Archive for wolves

White Fang and the literary Jack London

Posted in All posts, On writing with tags , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2007 by Trina

Owning a dog changes your perspective, even about literature. I first read White Fang and The Call of the Wild twenty years ago when I was twenty-five. The perfect age, BTW, to become acquainted with Jack London’s writing. I was captivated. Jack London took me to “The North” the way no one could. He had lived in Yukon country, and depicts his scenes with the objectivity of a scientist, maybe part of the reason that I love his writing.

After having Alex for a couple of months, I wanted to read both novels again. I drug out The Call of the Wild, but couldn’t find my copy of White Fang. So, when Harry asked me what he could get me for my birthday, I asked him to buy me a copy of White Fang, and read both novels again.

I was once again spellbound, not only by the enormity of the love and worship that both Buck and White Fang display for their masters, but by the way Jack London uses the dogs to represent the facets of human nature.

The Call of the Wild is an easier read, and far more popular, but White Fang is the literary superior of the two. The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a dog taken from his civilized Southland and placed in the primitive North. Of all the dogs that are taken to the Great North, only Buck is able to make the transition in true “survival of the fittest” style.

White Fang is the antithesis, the story of a wolf who must overcome his heredity and upbringing through domestication and the love of his master. The only cub of the five in the litter to survive, White Fang is the coming of age story of a wolf living in a harsh environment. He must kill or be killed, learn the law, or die. Herein lies the problem with categorizing White Fang as young-adult literature. It would seem that a coming of age story should be read by children, and indeed, White Fang is required reading for most middle school students. However, the writing is more appropriate for adults.

In his day, London was considered a popular, not a literary, author. More recently, his novels have most often been classified as young-adult literature.

As a result, literary publications and scholars have had little interest in London and his work. In addition, London’s works featuring animals as main characters have received even less attention than others. The Call of the Wild has garnered some interest for the sheer power of its hold on the reading public and because it is the premier novel of its kind. White Fang, as a later and lesser novel, has largely been ignored.

Critic Maxwell Geismar does mention White Fang in his Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel, 1890—1915 but judges it inferior to The Call of the Wild because of what he views as a sentimental ending:
It was only when White…..
Read entire essay.

White Fang is NOT a lesser novel. Further, I would argue that it is not a book for children or young adults. The quality of writing makes it a literary classic for adults. The writing is too narrative and especially too violent for children. Kill or be killed is realistically portrayed. Not for nothing is White Fang called “the fighting wolf.” And what of the depiction of the American Indian from 100 years ago as inferior to white people? This may not be understood by children without guidance by teachers or parents.

” It was at Fort Yukon that White Fang saw his first white men. As compared with the Indians he had known, they were to him another race of beings, a race of superior gods. They impressed him as possessing superior power, and it is on power that god-head rests. …”

Jack London breaks away from the story to delve into naturalist opinions of life, narrative that would be appreciated more by an adult than a younger reader. An example is the opening paragraph of White Fang:

“Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.”