Since this is my first contribution to something awesome that existed, and will continue to exist, long before/after my involvement, I should probably lead off with a little explanation for people reading who have never come across it before. Patti Abbott is one of my favorite bloggers; she keeps hers over at Pattinase, where she “looks at writing, books, movies, politics, life, music.” It really is a fantastic catch-all for a lot of really cool stuff, the coolest of which is Patti herself. Every Friday she collects essays/reviews from various writers (and other more socially-acceptable types) concerning “forgotten” books; books that maybe most people don’t know about, or have overlooked, etc. Some weeks ago she asked if I would like to contribute to it, and I was happy to say yes. So that’s what the story is behind this post.
The Call of the Wild (1903) is a classic book that anyone with any interest at all in American literature has heard about, and probably even read at one time; it is anything but a “forgotten” novel. When I started thinking about what book I wanted to approach this little project with, I struggled, and Jack London’s most recognizable work kept coming to mind. After all, it was easily my first favorite book, one I read multiple times in my youth, but one I had not read since my teens. So in choosing to re-read it after all these years, I was curious to discover if I had forgotten the very things that made me love it in the first place.
What I learned is that the only thing I’d forgotten was how much I really do love this book, and, as a graying man hobbling toward middle-age, even found new ways the story affected me.
What people are most likely to forget is the position Jack London has in the pantheon of American writers. Writer and fellow Missoulian Mark Sundeen wrote a great piece for The Believer magazine a couple years ago called The Man Who Would Be Jack London. Unfortunately the entire article is not available online, but here is an excerpt that shares some facts about Jack London that may surprise some folks:
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, E. L. Doctorow pronounced London “the most widely read American author in the world.” That’s right. More than Twain or Hemingway or Melville. Something of a literary footnote in his own country, Jack London is considered an emblematic American author in Japan, Russia, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. The Call of the Wild has been translated into eighty languages, more than any other American work. An Albanian anthology of American literature pictures Jack London along with Mark Twain on its cover. A collection of London stories in Russian sold 200,000 copies in the first printing. On his deathbed, Lenin asked his wife to read him a Jack London story.
At its simplest, this book isn’t even about humans. It is the story of Buck, a dog stolen from his soft, domestic home in California and delivered to the Klondike to be part of a dogsled team. Through his adventures he learns “the law of club and fang,” how to survive on cunning and savagery, and reconnects, essentially, with his ancient wolf self. He even learns about true love via his relationship with John Thornton. An edge-of-the-seat tale of adventure, the book packs a whole lot of epic in the short distance between covers, with memorable characters both canine and human. His vicious nemesis, Spitz. The surly pair of Dave and Sol-leks, two dogs that were only happy when pulling in their traces. The two French mail carriers, Francois and Perrault. And so on.
I grew up with big dogs as my companions. We had a large, white and black German Shepherd named Sinbad who was the guardian of our family, and for much of his reign we were joined on our adventures by a beefy doberman named Jonah. Sinbad was an undefeatable, heroic figure to me as a boy, and I remember seeing him as Buck. We were surrounded by vast acres of open field, and I would run about with my dogs, playing all kinds of imaginary games. By night, the yips and yowls of coyotes that denned in the slash piles up on the hillsides were evidence that this “call of the wild” was a real thing. For a dreamy bookworm of a kid, it was heady stuff.
Returning to The Call of the Wild as an adult, I smiled at the things I recognized as attractive to the younger me. But there was so much more, even beyond my renewed passion for all things adventure writing-related. Metaphorically, the book speaks to humanity’s disconnect from our wilder self. How we’ve grown complacent, soft, in the comfort we have surrounded ourselves with. The book reminds us of all that can be stripped away at a moment’s notice, and then what? Do we have it in us to remember these deeper, more primal truths, or will we be doomed to wither away and fall to those more fit to survive? Can we adapt and overcome, or will we be the foolish ones who fall through rotten ice to our deaths? Those are questions I ponder all the time, and the archetype of the man at home in the wilderness is one I strive to emulate, even as I feel — know — that I too lean too much on the comforts of 21st century, white-person-in-America living. It was a beautiful read. Exciting, yes, and ultimately humbling. It was also something of a wake-up call. Maybe I haven’t forgotten entirely that image of myself I have set before me, but a good, firm reminder is always welcome.
It is particularly welcome when it comes in the form of a great book.