September 22, 2009

The CCLaP 100: "The Call of the Wild," by Jack London

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
The Call of the Wild (1903)
By Jack London
Book #30 in this essay series

The story in a nutshell:
One of the first-ever anthropomorphized children's books, Jack London's 1903 Call of the Wild tells the tale of "Buck," a cross-bred dog (part Saint Bernard, part Scotch Shepherd) who begins our story as a pampered family pet in northern California*; what made this book unusual for its time, however, is that this story is actually told from the viewpoint and mindset of the dog itself, as Buck finds himself first kidnapped and then sold as a sled dog in the Yukon, right in the middle of that region's Industrial-Age gold rush, when hearty dogs were at a premium. The rest of this short book, then, is essentially a look at what happens to Buck within this environment, and how his formerly tame nature is slowly replaced with his inborn animal instinct, as we readers are introduced one at a time to the legitimate horrors that came with this lifestyle back then (starvation, exhaustion, cruel owners, hostile natives, bloody infighting for both survival and pecking order), with Buck by the end joining a pack of rogue Alaskan wolves and becoming a semi-mythical legend, among both the civilized humans and dogs who he leaves behind.

The argument for it being a classic:
Well, to start with, it's one of the most popular children's books in history, with adaptations of the tale that continue to be created to this day (for example, a popular 3D movie version is being released on DVD the same exact week I'm writing this review); and then there's the fact that this was one of the first animal tales ever to be written from the point of view of the actual animal, a popular technique that in our modern times has become an entire subgenre unto itself. It can also be argued that this is a highly important historical record of the Alaskan gold rush, detailing the ins and outs of daily life there back then in a way that only a local could've (for those who don't know, London actually lived there himself for a time** starting in 1897); and let's not forget, its fans say, that this remains one of the few titles of the prolific London to still remain popular, out of the nearly hundred books he actually wrote, an author who was immensely important to the development of American literature in the early 20th century (not to mention insanely popular when he was alive), and who deserves to not be forgotten.

The argument against:
Like many of the children's books included in this essay series, the main argument among its critics seems to be that this book is only still considered a "classic" in the first place because of tradition; that if you take an actual close look at the book itself, it is neither superlative in quality nor even that popular anymore, one of those titles more apt to be nostalgically reminisced upon by middle-agers than an actual good book to be read again and again in our contemporary times. This is part of the problem with the term "classic," after all, is that our definition of it is constantly changing from one generation to the next; and children's literature is particularly susceptible to this change in definition, in that it's children's books that have most changed in nature in the last hundred years. Although no one seems to be arguing anymore with the idea that this is a historically important book, there seems to be a growing amount of people saying that it isn't a timeless gem either, and that it's maybe time here in the early 2000s to retire its longstanding "classic" status.

My verdict:
So out of the thirty books I've now reviewed for this essay series, this may be the hardest time I've had yet determining whether to classify a title as a "classic" or not. Because on the one hand, it's an undeniably thrilling book, a real page-turner that was a joy as a nostalgic middle-ager to read, and like I said is a fantastic look not just at the nature of the animal spirit but all the historical details of life in the Yukon during the gold-rush years. But on the other hand, the book is much, much more violent and dark than what most of us consider appropriate anymore for modern children, and parents deserve to know this before just handing a copy over to their kids; in fact, there's enough blood and death in this book to give just about any kid nightmares for weeks, making it ironically much more appropriate anymore for adults than contemporary children. Also, like any book that's over a hundred years old, there are big sections of Call of the Wild that simply feel outdated, and I question whether people would actually enjoy a title like this anymore if they're not reading specifically for historical reasons. As I mentioned, this is a big problem among a growing amount of children's literature that we once considered "classics," that in fact they're much more useful anymore as simple historical documents detailing a specific period in time, and aren't nearly as appropriate anymore for just handing to a modern kid, who after all has grown up with just a plethora of profoundly more sophisticated tales than such simplistic stories like these, and who aren't going to enjoy such stories nearly as much as a misty-eyed older adult looking back through the haze of nostalgia. It's for all these reasons that today I come down on the "no" side of the classic equation, although like I said, let it be known that I was right on the fence in this particular case.

Is it a classic? No
(VOYA code: 4Q/3P/J)

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Read even more about The Call of the Wild: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And a little piece of trivia, by the way: London based this book on his landlord's pet dog, back when he lived in northern California himself during the height of the Yukon gold rush, a Saint Bernard that the families would regularly hook up to a wagon and have help perform household chores.

**And if you really want to read something fascinating, check out sometime the actual derring-do life of London himself, who had real adventures in his youth twice as crazy as any of the stories he wrote: the illegitimate child of an astrologer and a mentally insane spiritualist, as a teenager he bought his first boat (borrowing money from the ex-slave who raised him) and became an oyster farmer, then after high school became a seal clubber in Japan for awhile; then during his years as a Yukon gold miner he developed scurvy and almost died, becoming a socialist by the end of his time there because of a liberal doctor who saved his life, and eventually becoming one of the first Americans in history to be able to make his entire living just from creative writing alone (and indeed, one of only a few handfuls of Americans to this day to become a millionaire from his creative writing). Sheesh!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:20 PM, September 22, 2009. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |