THE FIRST PERIOD of Jack London's fiction clearly indicates the ways in which both his personal experiences and his reading shaped his outlook. Though London had been writing and sending his stories to publishers for some time, not until December, 1899, when Houghton Mifflin offered him a contract for his first volume of short stories, did he gain any recognition. The first collection, The Son of the Wolf (1900), outlined the plots, introduced the characters, and announced the themes that were later to give London a title of which he was proud. “The Kipling of the Klondike.” The stories tell of man's attempts to survive the forces of nature, the threat of savages, and the competition with other fortune seekers in the north country. In The God of His Fathers (1901), London was eager to show that he could vary his themes, though keeping them essentially the same as in the first collection: the survival of the fittest, the deterministic orientation of the universe, and the superiority of the inevitable white man. In his first novel, A Daughter of the Snows (1902), London used his first opportunity to explore in some detail the ideas he had introduced in the short stories. When the novel proved an inept vehicle for London's talents at this point in his career, he turned again to the stories, exploring the same general theses in Children of the Frost (1902).
“The White Silence” introduced London's hero of the Yukon and the Klondike, the Malemute Kid. The story also introduced the dominant philosophical and stylistic patterns that characterize not only the stories and the novel of this first period of London's career but of the whole range of his fiction. Undoubtedly London's most secure position in American letters rests on the quality of these early stories. For even the first one he shows his talent for developing a relationship between theme and character as he places man in the presence of the White Silence:
This description of environment is significant primarily because London's naturalistic heroes must cope with it in order to survive. The inter-relationship between man and nature is of central importance in London's fiction, even as it had been in Crane's Maggie where the city overcomes Maggie. For as Darwinian “animals,” the characters in London's northland stories learn that they must adapt to the environment or be subdued by it. This relationship is clearly outlined in the beginning of “In a Far Country.”
As a prelude to an “inevitable” battle between the Red Man and the White Man in a later story in the same collection, a similar setting in all its naturalistic splendor is detailed:
The Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest is carefully woven into this pattern of man's struggles. In no less than ten of the first twenty-five stories the survival motif dominates the action, and it is implicit in almost all of the others. Although in later stories and a novel London was to expand the survival thesis to include species generally, in these first stories the emphasis primarily is that of survival of the individual.
In “The White Silence” Malemute accompanies a man and his wife through the Yukon in an attempt to get to civilization before Spring. But the hostile environment overcomes Mason, the traveler, in the form of a huge tree which falls on him. Nature plays the same trick on a group of travelers in “In a Far Country.” Some of the voyageurs make the trip safely back to civilization, but two men from the “older” civilization remain behind and fail to survive because of their inability to adapt to the environment.
In these stories London makes clear that the “law of survival” permeates all levels of existence. For when Malemute's dogs weaken in their traces, the stronger dogs devour the weak. And when the dogs are unable to subsist on their own ration, they turn to men in order to survive. After Mason dies, Malemute tries to find food for himself and the woman, only to return to discover the dogs attacking. Darwinian survival is stated in its simplest terms.
Indeed, only the fittest survive either nature's or man's attacks.
The affinity between man and dog is no mere accidental relationship to suggest that both obey laws of survival. In the evolutionary scheme of things both obey such laws because both are part of the evolutionary process. Man is merely a high-order animal, and his survival, his progress toward a higher state, is dependent upon his adaptability. In the northland, environmental and hereditary traits are more forcefully evident because of the heightened struggle. And under stress, man shows his latent animal traits — his atavism — and reverts to that state. The allusion to “son” in “The Son of the Wolf” is probably meant, therefore, to convey that Scruff Mackenzie, the protagonist, is a descendant of some earlier animal form, or simply that his survival indicates his animal nature. London describes Mackenzie as a true product of the wild:
The survival-oriented plot involves Mackenzie's desire to have Zarinska, an Indian maiden, for his wife. To win her he must fight Fox, the medicine man, who has been claiming that his black magic can subdue the white man's. Finally the two engage in physical battle in a fight for survival. The entire fight is a re-enactment of the survival motif:
And in the final stages of the struggle, when Mackenzie is winning, the true son of the wolf emerges:
The atavism in Mackenzie is yet a latent characteristic of the “civilized” man. Precisely the same theory is propounded in the death of the two survivors in “In a Far Country,” for when at last they have been overcome by the White Silence (environment) their true nature is evident: “What with the Fear of the North, the mental strain, the ravages of the disease, they lost all semblance of humanity, taking on the appearance of wild beasts, hunted and desperate.”6 Thus the survival tendency is pictured as inherent, as animal instinct. The implicit materialism in this view of a biological assumption is the central idea also in “Jan, the Unrepentant” in the same collection. Having been found guilty of killing a man, Jan flees, and during the pursuit his instinct for survival seems to give him courage:
This ubiquitous survival thesis takes on protean forms in London's early stories. For examples, not only is man forced to do battle with nature, with animals, with other white men to survive, the Red Man also provides added challenge. Though the Red Man-White Man encounters are given trite portrayal in London's stories, the central significance is in providing for another dimension of the survival themes. In “God of His Fathers,” whose setting we have noted earlier, the struggle is intensely dramatized in a familiar naturalistic pattern. Hay Stockard, a white man, hopes to live in the Yukon. But his arch-enemy, Baptise the Red (an Indian), will not let him, primarily because Baptise wants Stockard to admit that there is no God. An open struggle is precipitated by the appearance of Sturges Owen, a missionary priest. Stockard, married to an Indian girl who is now the mother of his child, and Baptise are continuing their debate when Owen arrives. Baptise refuses to let Owen preach to him, though he is willing for the priest to pass safely through the country. Owen is adamant: he will stay and preach to the "heathen." Though he despises Owen, Stockard vacillates between his desire to let the priest be killed and his inclination to help defend him against Baptise. It is Owen, the cowardly priest, whom London disparages, for in the battle — a futile one in which the wife, the child, and several others are killed — Owen muses on his materialistically-oriented impulse to live in the knowledge of the martyrdom he could achieve. There is little that is admirable in Owen's death; in fact, the story's ending seems to imply that the priest has been foolish in dying for a cause which apparently means very little to him except as it will bring him some personal glory.
The most original aspect of the struggle between the White Man and the Red Man as introduced in these first stories is London's belief in the superiority of the White, Anglo-Saxon race. This thesis, which is a dominate and pervasive one in all London's later fiction, is proclaimed as part of the survival theory. While not Darwinian in origin, the theory is at least Darwinistic, stressing the survival of the species as it adapts to its environment. Scruff Mackenzie, the son of the wolf, is the first character in London's fiction to voice the belief in white supremacy. After Mackenzie has won his mate, he proudly proclaims that his “people . . . are the mightiest of all the peoples, who rule all the lands . . . .”7 And the corollary law of the wolf is “whoso taketh the life of one wolf, the forfeit shall ten of his people pay.” (Ibid.)
While the theme is merely hinted at in Mackenzie's brief statement, London uses one entire story to focus on his concept. In “The Great Interrogation” Karen Sayther is London's spokesman for the “new” civilization, for the Anglo-Saxon. Ostensibly Mrs. Sayther has left a comfortable estate in the city to come to the Yukon on an unknown errand. The “interrogation” into which the citizens of the territory are drawn is in wondering why Karen has come. It is shortly revealed that before her sudden marriage to the late Colonel Sayther, Karen had been engaged to David Paine, the hero of the story. She now lives with an Indian maiden and is caught in the matrix of deciding between the two ways of life. He recognizes that Karen has earlier deserted him for Colonel Sayther's money: the materialistic ideals of civilization were evident in the Colonel. Paine thinks of this, wondering, “What was he? A great, gross, material creature, deaf to song, blind to beauty, dead to the spirit. He was fat with laziness, and flabby-cheeked, and the round of his belly witnessed his gluttony—.”8 But Karen dismisses David's charges and pleads with him on the basis of their anthropological ties.
David then considers the alternatives, civilization or the primitive North:
While the final outcome of the story argues not for a victory for the “dominate, evolved race” (since David chooses not to return with Karen), London still asserts that the Anglo-Saxon species has evolved to its superiority through its struggle for survival. In a later story in Children of the Frost, written in this first period of his career also, London pictures Avery Von Brunt as he nears an Indian village with the same Anglo-Saxon consciousness: “He, alone, was full-blooded Saxon, and his blood was pounding fiercely through his veins to the traditions of his race. Clive and Hastings, Drake and Raleigh, Hengest and Horsa, walked with him.”9
But London is not content with asserting the white supremacy through the voice of his white men; he must also depict the Red Man's coming to the same conclusion. Thus the “Law of Life” for an old Indian chieftain, Koskoosh, is that a Darwinian biological concept explains the way of all flesh and the evils visited upon it. In a resigned mood of despair, Koskoosh laments his defeat:
The “law” is, of course, the “natural” law of the white man's supremacy. Another grand old chieftain comes to precisely the same conclusion about natural selection. In “The League of Old Men,” Imber tells a white man's court of his attempts to eradicate the white man before he destroyed Imber's civilization. In the end Imber's people are defeated, for it is the “Anglo-Saxon who have the custom of . . . giving the law to conquered peoples, and oft-times this law is harsh.” (Ibid., p. 143) At last unable to fight because of his age, Imber has come to the city to tell his story and to acknowledge the “law.” He laments, “I am very old, and very tired, and it being vain fighting the Law, as thou sayest. . . .I am come seeking the Law.” (Ibid., pp. 159-160) The white man's law fuses again with the laws of nature in Imber's dim mind as he sits in rapturous contemplation of the inevitable forces that control his life:
In these stories London asserts the Kiplingesque myth of the superior White Race, but he also adapts it to a naturalistic framework. For the survival thesis is clearly Darwinian in import. Too, the tone in which the survival and natural selection principles are adumbrated is obviously naturalistic. In “The Men of Forty Mile,” for example, London explains that life in general is explainable in terms of a deterministic framework. In the story the same Scruff Mackenzie is a central figure in a brief struggle with another white man. It is the Malemute Kid, however, who glibly voices a naturalistic assumption in noting that men should understand that life itself is a gamble, a kind of game with no predictable outcome. Thus after attempting unsuccessfully to settle an argument between two men, the Kid concludes: “So you see we do not actually take away the privilege of fighting; and yet I don't believe they'll fight when they see the beauty of the scheme. Life's a game, and men the gamblers.”10 Furthermore, London adheres to the technique he has outlined before when in the same stories he depicts the Indians expressing the same kind of pessimism in reacting to a deterministic pattern of survival. Sitka Charley, the Indian hero who appears in many of the tales of this early period, tells of his taking a long journey with a white man and woman. Ostensibly, the story is about “The Grit of Woman,” but it finally develops into a philosophical soliloquy in which Charley muses on the deterministic orientation of the universe. The plot, a typical one for London, concerns a white man's great love for his Indian squaw and their many years of hardship in the north. But the couple is finally to be defeated by nature, and the narrative centers around their demise, described in language reminiscent of the meaning of “The White Silence.” In the story both the hero and his wife are overcome by their environment. But before the narrator dies, he asserts the pessimist's creed: life, which must be viewed materialistically, is futile and meaningless:
What is not accomplished in Charley's statement is captured in fuller measure in the clearest philosophical statement of determinism in the early stories. Like Malemute Kid's earlier declaration that life is a game, Fortune La Perle, the protagonist of “Which Make Men Remember”, comes to the same pessimistic conclusion. Fortune, who is accused of murdering John Randolph, is befriended by Uri Bram. Uri hides Fortune from authorities, and while spending the many days waiting to come out of hiding, the outlaw meditates on his destiny. Obviously allegorizing the man's name for thematic impact, London portrays Fortune as feeling that Fortune's own account of how he came to murder Randolph is enunciated in classic deterministic terms.
Finally, Uri and Fortune decide to draw cards to see who will shoot first in a duel through which Bram seeks to revenge his friend, Randolph. London, the naturalistic cynic, disparaging traditional Christian concepts, shows his cynicism in arranging the unusual denouement in which Bram seeks the revenge. The duel is set, with long ardent statements from Bram on the virtues of justice and on the virtues of his friend Randolph whose great name must be avenged. But Fortune's god is quite different from Bram's: “He did not know much concerning Uri's God, but he believed in Chance.” And as they draw cards, Fortune feels that surely “Chance (will) not desert him now.” The narrator (London) tells the reader, “Chance had been very good to him (Fortune) already . . . and if he tricked now he would have to pay for it afterward.” (Ibid., p. 84) But Fortune loses the draw and is killed. As he dies, the fatalist succumbs amid London's refrain: “Fortune did not whirl, but gay San Francisco dimmed and faded; and as the sun-bright snow turned blacker and blacker, he breathed his last malediction on the Chance he had misplayed.” (Ibid., p. 85)
The women in London's early stories constitute an integral part of the total view of life in the northland. Not insignificantly London's first novel, also written during this period, centers around a woman. Because of the encompassing manner in which London explores the many avenues through which his naturalism can be expressed, he was wise not to discard the role of woman in these adventure tales. Importantly, then, a superior type of woman is needed to cope with the rigorous life demanded by the environment. A review of the tales already discussed indicates that the role of woman is a central one. In “The White Silence” the woman successfully fights off the pack until Malemute returns; in “The Son of the Wolf” Scruff's squaw is pictured as a sturdy and courageous woman; in “The God of His Fathers” the Indian wife of Stockard gladly dies for her white husband; in “The Great Interrogation” David Paine chooses to remain in the wilderness with his Indian maiden; and in “The Grit of Women” the courage and fidelity of women are emphasized. It may be noted parenthetically that London's alleged disdain for the Red Man is not borne out in a reading of these early stories. The Indian women, particularly, are consistently presented in a courageous and honorable light. Not unexpectedly, then, London advances a theory which also exalts the heroism of a white woman. In the “Priestly Prerogative” his first naturalistic “new woman” enters the scene. In the story, the “new woman” is Grace Bentham. Grace, the wife of Edwin Bentham, has come with her husband to the Yukon territory. Both had been reared in the city and thus are tenderfeet, until Grace sees that in order to survive she must take charge of the family affairs. Eventually, by Grace's clever maneuvering of their money, her buying of land, and her strict urging and directing Edwin to push farther north, the couple emerge wealthy. The “new woman” motif is announced in London's description of Grace's efficiency:
Her greatest energies are then directed in earning a fortune for them:
The “priestly prerogative” is made by a priest in the camp who discovers that Grace is in love with a close friend of the Benthams and plans to leave the Yukon country with him. The priest decides not to tell Edwin, assuring Grace that if she returns and remains faithful to Edwin her secret will always remain with her confessor. In general, the story epitomizes the materialistic aims which all the big fortune-seekers had in coming to the Yukon. Their lives, their hearts, and their souls are at stake in their desire to become rich and to “survive” on a larger scale than their neighbors. Yet the kind of survival which Jack London explores in these early stories was expressed primarily in terms of animal instinct, with an occasional hint of race survival, both views stressing that the species was strengthened by the emergence of the winner. In the study of Grace Bentham, London indicates his early fascination with the strong, Amazon-like woman who became one of his dominate character types in later novels.
Henry S. Commager has well noted London's characteristic position in these early stories, as well as in much of the later fiction:
To make these first stories superior in artistry, London buttressed both action and philosophical comment with a setting that complemented the tone and theme. Thus they achieve coherence and meaning despite Commager's claim that the philosophy is ornamental. What these stories portend is a pattern of naturalistic thought that permeates the greater part of all of Jack London's writing after 1902.
Copyright © 1973 by Earl J. Wilcox
1 Jack London, Best Short Stories of Jack London (New York: Garden City Books, 1953), p. 13.
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