern climate because they were more durable and versatile than horses, where temperatures could plunge to 50 degrees below zero for weeks on end. The story follows the dog Buck, a Scotch Shepherd-St. Bernard mix, who is stolen from an idyllic life on a ranch in the “sun kissed” Santa Clara Valley by a gardener to pay gambling debts. Buck is shipped to the Arctic and he quickly receives his “introduction to the reign of primitive law” after his handler beats him senseless with a club. Humbled “but not broken,” he learns to pull the traces of a dog sled across frozen valleys and experiences the cruel, efficient hierarchy of the Huskies. He scraps with the meanest dogs and uses his cunning to survive while his companions fight stupidly to the death. As he is passed from owner to owner, “instincts long dead bec[ome] alive again” and he gradually begins to take pleasure in hunting animals and he seeks solace in the howls of the nearby wolf packs. By the end of the story, “every part, brain and body, nerve tissue and fibre, [is] keyed to the most exquisite pitch,” and the formerly pampered farm dog becomes a brutal and efficient killing machine, who bounds off into the wilderness to claim his place as the king of the backcountry, owing allegiance neither to human nor beast.
In the 1930s, The Call of the Wild was banned in Germany because Jack London’s socialist political leanings clashed with the ideology of the Nazis. Today the book is more likely to be banned for its depiction of animal cruelty and violence. Buck and the other sled dogs are harshly beaten by humans, and they themselves slash and tear at each others’ gullets with the “quick wolf snap.” One of the most disturbing scenes occurs when Buck’s traveling companion Curly, “a good-natured Newfoundland,” has her face “ripped open from eye to jaw” and is pounced upon by other dogs. But such violent scenes are essential to this bewitching story. Many writers in Jack London’s era had already described the Canadian gold rush at the time, such that when London pitched the story an editor complained that the topic was too commonplace. What makes this novella special is in the telling. The Call of the Wild is an adventure story that is driven forward by relentless, captivating action in the beautiful setting of the Yukon, where the aurora borealis “flam[e] coldly overhead”, and the “stars [leap] in the frost dance.” And London peppers the tale with fascinating details about traversing the ever-shifting snow in which frozen lakes and sheer ice chasms can kill dogs and humans alike at any moment.
The author also achieves two remarkable feats in the narrative. The first is that he personifies the dog Buck so that you convincingly follow the action from his point of view, yet he also allows us to listen in, like a snoop, to the conversations of Buck’s owners. So as a reader you are at once Buck and human, and somehow Buck’s thoughts seem consequential and the human thoughts feel petty and selfish. In a feat of dazzling storytelling, London also invites the reader to experience the Arctic by portraying three effete urbanites who buy Buck and attempt to drive his dog sled across the permafrost, seemingly for their own amusement. London almost delights in describing the asinine decisions of this trio, who overload their sled and try to cross melting snowdrifts, ultimately leading to their ignoble and violent deaths. His lesson: “this is how you would behave in the Klondike, dear reader in your cozy living room, and this is what the land would do to you. Now back off and let me tell the story, because this shit is way too dangerous for you.”
If there’s a more compelling reason to ban The Call of the Wild today than the animal cruelty, it might be found in the embedded racial codes. London, who was raised by a former African-American slave, litters the story with racist descriptions of humans that would enjoy little currency today: there are half-breeds (usually stupid and cowardly), a “toothless old squaw,” and, of course, the Yeehat Indians that Buck slaughters in revenge for the death of his last master. (No such tribe apparently existed.) And it is well documented that London was a virulent racist. No surprise, then, that D.W. Griffith directed the first screen version of The Call of the Wild, and later went on to film the Birth of a Nation, which trumpeted the Ku Klux Klan.
But despite these contemporary reasons to ban the book, as a writer I can’t help but confess that such stereotyping works in the text. In the gold rush that London portrays, the breed of each dog may ensure its survival. Huskies thrive and Newfoundlands perish. Yet Buck is himself a half-breed and the book concludes with him producing a sublime puppy mix amongst his adopted wolf pack: his offspring are part Buck and part wolf “with splashes of brown on head and muzzle, and with a rift of white centring down the chest.” If London wanted to write a story of eugenic supremacy, he failed, because Buck’s super-dog progeny become the ultimate rulers of the wild. What an inspiration for interracial people like myself! Go Buck!