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Jack London lived a full life, even though he died at the young age of forty. In his life time he experienced many things, and I believe that these experiences were the catalyst of his novels. Jack London was an oyster pirate, a government patrolman in San Francisco Bay, a sailor and an agrarian reformer, a seal hunter in the North Pacific and a gold prospector in the frozen Klondike, a war correspondent and a prizefighting reporter, a socialist soapbox orator who later became a lecturer at universities, a family man and landowner, and of course a true American writer. A critic by the name of Alfred Kazin once said "that the greatest story London ever wrote was the one he lived."
London had a hard life as a child and as a young man, in spite of this London grew to become one of Americas most popular and highly paid authors ever. He was not a baby boomer. This was not just an American thing, London was known around the world for his great adventure stories, that could be enjoyed by all ages. Londons life was diversified and so were his writings. Today, London is mostly known for his "dog stories", The Call of the Wild and White Fang. In addition to those great works London wrote many other stories and novels, all of which were published in the seventeen years that he wrote professionally. Londons writings vary in quality as well as in subject, his from the cheapest and worst kind of pieces to the beautiful works like The Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf. In this literary analysis the focus will be on Londons more well known and enjoyed works.
Londons life defiantly coincides with his writing. Professor Earle Labor attributes London's success as a writer to three different factors: poverty- how London rose from the bottom all the way to the top, wanderlust- the fact that he spent a good portion of his life on the road gave him ample material to write about, and last but not least was, "the omnivorous appetite for reading that gave him his philosophical substance and sense of artistic form."
London was a complex individual whose character was made up of apparent contradictions. He was a declared socialist, but above all, a devout individualist. He believed in the politics and economics of socialism and decried the iniquities Of capitalism, but at the same time set out to succeed within that system.
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"The Call of the Wild and White Fang are two of London's best and most popular works" says Paul Horowitz . In both of these stories he stressed the fact that human and dog relationships. He probably started the common phrase "mans best friend".
The Call of the Wild met with instantaneous success upon its publication and soon won for its author international fame. Today both works are in constant demand throughout the world by people of all ages. London set out to write a companion piece to an earlier story, Bitard. Bitard had represented the personification of absolute evil in a dog and with the goal of redeeming the species. This story wasn't complete so London began The Call of the Wild. He later said that the writing it' got away from me ... before I could call a halt." In the end, a masterpiece was created. The inspired quality of its language, which reads like a in depth poem, and its pulsing drive give the work a such a great twist.
On the surface, it is the adventure story of a dog, Buck, who is forcibly taken from an easy life in sunny California to the frozen North. He is put to work pulling sleds, Buck fights with self determination and finally " Buck took up the duties of leadership"( p. 40). He over comes the lead dog named Spitz in order to become the lead dog, but once Buck earns this position he leads a good sled team that is not ready for the new owners. The new team is sold to some new people who are not ready for the hardships of the Klondike, and they eventually starve to death. All of the dogs on the team die, except for Buck. Buck was rescued by a well known gold prospector by the name of John Thornton. Buck falls in love with John and will not leave his side. The one time Buck hears " The sounding of the call" (p. 63) and he leaves the camp of John Thornton to be with the wolves. When Buck returns to camp he finds John Thornton dead because of Indians. Eventually, he responds to a higher call and escapes to the wild and leads the wolf pack. The story, though, has meaning on psychological levels. Primarily, it is a metaphors about a human relating the journey of the hero as he passes through the trials of initiation and the stages of transformation into a higher nature, until finally there is greatness in both the dog as a whole and in his creation.
Following the success of The Call of the Wild, London decided to write a complementary work-the story of a dog taken out of the wild to become part of civilization.
Thus, White Fang was created. White Fang is about wolf who's mother goes into a tribe of Indians because food is scarce. The cub ( White Fang) is taken in by a tribe but at the same time rejected by his mother. This is the first step in his hard upbringing. He is not friend to all of the other Indian dogs and even the Indians. He leaves camp with his master. He is sold to a new owner. This new owner is mean to the dog and does not let him live a desired life. This new owner makes white fang a fighting dog. The wolf is the champ of the region until he fights a small bull dog. "White Fang tore wildly around, trying to shake off the bulldog's body" (p. 167)He almost dies but the fight is broken up and white fang is rescued by a good man by the name of Weedon Scott. White Fang loves his new master and this is the first time he has experienced love for anything. Scott eventually has to go home to California and is about to leave White Fang. "White Fang was howling as dogs howl when their masters lie dead" (p. 186) White Fang did not want this to happen so he ran as fast as possible to the ferry and just made it. Scott goes back to California and White Fang lives there happily ever after. White Fang, however, lacked the depth of the former book, and, though well written and a wonderful novel in itself, was unable to have more than one level to its subject. It remains more a fable built upon ideas rather than an overwhelming vision of life as a whole. White Fang, representing the tried-and-true dog who was rescued by the love of civilized man, serves better as the complement or opposite to Bitard, the abysmal brute and outcast of civilization.
A major theme in both The Call of the Wild and White Fang- that appears throughout the author's writings is that of wild, essential natures pitted against civilization or cultivation. It is through this struggle that some find strengths they had not realized they possessed, others fall to forces greater than they; still others are unable to face the struggle at all. Buck, in The Call of the Wild, responds to his essential nature calling to him through all the acquired layers of civilized habit. For Buck, hesitation of crossing the thin line between the two sides is unnecessary because he turns away from civilization and determines to live in his primordial beast state. White Fang, on the other hand, is required to learn the habits of a civilized life, which means giving up his primordial nature to the laws of civilization. London faced this struggle himself in everything he did: "Life is strife, and I am prepared for that strife. If I had not been an animal with a logical nature, I would have stagnated or perished by the wayside."
Probably the most well known body of London's work is his saga of the Klondike: of the white men who were there before the gold rush, of the chechaquos (the tenderfeet) who arrived at the time of the gold rush, and of the native Indian tribes who had been there since time immemorial and who would remain there long after the white men. They are the stories that brought attention to Jack London throughout the entire world. London spent less than a year in the North; in fact, he spent no more than two seasons in the specific region known as the Klondike. However, he has written, "It was in the Klondike I found myself. There nobody talks. Everybody thinks. You get your true perspective. I got mine." Many of these tales he heard from the old-timers who would open up to him in the bars at Dawson and other cities. The tales have their origins in fact, about facts that were already exaggerated by those North landers who were known for "their inability to tell the precise truth," but the finished product was always uniquely London.
While others have written tales of that area, no one but Jack London has written of it with such force and eloquence. If there is one element that London mastered best here, it is the sense of atmosphere. A vivid picture is presented of the North land, of the "white silence" where "all movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice." But not only that, London conjures up the sense of a brooding that envelopes the character, plot, and setting. One doesn't just read it; one breathes it, feels. it-lives it!
Many consider The Sea-Wolf to be among the best sea stories ever written, for it is a moving and epic tale, much of which is London at his best. Not only did it achieve great literary success, but it also was effectively realized in several cinematic versions. The story ranks in the great tradition of one of London's literary influences, Herman Melville. Drawing upon his experiences seal hunting in the North Pacific, he created a story with a lot of realism.
He put himself and his contradictory nature into the two opposing characters, Wolf Larsen, the ruthless and rugged individualist, the superman, and Humphrey van Weyden, the highly cultivated and virtuous gentleman. It is in the slash of these two forces that London gives vent to his innermost struggles: idealism versus materialism, conscience versus instinct. The novel's drama proceeds to a resolution of this elemental conflict through van Weyden's struggle to( fulfillment and mastery of life's forces and Larsen's ultimate deterioration. Ironically, the majority of the critics and the public misunderstood the work, thinking it a glorification of the superhuman and individualism, and London later wrote, ". . . I attacked Nietzsche and his super-man idea ... no one discovered that it was an attack upon the super-man philosophy. "
Although London failed in reaching his purpose of striking gold in the Klondike during the gold rush of 1897-98, he certainly did strike a vein that not only enriched him during his lifetime but continues to enrich the world today. In the twentieth century, London's writings have had fluctuating fortunes: in the years following London's death in 1916, his popularity diminished some what, though his titles continued to sell. However, by 1936, London was dismissed critically and academically. One critic stated that "it is almost certain that his vogue is passing." Finally, beginning in the 1960's, there was a new reassessment and revival of London's works, as several studies, biographies, and reprints of many of his stories were published.
It is true that London's writings have many shortcomings, and the weaknesses are not hidden. Some of his characters seem one-dimensional, especially the women; many of the men seem unbelievably heroic. His image of love and sex was romantic and sentimental.
A master of the episode--the basis for his short stories-London could rarely integrate his longer works successfully. He felt that a higher purpose of his writing was as a vehicle for the expression of his political and social ideas; yet, in most cases, where the message predominated over the art, it tended to spoil the effect of his literary work. Incredible as it may seem, London felt that he lacked imagination, and one of his major fears was that he would run out of ideas. He found his plots and ideas by reading newspapers, by talking to people who related incidents in their lives, and by modifying plots taken from the huge storehouse of books he had read. Later in life, he actually bought story ideas from a fellow socialist, Sinclair Lewis, then a young reporter fresh out of college. London even managed to "borrow" from his greatest literary influence, Rudyard Kipling. Early in his career, London admitted: "There is no end of Kipling in my work, I have even quoted him. I would never possibly have written anywhere near the way I did had Kipling never been." He was even called the "Kipling of the North," but London outdid his master by the sheer mythic power and vision of his tales.
And the works of London endure, some having become popular classics. His literary accomplishments outshine his faults and the criticisms leveled at his work. As the eminent London scholar Professor Labor states: ". . . even his worst work is readable. If he is sometimes clumsy, he is seldom dull. He is capable of moments of lyric intensity. He possesses, moreover, an exceptional feeling for iron. " Above everything else, London captured a universal force in his writing-a sense of life's ultimate mystery- which holds the reader spellbound. Because these stories are reprinted from many different sources-some from the anthologies compiled by London, there are inconsistencies and occasional archaisms in spelling, terminology, and punctuation.
Ironically, London wished to be remembered for his works of philosophical, sociological, and political importance, which he considered superior to his works of literary merit or "for children". This opinion was shared by a few early critics, one of whom went so far as to say that London would "take his place in the encyclopedias as a philosopher and a propagandist rather than as a literary artist." Yet it has been his literary achievements that have exerted influence, largely unacknowledged, on the generations of writers who succeeded him. This influence can be seen in the works of Robert Service, Ring Lardner, Hemingway, Steinbeek, Kerouac, and Mailer.
Today, Jack London is celebrated for his great contribution to literature, and rightly so. It is believed that London was the best American writer on his given topic (the struggle through life). London had a charm that brought the reader to enjoy the region of focus. He intertwined the story of the uncharted Klondike with the story of life and how he lived it. Weather through the story of a dog or a man London knew what life was all about even though he lived a relatively short life. One of his great theories was "Eat or be Eaten", or "Do or Die." London also believed in the statement from Darwin called survival of the fittest as is seen in Sea Wolf.
I will leave you with this thought from the master Jack London himself, "It is so much easier to live placidly and complacently. Of course, to live placidly and complacently is to not live at all . . ."
1. London, Jack: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and other stories. edited by Andrew Sinclair, New York N.Y. : Penguin Books, 1981
2. London, Jack: The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Sea Wolf, and forty short stories. edited by Paul J. Horowitz, New York N.Y.: Portland House, 1998
3. Stone, Irving: Sailor on horseback, Gardencity, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977
4. Walker, Dale: Jack London and Conan Doyle: a literary kinship, Bloomingdale In.: Gaslight Publications, 1989