Tribute to America's
Greatest World Novel
The Call of the Wild
A Centennial Tribute to America's Greatest World Novel
By Dr. Earle Labor
Wilson Professor of American Literature
Centenary College of Louisiana
According to Joan London, her father had intended to write The Call of the Wild as "a companion to [his] other dog story, 'Batard,'" hoping to redeem the species from the diabolical stigma that characterized his earlier cannine protagonist. In other words, he thought he had simply written a good dog story. When enthusiastic reviewers pointed out the allegorical and richly symbolic texture of what had grown from ordinary short story into marvelous novella, "he reread his book with astonishment," says Joan. "I plead guilty,' he admitted, but I was unconscious of it at the time. I did not mean to do it.'"
It would be thirteen years later—upon reading Dr. Beatrice Hinkle's just-published translation of C.G. Jung's Psychology of the Unconscious—before Jack London would become conscious of the deep source of his own creative genuis: the gift of what Jung calls "primordial vision" -i.e., the artist's ability to articulate mythic narratives through archetypal images or universal relevance of London's masterpiece. No other book has produced such a worldwide impact. "The call of the Wild is unique in its appeal to readers of all ages, social classes, and civilizations," explains Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin in her perceptive study of the novel as A Naturalistic Romance: "Since its publication in 1903, it has been the most widely read American novel in the world, and its fame is far from diminishing."
Indeed, far from diminishing, the novel's fame continues to burgeon. During 2003, several significant events commemorated the novel's one-hundreth anniversary: e.g., a one-hour program by the BBC, a four-month exhibit in Meadows Museum at Centenary College inaugurated by the Presidential Convocation featuring Jeanne Reeseman and Milo Shepard, and a most impressive literary highlight provided by veteran London scholar Earle J. Wilcox and his wife Elizabeth.
It has been more than two decades since Nelson-Hall published Earl Wilcox's Casebook on The Call of the Wild, an edition that comprised Background Sources, Reviews, Critical Essays, and Bibliography. Now, Houghton Mifflin Company (the publisher of Jack's first book) has included London's masterpiece-the Complete Text and Critical Essays- in its prestigious series of New Riverside Editions alongside such other major authors as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorn, Melville, Twain, James, Crane and Wharton. Clearly Jack London's great work has finally been rescued from what Leslie Fiedler has called "the ghetto" of litereary juvenilia and popular fiction. Paul Lauter, General Editor for the Series, could not have chosen scholars better fitted than the Wilcoxes for bringing Jack into this distinguished literary company. Their definitive text will prove indispensable to London aficionados and students alike (as testament, I should mention that I have selected it as required reading for my own students this next semester).
In addition to The Call itself, an excellent Introduction that surveys the scholarly and critical history of the novel, and useful bibliography, the Wilcoxes have reprinted "Batard," nine of London's letters (to Anna Strunsky, Cloudesly Johns, George Brett, and Houghton Mifflin, for example); a section on "Cultural Contents" (including excerpts from Franklin Walker's Jack London and the Klondike and Egerton R. Young's My Dogs of the Northland, a primary source for Jack's book); eight "Early Reviews" (plus London's letter in defense of charges that he had plagiarized from Young's book); and seven critical essays published during this past generation.
The "Early Reviews" are noteworthy for their remarkable insights. Johannes Reimers, for example, called the novel "a symhony-inspired by the most fundamental consciousness, which lives far back in-yes, beyond-man's civilization [sounding] the voice of the universe[and] the all-saving call from the fundamental to human souls." An anonymous reviewer cited the "fine spirituality. . . [the] cosmical atmosphere [and the] masterly description," concluding: "It is this which is the highest in literary art, as it is in music, in picturing and molding, to give the work the character, the superhuman strength and the delicacy of the indefinable something which stands far back in the highest human consciouness. Jack London's book, as it lies before me, seems audibly to breathe therewith, stirring the deepest longings for the lonely places where sounds the call of the wild." Bear in mind that Jung's theories of "racial memory," the "collective unconscious," and "archetypes and the human soul" had not yet seen American light of day.
Equally noteworthy is the fact that, except for Fred Lewis Pattee's commentaries during the 1920's, it would be more than a half-century before similar insights would surface again in Jack London criticism. Typical comments during the hiatus were those voiced by Harlan Hatcher, who decreed that "In spite of his immense popularity in America and abroad, Jack London's work is of minor importance in the development of our modern fiction"; by Frederick J. Hoffman, who dismissed Jack as "an interesting sideshow in the naturalist carnival"; and by Arthur Hobson Quinn, who-evidently having forgotten the violent classics of Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare et al.-wrote this premature death sentence: "It is almost certain that [London's] vogue is passing, for there is something impermanent in the very nature of the literature of violence."
As the seven "Critical Essays 1966-1996" selected by Wilcox clearly attest, London's major corpus is very much alive and well. Jay Gurian praises the artist's "fortunate stroke" of avoiding moral ambiguity by "creating a non-human hero" for his narrative. My own "Mondo Cane article, which originally appeared in the inaugural issue of Hensley Woodbridge's Jack London Newsletter, explains why the mythic bedrock upon which The Call is founded accounts for its artistic superiority to the "transitive" or discursive mode of White Fang. In his pioneering essay, Earl Wilcox points out that even though the "naturalism that characterizes [The Call] is not consistently developed," London was nevertheless "clearly writing for a popular audience that had no doubt about either his intentions or his accomplishments." Andrew Flink, in "The Call of the Wild: Parental Metaphore," traces the similarities as loving fathers between John Thorton (for Buck) and John London (for young Jack). Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin demonstrates that while The Call is a "naturalistic, a mythical, and an archetypal novel," it is also "a romantic book [in which] London created a world vibrantly alive [and through which his own] passionate love of life . . . communicates itself to even the most jaded reader." Christopher Gair asserts that "Although Buck's liberation appeals to the sentimentality of the popular reading public-seducing them into a belief in the 'natural' rightness . . . of their culture's moral crusade and generosity to others-the text's displacement of that public's appetite for violence and superstition onto other cultures simultaneously reminds us of the self-justifying nature of American imperialistic discourse." Buck's famous call "has more to do with a vocation or professional calling [ie., the author's] than some mysterious pull toward nature," Jonathan Auerbach argues in '"Congested Mails': Buck and Jack's 'Call'": "Burying his humanity, like a bone, deep within his animal-hero, London thus manages in his naturalist masterpiece to dramatize vividly his position as a writer laboring in capitalism's mass market without having to recognize himself as such."
In closing their Introduction, the editors of this handsome volume remark that "scholars of the novel everywhere owe a great debt to these innovative and creative minds that have ferreted out Jack London's predilictions and his prescience in such far-ranging and contemporary topics as gender-race, homosexuality, heterosexuality, humor, power, androgyny, and masculine identity." I might well add that scholars of the novel everywhere owe a comparable debt to Earl and Elizabeth Wilcox.
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