This week my son, who is in 6th grade at the local classical school, finished reading Call of the Wild by Jack London. Because I was raised by an outdoorsman father, the image of the man of the wilderness has always loomed large in my mind. At the same time, there has been a malaise about London from the very beginning.
When I was a child my father took me to Jack London Park in California, and showed me the empty foundations of London’s Wolf House. This was a mansion that London had built with the proceeds from his writing life, which burned down as it was nearing completion and, because of financial problems, never was rebuilt.
At the time, I looked at the moss growing on the rough cut stone surrounding the pit that was to have been the basement, and wondered. The mystery that surrounded this disastrous event stayed with me and I shied away from London until I was assigned, in college, to read his socialist novel, The Iron Heel.
I was impressed by London’s writing and troubled by his cynicism, but I didn’t read Call of the Wild yet, even when my oldest daughter, in junior high school, read it again and again and loved it. Later, I found a biography of London (Jack London, by Daniel Dyer) at the used book store, and, moved by my curiosity about the Wolf House, and the fact that he was my paisan, as a fellow Californian, I bought it and read it. Here I found a vision of London as an earlier Hemingway—adventurer, writer, unfulfilled husband, alcoholic—and he became for me symbolic of a certain type of Californian, the one who, despite his gifts and privileges, ultimately becomes unhappy and, in personal terms, fails to achieve the vision that was generated in his mind during the optimism of youth.
When I finally read “Call” with my son this month, it was my assignment to help him work through what was for him a challenging read. I had him read aloud and when he got tired I read it to him. The question we were working on was a simple one, relatively speaking: what was the Call of the Wild? Does the wild really make animals stronger in the book? And what is the “law of club and fang?”