The Call of the Wild
Jack London
Contributed by Elene Blackwelder
Context

Author’s biography

Jack London — born John Griffith Chaney in 1876, of San Francisco, California — was an American novelist, journalist and social activist. He spent his youth traveling around California with his family and developed a taste for adventure during this time. Prior to his graduation from high school at the age of 19, London worked in a cannery, hunted for oysters in San Francisco Bay, traveled across the U.S., and sailed around the Pacific. 

London studied at the University of California Berkeley for one year, after which he dropped-out and headed north to Canada to seek fortune in the gold rush in the Yukon. Even though he lasted almost a year, he never found any gold. Nonetheless, his experiences gave him a wealth of material for the stories he would write upon his return to California, among them The Call of the Wild (1903), which became his most renowned work. 

Among London’s most important books are: The Sea Wolf (1904), a novel based on his experiences as a seal hunter; John Barleycorn (1913), an autobiographical tale detailing his lifelong battle with alcoholism; and The Star Rover (1913), a collection of related stories on the subject of reincarnation. London was also an advocate of worker’s rights, unionization, and socialism — and having written numerous novels on those topics including The People of the Abyss (1903), in which he offers a scathing criticism of capitalism. 

During his adventures, London contracted numerous diseases, which left him with severe pain and — subsequently — contributed to his increasing alcoholism. Despite his ailing health, he went on with publishing his periodicals, thrilling his readers with stories about his adventures until his death in 1916. 

Context

The Call of the Wild was written and published in 1903, and is set briefly in Santa Clara, California, before shifting to Alaska and the Yukon, Canada. This was during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, a period when strong sled dogs were in high demand as societies were not fully mechanized, and sophisticated technology was nonexistent. As such, dog sleds and carts were used as a means of transportation to access most gold camps during winter. They were also used in communication notably to deliver mails. 

In “The Other Animals” in Revolution and Other Essays, London explains that The Call of the Wild “was in truth a protest against the ‘humanizing’ of animals, of which it seemed to him numerous ‘animal writers’ had been profoundly guilty”. His response came as a reaction to the critical remarks made by John Burroughs and President Theodore Roosevelt, both of which accused London of being a “nature faker”.

Much of the inspiration for The Call of the Wild is culled from London’s experiences in Klondike during the 1897 Gold Rush. Like numerous hopeful prospectors, London traveled to the Klondike seeking gold and adventure. Greater socioeconomic factors, however, were evident during this time, and the massive movement of about 100,000 people heading into the far north was witnessed. The Panic of 1893, an economic depression in the U.S. during that period, forced numerous people to leave their jobs — and even sell their homes — and head north in search of gold. While about 30,000 people made it to the Klondike, only around 4,000 had actually struck gold. Life in the Yukon was extremely tough as it was plagued by disease, starvation, suicides, and murders. London, himself, was forced to return home when he contracted scurvy; he never found any gold. These low odds of success, or survival, was the key reason behind London’s belief that the environment determined the course of an individual’s life — with the idea referred to as being “environmental determinism”, which reoccurs throughout the writings of London. 

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