By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
Jack London’s Tales Continue to Challenge and Inspire
One blazingly beautiful autumn day, my wife LaVon and I bumped and rattled over a washboard road for miles on end in order to visit a wild wolf sanctuary in the New Mexico outback. Later, the staff explained that the resident wolves had been neglected or abused, previously adopted as pups by people out of kindness or naivete. Each wolf was provided with his own run, about the size of a building lot, surrounded by a chain link fence. I have dreamed of meeting a wild wolf for years and, while these majestic specimens were not wild, I was ecstatic over the opportunity to meet them.
No author has been more identified with wolves than Jack London. His ranch house home was called Wolf House, and he often went by the nickname “Wolf.” Wolves populate his “Tales of the Far North” and his best-known novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild. London utilizes the wolf pack as a metaphor for the dog-eat-dog conditions of human society. Recent research indicates, however, that wolves have more serene lives than he portrays, and there are no documented cases of wolf attacks upon humans.
Jack London lived the life: Oyster pirate, hobo, Klondike prospector, brawler, rabble rouser, protester, war correspondent, sailor, muckraking investigative reporter and author of novels and short stories that continue to command the attention of readers to this day. He was a tough, gutsy, gritty, no-nonsense character.
His philosophy is evident in his famous short story “To Build a Fire,” wherein a solitary traveler trudging across the wintery wastes of the Yukon perishes in the cold, victim of the hubris that inevitably leads to defeat. The traveler’s powers of reason fail to equip him for survival. His dog, guided by instinct, survives, trotting off to find other humans who can provide food and fire, as his master lies dead beneath the canopy of indifferent stars. One lives or dies by one’s wits, and no deity comes to one’s rescue when those wits fail.
In The Call of the Wild, a much beloved California ranch dog is kidnapped and sold into a life of cruelty before morphing into the leader of a wolf pack. In White Fang, the tables are turned when a savage wolf dog is rescued from dog fighters by a kindhearted young man and lives out his years in peace back on a California ranch.
Growing up in poverty and forced at an early age to work long hours under grueling conditions on the waterfront and in the canneries of Oakland, California in order to supplement the family income created an indignation at social injustice and a sympathy for the underdog that endured for the rest of London’s days. He bore an inner philosophical conundrum in his life and in his writing, calling the Bolsheviks who overthrew the Kerensky government and brought about the formation of the USSR his brothers and yet arguing for a Darwinian, deterministic view of nature and society.
As a dog lover, I am both saddened and angered by the cruelty in the pages of Call of the Wild and White Fang, but in the harsh Darwinian world depicted by London, such is the natural course of events. Violence occurs among wolves, and violence occurs among men. He once spent long months masquerading as an unemployed sailor to live among the impoverished slum dwellers of industrial London and penned a masterwork, The People of the Abyss, revealing the scandalous conditions arising from the same predatory societal traits that he observed in the wilderness.
London’s stories represent the naturalist school of literature, often referred to as realism in high gear, portraying a harsh, unforgiving world where only the physically and mentally fit survive or deserve to. Such tales feature larger than life characters lacking conscience or moral restraint. Darwin, Spencer and Nietzsche provide the philosophical foundations.
Stylistically, he appears to reject the Nietzschean ubermensch concept in his novel The Sea Wolf when he depicts the cruel Captain Wolf Larson facing death, blind and helpless, while the narrator muses that, “He had too great strength,” “Goodbye, Lucifer, Proud Spirit,” the narrator recites, as he consigns Larson’s mortal remains to the icy waters, perhaps London’s way of burying the ubermensch motif with him.
London may never have resolved his conundrum, arguing for natural selection and survival of the fittest on the one hand but remaining a softhearted socialist on the other. Possibly the dichotomy is not London’s alone but bisects the very heart of western society and thought.
In 2010, while I was working as a ranger near the Outer Banks of North Carolina, our daughter Hope and I trekked off into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge one evening as members of a wild wolf howling expedition. Slogging through intense heat and stifling humidity, we provided a banquet for tiger stripe mosquitoes and yellow flies, which, in turn, were gobbled up by flotillas of dragonflies and tiny brown bats. Twice from different parts of the swamp, Carolina red wolves answered the calls of our guide. I think Jack London would have approved.
My enchantment with wolves endures, and I am disappointed by recent decisions to remove them from protections provided by the Endangered Species Act. Friends ask me what I plan to do on the day when I finally meet a wild wolf. I intend to shake his paw.