When White Fang was published in 1906, Jack London was the most widely read writer in the United States and was also popular in Europe, thanks to his second novel, The Call of the Wild (1903). (London had become, as well, the first millionaire American author.) The two novels are related in that while The Call of the Wild tells the story of a dog who becomes wild and leads a wolf pack, White Fang is the life story of a wolf who comes, after many hardships dealt him by both man and nature, to live a dog's life with a loving master. Both novels, along with scores of London's short stories, are set in the land the author called simply "The North"—the Yukon Territory to which he once traveled as a gold prospector.
Though not considered the literary equal of The Call of the Wild, White Fang was an immediate commercial success and continues to be popular a century after its initial publication. In its unblinking portrayals of nature's unforgiving harshness, of humankind's capacity for both shocking brutality and unconditional love, and of the struggle for survival that is common to all life, White Fang is classic London.
Jack London was born January 12, 1876, in San Francisco, California. His mother, Flora Wellman, was not married. It is generally believed that an astrologer named William Chaney was London's father. The year Jack was born, his mother married a widower named John London, who adopted Jack and moved the family to nearby Oakland.
Shunning formal education, London worked from a young age, first in a cannery and then as an oysterman in the San Francisco Bay. It was during his first sea voyage, in 1893, that London began writing. The following year, he traveled across the United States, a hobo journey that he wrote about in Jack London on the Road (1907).
In 1895, London finished high school in Oakland and then spent one semester at the University of California. During this time, he became interested in both literature and socialism. He was a member of the socialist party for the rest of his life.
London's next journey was as a gold prospector to the Yukon Territory during the Klondike gold rush, a trip he would also write about later. Failing to find gold, London went back to California and decided to make his living as a writer. His first published story was "To the Man on the Trail," (1899) published in Overland Monthly magazine. London's newspaper articles on politics earned him the nickname "Boy Socialist from Oakland." In 1900, London married Bessie Maddern and published his first collection of short stories, Son of the Wolf.
London's first novel was A Daughter of the Snows (1902). His second, The Call of the Wild (1903), made him famous around the world. The following year, his divorce added to his celebrity. He and his first wife had two daughters during their brief marriage.
London married Charmian Kittredge in 1905, the year before White Fang was published. The two made their home on a ranch in Glen Ellen, California. London continued to write both nonfiction and fiction, was in demand as a lecturer, and enjoyed sailing and working on the ranch.
In 1913, London published John Barleycorn, the story of his alcoholism, which became a bestseller. By 1915, London's health was in decline. He died November 22, 1916, in Glen Ellen, of an overdose of morphine. The drug had been prescribed for a gastrointestinal problem, and it is not known whether the overdose was an accident or a suicide.
Part 1—The Wild.
1: The Trail of Meat
Two men, Henry and Bill, are hiking through a spruce forest in the far North. It is deep winter. Snow covers the ground. The temperature is far below zero, and it is light only for a few hours each day. With the men is a team of six sled dogs. On the sled, along with equipment and supplies, is a coffin that holds the body of a man called Lord Alfred. Henry and Bill are taking the body to Fort McGurry. They constantly hear wolves howling, and they know that the nearly starved wolves are tracking them in hopes of killing them for food.
After the men make camp for the night, Bill feeds the dogs. He later tells Henry that seven dogs, not six, came to be fed. The men realize that one was a somewhat tame wolf. That night, one of their dogs disappears, lured away and eaten by the wolves.
2: The She-Wolf
The next morning, the men set off with the five remaining dogs. That evening, the tame wolf again comes to eat, but Bill sees her and drives her off. The following morning, another dog is missing. As the men camp the next evening, the wolves come closer. The men wish they could shoot at them to scare them away, but they have only three cartridges left. They decide that the tame wolf must actually be a dog. Bill tries to secure the dogs so that they cannot leave the camp, but that night a third dog disappears. Bill begins to be extremely anxious, convinced that the wolves will eventually kill all the dogs and then him and Henry. The She-Wolf, as the tame one is called, appears on the trail in daylight, and that night the wolf pack crowds closer than before to the camp.
3: The Hunger Cry
That night, no dogs are lost. But the next day, the sled overturns in an accident. While the men work to right the sled, the tame wolf lures one of the dogs away. Bill, unable to leave the dog to its fate, sets off with the gun to try to save it. Henry hears Bill fire all three shots and then hears sounds that tell him that the wolf pack has killed both the dog and Bill. After helping the two remaining dogs pull the sled briefly, Henry makes camp and a large fire. The wolves threaten him all night, and he is unable to sleep.
The next morning, Henry rigs a way to pull the coffin up into a tree so that the wolves cannot get it. Then he and the two dogs set off. Henry makes camp early and spends the night fighting off the hungry wolves with burning sticks. The next night, the wolves take the two remaining dogs, and Henry has to jump briefly into the fire to escape them. Just as an exhausted Henry is resigned to death, a group of men arrives with dogs and sleds. They drive away the wolves and ask where Lord Alfred is. Henry tells them that he is dead, his coffin in a tree for safety, before falling into a deep sleep as the men put him on a sled to take him to the fort.
Part 2—Born of the Wild.
1: The Battle of the Fangs
The novel follows the movement of the desperately hungry wolf pack after it leaves Henry. After running all day and night, the pack finds and kills a large moose—plenty of food for the forty wolves. The pack rests and then gradually splits into smaller and smaller groups. The She-Wolf, who had run at the head of the large pack, is left with three males. The oldest of the three, called One-Eye, kills the other two in a fight and becomes the She-Wolf's mate. They hunt together and learn to steal rabbits from snares set around an Indian camp.
2: The Lair
It is April. The She-Wolf finds a lair and has five cubs. The male hunts for himself and brings food to his mate.
3: The Gray Cub
Four of the cubs are reddish like their mother. One, the fiercest, is a gray male, like his father. After some weeks, One-Eye is unable to find food, and the She-Wolf can no longer provide milk for the cubs. Four of them die, but the gray cub survives until One-Eye brings food again. Then, One-Eye is killed by a lynx. The She-Wolf, who has resumed hunting while her cub stays in the lair, finds One-Eye's remains. She also finds the lynx's lair, where she knows that there are kittens.
- White Fang has been adapted to film at least eleven times in seven countries: the United States, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Australia. Among the most widely available versions are White Fang, made in the United States and released in 1991, directed by Randal Kleiser and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and Ethan Hawke; and White Fang II: Myth of the White Wolf, another American film released in 1994, directed by Ken Olin and starring Scott Bairstow and Alfred Molina.
- There are at least two audio adaptations of White Fang. An unabridged version on cassette, read by William Hootkins, was released by Penguin Books Limited in 1998. An abridged version, read by the late actor John Ritter, was released by New Millennium Audio in 2002.
4: The Wall of the World
One day, the cub's instinctive fear of leaving the lair is overcome by curiosity. The cub tumbles down the slope just outside the cave's entrance. Exploring, he finds a nest of small ptarmigan chicks and eats them. When the ptarmigan hen returns, he fights with her until she drives him away by pecking his nose. He finds a stream and is swept up in it but quickly begins to swim. Finally, he is attacked by a weasel and escapes death only because his mother hears the struggle and rescues him.
5: The Law of Meat
The cub begins to leave the lair daily and remembers all the lessons of his first outing. Then, for a time, neither the cub nor the She-Wolf finds food. In desperation, the She-Wolf raids the lynx's den, eating all but one kitten and taking it to her cub. Soon after, the lynx comes to the wolves' lair, and there is a terrible fight. The She-Wolf kills the lynx, but she is badly hurt, and the cub is wounded. Both recover, however. The cub begins to hunt with his mother and learns the law of meat: "EAT OR BE EATEN." The cub greatly enjoys hunting and eating, and also their rewards, the feeling of a full stomach and a nap in the sun.
Part 3—The Gods of the Wild.
1: The Makers of Fire
One day, the cub goes to the stream to drink and sees five Indians—the first humans he has seen. The men see the cub. One of them approaches the cub, whose instinctual awe of humans prevents him from running away. But when the man tries to pick him up, the cub bites. The man hits him, and the cub cries out, bringing the She-Wolf to his rescue.
One of the Indians, Gray Beaver, recognizes the She-Wolf as the former pet of his now-dead brother. He calls her Kiche and says that she is the offspring of a dog and a wolf and that she ran away to find food during a famine. Kiche lets Gray Beaver pet her, and Gray Beaver declares that Kiche is now his. He names the cub White Fang. Gray Beaver ties up Kiche, and White Fang stays close to her.
Soon, about forty more Indians and many dogs carrying packs arrive. Some of the dogs attack Kiche and White Fang, but the Indians rescue them. When the Indians move to another camp, a child keeps Kiche on a lead, and White Fang follows.
2: The Bondage
A puppy called Lip-Lip, larger and more used to fighting than White Fang, becomes his nemesis. Eventually, Gray Beaver knows that Kiche has become too tame to run away, so she is no longer tied. However, soon Gray Beaver gives Kiche to Three Eagles, who is leaving the rest of the group. White Fang swims after the canoe that is taking his mother away, and Gray Beaver comes after him and beats him severely. That night, when White Fang cries for his mother and wakes Gray Beaver, the man beats him even harder. White Fang longs to return to the wild, and he stays in camp only because he hopes his mother will return. Gray Beaver never pets White Fang but does not beat him as long as he obeys, and Gray Beaver also protects the pup from aggressive dogs and makes sure that he gets food. White Fang quickly learns that obedience prevents beatings.
3: The Outcast
Lip-Lip and other young dogs continually gang up on White Fang, possibly because they sense that he is three-quarters wolf. This makes White Fang mean and a good fighter. One day, he kills a dog. The tribe wants to kill White Fang, but Gray Beaver will not allow it. White Fang becomes an outcast; the other dogs will not allow him to be part of the pack, and the humans revile him.
4: The Trail of the Gods
In the fall, the Indians break camp. White Fang understands that they are leaving and that his mother will not return to him now. He hides in the woods until the Indians are gone, planning to return to the wild and ignoring Gray Beaver's calls. After a night alone, however, he longs for the companionship and food provided by humans. He runs for forty hours without stopping, following the Indians' trail. Exhausted, White Fang crawls to Gray Beaver, sure that he will be beaten. Instead, Gray Beaver gives him food and keeps the other dogs from taking it away. On this night, White Fang becomes tame.
5: The Covenant
It is December, and White Fang is eight months old. Gray Beaver, his wife, Kloo-Kooch, and his son, Mit-sah, take a trip. Gray Beaver drives a sled pulled by adult dogs, and Mit-sah has a small one pulled by White Fang and other pups, including Lip-Lip. White Fang remains solitary and fierce. His law is "to oppress the weak and obey the strong." White Fang feels no affection for Gray Beaver, and Gray Beaver shows none toward White Fang, but the two are companions who benefit each other.
6: The Famine
The following April, White Fang is one year old, and he returns with Gray Beaver and his family to the village. Now White Fang, because of his wolf heritage, is bigger and stronger than the young dogs that once bullied him. One day, White Fang meets Kiche in the village. He bounds toward her happily, but she does not remember him. She has a new litter, and she attacks White Fang, fearing that he may hurt her cubs. White Fang is confused but accepts the rebuff and withdraws.
When White Fang is three years old, a famine comes, and he leaves the tribe to hunt for food in the wild. He meets Kiche again, who has gone back to the lair where White Fang was born to give birth again. Because of the famine, once again only one of her cubs is alive. Soon after this, White Fang meets the famished Lip-Lip and kills him. Then he finds Gray Beaver's people, who have moved their village and now have plenty of food. Gray Beaver is not at his tent, but Kloo-Kooch welcomes White Fang happily.
Part 4—The Superior Gods.
1: The Enemy and His Kind
When White Fang is almost five years old, Gray Beaver takes him on a long trip to Fort Yukon. It is 1898, the time of the gold rush. Gray Beaver spends months trading at the fort. White Fang spends his time attacking and killing dogs that arrive on the steamboat that brings prospectors from the south. Some of the local men find it entertaining to watch these fights.
2: The Mad God
The fort's cook, a cruel man called Beauty Smith, loves to watch White Fang attack and kill the dogs from the steamboat. Beauty uses whisky to beguile a reluctant Gray Beaver into selling White Fang to him.
3: The Reign of Hate
Beauty Smith keeps White Fang chained up and teases him cruelly to make him as mean as possible. He does this both because he enjoys it and because he is preparing to use White Fang in staged dogfights, a favorite form of gambling and entertainment at the fort. White Fang kills every dog set against him—sometimes two at a time—but is sometimes wounded. Beauty Smith even forces White Fang to fight wild wolves and a lynx, which Indians trap for this purpose. White Fang's reputation for ferocity grows to the extent that Beauty Smith travels around with him in a cage, and people pay money just to watch Beauty enrage White Fang by poking him with sticks.
4: The Clinging Death
Finally, White Fang is forced to fight a bulldog. It is too short for White Fang to attack in his normal way. Eventually, the bulldog manages to lock its jaws into White Fang's neck and refuses to let go, working to chew through to White Fang's throat and kill him. After long minutes of flailing and trying to dislodge the bulldog, called Cherokee, White Fang is on the verge of death. Beauty Smith is furious that he is about to lose money, so he enters the cage and savagely kicks White Fang.
Suddenly, two men arrive. One of them rushes into the cage and attacks Beauty Smith, hitting him so hard that he does not get up and screaming that all the men watching the dogfight are beasts. The two newcomers then try for several minutes before finally prying the bulldog's jaws from White Fang's neck. White Fang, his eyes glazed, is very close to death. Weedon Scott, the man who attacked Beauty Smith, gives Beauty one hundred and fifty dollars and says that he is buying White Fang. Beauty protests, but Scott threatens him and leaves with White Fang. Scott is a gold mining expert from California, and the man with him is Matt, his dog musher.
5: The Indomitable
Back at their cabin two weeks later, Weedon Scott and Matt have White Fang, who has somehow survived, on a chain. Matt tells Scott that White Fang is at least part dog and has been trained to pull a sled. They hope to rehabilitate White Fang, but when they unchain him, he immediately kills one of their dogs and bites both men. With deep regret, the men are about to shoot White Fang, feeling they have no choice. But White Fang's knowing fear of the gun and his quick dodge when he sees it convinces them that the wolf is smart enough to be rehabilitated.
6: The Love-Master
White Fang knows that the dog-killing and the man-biting that he has just done are serious crimes, and he expects to be savagely beaten but is beyond caring or running away. He is confused when Scott repeatedly comes outside the cabin, talks gently to him, and gives him meat. Eventually, White Fang takes meat from Scott's hand. When Scott first pets him, White Fang is sure that the man is going to hurt him. In time, though, White Fang comes to trust Scott and Matt. Scott becomes his master, and White Fang desires to please him, so he never attacks the sled dogs and in fact soon becomes the lead dog.
Part 5—The Tame.
1: The Long Trail
The time comes for Weedon Scott to return to California. He feels that he cannot take White Fang and plans to leave him with Matt, but White Fang cries pitifully. The men lock White Fang in the cabin as they leave for the steamboat, but when they arrive, they find White Fang on the boat's deck, bleeding from having crashed through the cabin's window. Scott takes White Fang home to California.
2: The Southland
Weedon Scott lives on a large country estate in the Santa Clara Valley with his extended family. As soon as White Fang arrives there, the family and their dogs, including a sheepdog named Collie, begin adjusting to him—and vice versa.
3: The God's Domain
Besides Weedon, the other residents of the estate are his father, Judge Scott (a retired judge), and his mother; his sisters, Beth and Mary; his wife, Alice; and his children, Weedon, four, and Maud, six.
4: The Call of Kind
White Fang lives a good life on the estate and comes to love Weedon Scott so much that he allows the man to wrestle and play with him. When his master is horseback riding and breaks his leg, White Fang runs home and alerts the family. After this, even the servants, who have been unable to overcome their fear and distrust of White Fang, accept him warmly. In the fall, Collie lures White Fang into the woods to mate.
5: The Sleeping Wolf
A murderer who was sentenced by Judge Scott, and who has threatened to kill the judge for revenge, escapes from prison and disappears. Weedon's wife, without letting anyone else know, begins to let White Fang into the house each night to sleep by the front door. When the convict, Jim Hall, sneaks into the house one night, White Fang attacks and kills him, but Hall shoots White Fang several times. The household awakes, and Judge Scott calls not a veterinarian but his own doctor for White Fang. The doctor works on White Fang for an hour and a half and says that his chances for survival are miniscule.
Out of love and gratitude, Judge Scott goes so far as to call a doctor from San Francisco, and the women of the house take care of White Fang as if he were their child. White Fang, wrapped in casts and bandages, lies immobilized for weeks and dreams of his past—many bad dreams, and some good ones of the wild—as he slowly regains life.
Finally, the day arrives to remove the last cast. With great effort, White Fang is able to walk a little, venturing out to the lawn and, after a rest, on to the stable entrance, where Collie is with her puppies. The puppies frolic and climb on White Fang, full of curiosity, and the old wolf rests.
Bill, along with Henry, appears in Part One of the novel. Bill and Henry are taking the body of Lord Alfred to Fort McGurry. When the two men are threatened by hungry wolves that kill some of their sled dogs, Bill becomes increasingly anxious and convinced that the wolves will eventually kill them. When the wolves lure one of the dogs away during the daytime, Bill rashly follows with the gun to try to save the dog even though it is extremely dangerous and almost certainly futile. The wolves kill both the dog and Bill.
Collie is a sheepdog who lives at Weedon Scott's estate in California. When White Fang first arrives there, she badgers him mercilessly, following her instinctual enmity against wolves. White Fang does not harm her, even when she attacks him, partly because he understands that Scott values her and partly because it is against his nature as a wolf to harm a female of his own kind (or, in this case, of a closely related kind).
After time has passed, though, Collie leads White Fang into the woods to mate with her. In the novel's last scene, when White Fang has finally recovered from his gunshot wounds enough to hobble outside, he sees Collie with their puppies and allows the puppies to clamber over him as he rests.
Dick is a deerhound and a pet of the Scott family. When White Fang first arrives at the Scott estate, Dick chases him, which White Fang, because of his experiences, interprets as a deadly attack. The only thing that prevents White Fang from killing Dick is Collie's intervention.
Jim Hall is a murderer who was convicted in Judge Scott's court and who has vowed to take revenge on the old judge. When Hall escapes from prison, he goes to the Scotts' estate to take his revenge but is attacked and killed by White Fang. However, Hall manages to shoot White Fang several times, wounding him gravely.
Henry is Bill's companion on the trip to Fort McGurry with Lord Alfred's body. While Bill becomes unhinged by the threatening wolves, Henry remains calm and manages to survive until unexpected help arrives.
Kiche is called the She-Wolf in the first part of the novel, when she is living in the wild with other wolves. Readers learn her name later when she rejoins the Indians with whom she had previously lived.
In Part One, Kiche is with the wolf pack that threatens Henry and Bill. She is somewhat tame and enters the camp to try to get food when Bill feeds the dogs. It is also Kiche who lures the dogs away from the camp at night so that the other wolves can kill and eat them.
After the pack is driven away from Henry and finally finds food, Kiche mates with an old wolf named One-Eye. All of her cubs except one die in a famine, and the one survivor is a gray male who will become known as White Fang. One day Kiche hears White Fang's cries and runs to rescue him, and she and the Indian Gray Beaver recognize each other. Kiche allows Gray Beaver to pet her and to tie her up until she has again become tame enough to stay with the Indians willingly.
Kiche is the offspring of a dog and a wolf, a mating arranged by Gray Beaver's now-dead brother, and therefore White Fang is one-quarter dog.
Kloo-Kooch is Gray Beaver's wife. She provides perhaps the only moment of affection that White Fang experiences among the Indians, when White Fang returns to the Indians after a famine and receives a warm welcome from her.
Lip-Lip is a puppy who lives with the Indians and who was born in the same year as White Fang. He is a bully and constantly picks fights with White Fang, which is the first step in White Fang's becoming a mean and solitary animal.
Matt is Weedon Scott's musher, who helps Scott rescue White Fang from the bulldog and then rehabilitate him. It is Matt who recognizes that White Fang is part dog and has been trained to pull a sled.
Mit-sah is Gray Beaver's son. When White Fang is still a puppy, he helps pull Mit-sah's child-size sled when the family goes on a trip.
One-Eye is an old but smart male wolf who wins the right to mate with Kiche by killing his two rivals. White Fang is the sole surviving cub from this litter.
Salmon Tongue is one of the Indians who is with Gray Beaver when they discover White Fang and Kiche.
Alice is Weedon's wife. When she hears that Jim Hall has escaped from prison, she begins to let White Fang into the house each night after the rest of the family has gone to bed. This precaution saves the family's lives.
Beth is one of Weedon's two sisters, who lives at the estate with the rest of the extended family. She lovingly helps care for White Fang after he saves the family from Jim Hall.
Judge Scott is Weedon's father, a retired judge who lives at the estate with the rest of the extended family. He is hesitant to trust White Fang but willing to admit that he was wrong when White Fang proves himself. When White Fang saves the family from Jim Hall, the judge is so grateful that he calls the best doctors, rather than veterinarians, to care for White Fang.
Mary is one of Weedon's two sisters, who lives at the estate with the rest of the extended family. She lovingly helps care for White Fang after he saves the family from Jim Hall.
Weedon Scott's six-year-old daughter. White Fang understands how precious the children are to his master, and he learns to enjoy their petting.
Weedon Scott is a mining expert from California who comes to the Yukon for a short time. He comes upon the scene of the dogfight at which White Fang is about to be killed by a bulldog and is at the same time being brutally kicked by Beauty Smith. After rescuing White Fang, Scott asks his musher, Matt, how much an animal in White Fang's condition is worth. He then pays Beauty Smith the money and takes White Fang against Smith's wishes.
Scott rehabilitates White Fang through consistent gentleness, kindness, and affection, even though White Fang bites him the first time he has an opportunity. When he must correct White Fang, he does so with words, not blows, except on one or two occasions when the situation is extremely serious. White Fang becomes so attached to Scott that he crashes through a window to avoid being left behind when Scott returns to California. Scott relents and takes White Fang home with him, and he is rewarded when White Fang saves the family from a murderer.
Weedon Scott Jr.
Weedon is the elder Scott's four-year-old son.
The cook at Fort Yukon, Beauty Smith is an ugly, cruel man. He goes to great lengths to persuade Gray Beaver to sell White Fang to him and then abuses White Fang to make him as fierce as possible. Beauty's goal is to win money by entering White Fang in dogfights, which he continues to do until Weedon Scott intervenes.
Three Eagles is one of the Indians who is with Gray Beaver when they discover White Fang and Kiche. A short time later, Gray Beaver gives Kiche to Three Eagles, who takes her with him on a long trip.
Weedon Scott's Mother
Her name is not mentioned, but she lives with the rest of the extended family at the estate.
Nature versus Nurture
The overarching theme of the novel is that heredity and environment each contribute to White Fang's fate. London comes down on the side of nurture as being the more powerful force. White Fang's nature is malleable, and he adjusts to whatever conditions his environment presents in order to survive. Under the abuse of Beauty Smith, White Fang becomes a killer seething with hate; under the loving hand of Weedon Scott, he becomes a gentle pet.
While this theme is woven throughout the novel, it is stated explicitly in these lines:
White Fang grew stronger, heavier, and more compact, while his character was developing along the lines laid down by his heredity and his environment. His heredity was a life-stuff that may be likened to clay. It possessed many possibilities, was capable of being moulded into many different forms. Environment served to model the clay, to give it a particular form. Thus, had White Fang never come in to the fires of man, the Wild would have moulded him into a true wolf. But the gods had given him a different environment, and he was moulded into a dog that was rather wolfish, but that was a dog and not a wolf.
Survival of the Fittest
The novel portrays two worlds, the world of nature and the world of humans. In both these worlds, all life is subject to the law of the survival of the fittest. Famine is well known to both humans and animals, and when it comes, the weak, the sick, and the old die. When the Indians have no food to give the dogs, the dogs return to the wild and try to stay alive until the famine passes. If they succeed, and if they find their old masters again, they often return to human society. But when hardship comes, it is every man, woman, child, dog, wolf, and pup for himself or herself. Relationships are based on mutual benefit, not on affection.
In the last section of the novel, White Fang enters a kind of paradise where the law of survival of the fittest has been superseded by the law of love. Weeden Scott rescues him at the moment when the law says he should die, and from that moment on White Fang lives in a radically different kind of world. The world of love, however, is one that most creatures never experience and one that White Fang reaches only after much extreme suffering—only because a kind man happens to come along at just the right moment, only because he was born with enough intelligence to be rehabilitated, and, above all, only because he has been tough enough to survive until that moment.
The narrator of White Fang is omniscient, which is a challenging choice for a writer and a fascinating one for a reader when the main characters are animals. Repeatedly, the narrator confidently describes the thoughts and feelings of dogs and wolves and explains how they experience the world. The best extended example of this comes when White Fang, as a small cub, leaves the lair for the first time. He has thought of the cave entrance as a strange wall that his parents have the power to walk through. Then one day his curiosity outstrips his fear, and he approaches "the wall of the world." The narration of his first outing begins:
Now the gray cub had lived all his days on a level floor. He had never experienced the hurt of a fall. He did not know what a fall was. So he stepped boldly out upon the air. His hind legs still rested on the cave-lip, so he fell forward head downward. The earth struck him a harsh blow on the nose that made him yelp. Then he began rolling down the slope, over and over. He was in a panic of terror. The unknown had caught him at last. It had gripped savagely hold of him.
The narrator goes on to describe in great detail how White Fang learns to distinguish what is alive from what is not alive, how he learns to interpret what his eyes are telling him about how far away things are, what he experiences when he steps into a stream and the current grabs him, and so on. There is no way for readers to know how accurate these descriptions are, but it is clear that they are based on long, close observation of canines, and they succeed in making the novel's animals complex and compelling characters.
London makes frequent use of several kinds of figurative language. The novel's first sentence contains an example of personification: "Dark spruce forest frowned on either side the frozen waterway."
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.
Topics For Further Study
- White Fang tells the life story of the title character, but London chose a somewhat unexpected starting point and ending point for his story: The entire first section of the novel centers on the life of White Fang's mother before White Fang is born, and the story ends before White Fang dies. Discuss what reasons London might have had for these decisions and whether you think they are effective or not.
- In parts of western Canada and Alaska, dogsleds are still an important method of transportation. Do research to learn where dogsleds are still in use and what the lives of the dogs and the people who use them are like.
- The rights of animals—both domesticated and wild—and what constitutes acceptable treatment of them is an issue that is often debated today. The legal status of animals is changing as some lawmakers, attorneys, and activists push for increased protection of animals from human abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Discuss the issue of animal rights and humane treatment as it relates to the novel. Should laws protect animals from abuse such as that suffered by White Fang? If so, how should people who break these laws be punished? Should laws prohibit people from owning wild animals?
- Do research to learn about wolves and wolf-dog hybrids. Find out how accurate and realistic London's portrayal of White Fang was. Could an animal that is three-quarters wolf really become as tame as White Fang did?
- Using place names mentioned in the novel as your starting point, do research to learn more about the Native Americans mentioned in the novel. What tribe would they have been part of? What was their culture like? Do they still live in the area today?
- The novel is set just before and during the Yukon gold rush of 1898. Learn more about this event. How did it start, how long did it last, and how did it impact the settlement of the area?
Such figurative language enriches the descriptions throughout the novel and makes the faraway landscape and the special terrors of the North more real to readers by relating them to more familiar, universal realities.
One figure of speech that is especially prominent in the novel is antonomasia, in which the name of an office or role is substituted for a person's actual name. A common example of the technique is the use of "the Bard" to refer to Shakespeare. In White Fang, when the narrator speaks of men as they are viewed by dogs and wolves, he calls them "the gods." London writes several times that canines see humans in roughly the same way that humans see their gods. He even establishes a hierarchy of gods, making the claim that canines recognize white men as "superior gods" compared to Indians. This recognition is said to be based on the canines' comprehension that the white men in the story have more power than the Indians.
Compare & Contrast
Late 1890s–1900s: In 1898, with the discovery of gold along the Klondike River, the Canadian government separates the Yukon district from the Northwest Territories, making it a separate territory. More than thirty thousand prospectors come north to search for gold.
Today: The Yukon remains a territory of Canada. Mining (for lead, zinc, silver, copper, and gold) is its primary industry, followed by tourism. The entire population of the territory is less than the number who came hoping to find gold in the late 1890s, making it one of the least populated regions of North America.
Late 1890s–1900s: Until the gold rush spurs the building of the first railroads in the Yukon, the only ways to travel are on foot, by dogsled, and by canoe. The White Pass and Yukon Railway are constructed to provide transportation for gold prospectors and the settlers who follow them.
Today: The region's railroads have been shut down, replaced by air travel and the Alaska Highway. Some residents of the Yukon still rely on dogsleds as a major form of transportation.
Late 1890s–1900s: Life in the Yukon is extremely harsh, and famines affecting both humans and animals are common. Native Americans and animals alike depend on salmon and game for food, and in years when both are in short supply, only the strong survive. When people do not have food to feed their dogs, the dogs return to the wild and struggle to find enough food to stay alive.
Today: Humans and animals in the Yukon still live in relative isolation and depend heavily on salmon and game. However, air travel and modern communications greatly reduce the threat of famine. In the late 1990s, when salmon and game were scarce and people in the region were unable to feed their sled dogs, word quickly reached the rest of the world. Pet food companies and others donated food, and private couriers flew it to the Yukon free of charge to prevent widespread starvation of sled dogs.
Jack London, along with Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and others, is considered one of the premier writers of the naturalist style of American literature. Naturalism emerged in France in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and held sway in the United States between about 1900 and 1918, when World War I ended. It developed out of scientific ideas that were popular at the time, especially Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Naturalist writers were interested in the closely related idea of determinism, which holds that the fate of an individual human or animal is determined by the interplay of heredity (nature) and the environment (nurture) in his or her life. These writers often created everyday characters and then subjected them to extreme circumstances to show how innate traits and life circumstances combined to create their destinies. In Crane's classic naturalist novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the extreme circumstances are provided by war. In White Fang and other fiction by London, they are provided by the harsh conditions of life in the far North. Several times in White Fang, London points out to readers that if a certain circumstance had been altered in a small way—for example, if the Indians who first tamed White Fang had camped across the river the night he ran to rejoin them, as they had first planned to—the wolf's fate would have been completely different.
London's naturalist fiction is especially interesting because many of his works feature animals as characters. This allows London to examine nature both in its wild state, untouched by human civilization and complications, and as it is affected by human intervention. In fact, White Fang portrays wolves both in the wild and relating to a range of different human cultures and temperaments, showing how each one affects the wolves. This, along with the novel's objective, detailed style, makes it an exemplar of naturalism.
When White Fang was published, conservation of the wilderness was much on Americans' minds. Theodore Roosevelt, the most conservation-minded president the United States has ever had, was in the White House. He expanded the United States's national forests by more than 150 million acres. Roosevelt's friend John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and the United States's most famous conservationist, was publishing books about his visits to America's wild places and at the same time working for their protection. After centuries of expansion from the East Coast to the Pacific, Americans were for the first time realizing that although their nation was vast, its wilderness and resources were not unlimited and needed to be conserved and protected.
In addition, as more Americans moved to cities and as life became increasingly industrialized, the idea of the wilderness became more captivating. Americans and Europeans alike loved to read stories of adventures in wild places, and this undoubtedly contributed greatly to the popularity of London's fiction.
The most noteworthy fact about criticism of White Fang—and of London's work in general—is the lack of it. 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 Fang was rescued from these extremes of cruelty and terror, to become "the blessed wolf" of a gracious California estate in the Southland, a perfect pet of an aristocratic gentry, that London succumbed to the sentiment which spoiled another beautiful little parable of the instinctual life.
Mary Allen, in her Animals in American Literature, seems to agree:
What the author intends as the virtue of adaptation comes across instead as the case of a character who sells out, at least so it seems to the American reader. The case for civilization is apparently viewed differently in Europe, however, where White Fang outsells The Call of the Wild.
A comment in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, published in multiple volumes during and shortly after London's life, sums up the literary establishment's view of London. In an entry on London's contemporary Richard Harding Davis, the editors declare that Davis "had what Jack London lacked utterly, literary traditions, poise, a certain patrician touch, and an innate love of the romantic." Clearly, the establishment was not ready to embrace London's style, which Allen calls "a realism that revolutionized popular fiction in the 1900s."
As if the disdain of literary critics were not enough, London even suffered a complaint from the White House. According to Allen, after reading White Fang, President Theodore Roosevelt, an outdoorsman and adventurer himself, claimed that an incident in which a lynx kills a wolf was a "gross falsifying of nature's records." London insisted on the authenticity of his account.
Norvell is an independent educational writer who specializes in English and literature. In this essay, Norvell discusses character development in the novel's human characters.
The wolf is the hero of White Fang, and although his interactions with humans are an important part of his story, even in those interactions the animals remain at center stage. The humans are there to help Jack London demonstrate how the wolf's temperament and destiny are shaped by all the individuals and elements that enter into his sphere of existence. In this respect, the novel's human characters are equivalent to the rest of the supporting cast, from the pack of puppies who mark White Fang as an outcast to the harsh wilderness that challenges him throughout much of his life. Because the role of humans in the novel is peripheral and because London creates several human characters to show the full range of humanity's possible impacts on White Fang, it would not be surprising if each one were drawn very cursorily in two dimensions. If these characters had been stereotypes, many readers, attention riveted on White Fang by the author's design, would not have noticed. Those alert readers who did notice would no doubt have excused the lapse, as they excuse similar lapses in a thousand other engaging stories. After all, even great artists give less attention to the figures in the backgrounds of complex paintings than they do to the central figures. And, if White Fang's human characters had been stereotypes, it would have given critics who denied London the title of literary author something to sink their teeth into.
But, significantly (and with one exception), these characters are not two-dimensional or entirely predictable or stereotypical. Even though they are developed only as fully as their respective roles in the story demand, they are made complex and lifelike through small details and unexpected actions. Each human character is, indeed, a type who represents a broad slice of humanity. But each is also an individual who says and does things that strike the reader as being out of character, which is exactly what makes people—real people and fictional ones—authentic and memorable.
The first characters, human or animal, to appear in White Fang are Bill and Henry, who are trekking through a frozen forest with the mission of delivering the body of the mysterious Lord Alfred to Fort McCurry. Their distinct personalities soon emerge and predict their fates.
The hungry wolf pack is trailing Bill and Henry in the hope of making a meal of them. That much is acknowledged by both men. Bill is a talker and a worrier who expects the worst from the start. Henry is a stoic who speaks only to try to calm Bill and who seems to have no expectations at all. Whatever Henry actually thinks of their prospects, he keeps it to himself. He does not deny the facts—they are being hunted by a pack of forty famished wolves, and they have only three cartridges left for their shotgun—but he also does not allow them to touch his emotions. If he experiences fear, he refuses to give it any quarter or any expression. He knows that his best tool for survival is his mind, and he focuses all his energy there. He thinks, and then he does according to his thoughts. He thinks about when they should make camp in the evening and when they should set out in the morning, and he thinks about what would and would not be a good use of those three precious cartridges. Even when his own situation seems hopeless, he thinks about how to save Lord Alfred's noble corpse from the wolves. He has been charged with getting it to civilization, and his mind is on his mission, whether he lives to complete it himself or not. He is as detached and dispassionate as the spruce trees and the howling wind and the howling wolves. He devotes all his physical and mental resources to surviving and fulfilling his role for as long as he can, and when death seems certain, he does not whimper but accepts this as another fact. He understands all along the difference between what he can control and what he cannot; he controls what he can and ignores what he cannot. And in the end, his rationality and determination and focus keep him alive just long enough for unexpected help to arrive. Henry survives.
Bill does not. As the wolves devour their dogs one by one and come ever closer to the men, Bill's mind becomes increasingly disordered. He lets fear destroy his ability to think clearly, and he is impatient. He cannot bear the suspense of not knowing whether he and Henry will survive. And when the She-Wolf lures one of their dogs to its inevitable death in broad daylight, Bill cannot bear to stand by and listen as the dog loses a desperate struggle for its life. He cannot accept life as it is, cannot put his survival above his feelings, and so he ignores Henry's warning, follows the doomed dog into the woods, fires all three remaining cartridges at the wolves, and is killed and eaten along with the dog.
Henry, of course, represents all individuals, human and animal, who have mastered the law of the survival of the fittest. He accepts that life is a struggle and that eventually he is bound to lose. He understands that his only choice is to struggle as intelligently and determinedly as he can and to surrender himself to fate at the appointed time. Henry lives by his wits, and Bill lives, and dies, by his emotions, which are as worthless and as impotent as Lord Alfred's noble title is in the wilderness.
But even as they play their parts in this two-man drama with universal applications, Henry and Bill are a couple of regular guys in a tight spot. They sit on the coffin lid to eat their meals, because it is a better seat than the ground. Bill rashly vows that if his latest effort to protect the dogs from the wolves fails, he will not allow himself a cup of coffee in the morning. When he insists, with equal rashness, on keeping that vow and denying himself the one warming pleasure in what could be his last day on Earth, Henry gently tries to make him drink the coffee. Henry knows that Bill's growing irrationality lessens his own chance of survival, but he accepts this just as he accepts the wolves, without complaint and without ill feeling. He tries to comfort Bill, to calm him, to prevent his final, suicidal mission; and when he fails, he thinks about what to do with Lord Alfred and how to help the dogs pull the sled, and he moves on.
"This makes Scott very much like people we have all known, people whom we think we know completely, who one day suddenly do something that makes us recoil and shrug our shoulders and add a question mark to what we have written in our hearts about them."
As Henry and Bill are counterparts in the first part of the novel, Beauty Smith and Weedon Scott are counterparts in the last part. Beauty and Weedon represent the worst and the best in humanity, but they, too, are just a couple of guys. Beauty's behavior is evil and inexcusable, but London forces readers to see him as a human being nonetheless by describing the physical ugliness and deformity that earned him not only the nickname Beauty but also a life as an outcast who has often been the victim of the kind of abuse he heaps on White Fang. There is no redemption for Beauty in the novel and no suggestion that readers should pity him. Yet the parallels between Beauty and White Fang cannot be ignored. White Fang is rehabilitated by love, which suggests that Beauty might be, too, given the opportunity. Beauty is three-dimensional because behind the length and breadth of his evil lies the same potential that lies within all creatures: the potential to be improved by improved circumstances. This is not, today, an inventive way to add depth to a character, but it was much fresher at the time it was written, and it is still credible.
What Do I Read Next?
- The Call of the Wild (1903) is London's most well-known novel. It was hugely popular when it was first published and remains a favorite today. It also is considered one of the leading novels of the naturalist period. The Call of the Wild has many similarities with White Fang. It is the story of a dog who suffers the cruelties and hardships of nature before being adopted by a kind man.
- John Barleycorn (1913) is London's painfully straightforward account of his alcoholism, published only a few years before his death. It is the only autobiographical work of substantial length that London wrote, and it includes descriptions of the writer's travels and adventures as well as of his struggles with alcohol.
- My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), by John Muir, is the most popular work of the famous conservationist. It is the diary of a summer that Muir had spent in the Sierra Nevada Mountains decades earlier, in 1869. This book and others by Muir were instrumental in bringing American tourists to wilderness areas and in expanding the national park system.
- The Red Badge of Courage (1895), by Stephen Crane, tells the story of a young soldier in the Civil War. Crane explores how the soldier's inborn traits and his environment combine to mold his character and his behavior. Like White Fang, The Red Badge of Courage has a long history as both a literary and a popular success and is considered an important work of American naturalism.
- Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Winning the Iditarod (1994), by Gary Paulsen, is the author's account of his 1983 running of the Iditarod, Alaska's famous, grueling dogsled race. Paulsen, who began the 1,150-mile, seventeen-day race by becoming lost, faced many of the same challenges described in London's fiction, including bone-chilling cold, exhaustion, attacks by wild animals, and dogfights.
Weedon Scott is, in London's term, "the love-master" to Beauty Smith's "mad god." The unique element of Scott's character is selflessness, the sacrifice of his own best interest for that of another. Henry was kind to Bill in spite of the fact that Bill's weakness threatened Henry's survival. But Henry had no choice, because he had no escape from Bill. Bill was a part of his environment that he had to accept, along with the wolves and the cold. Scott represents a greater good because he chooses to make White Fang his responsibility, and he chooses knowing that he is taking on a killer. After rushing into the middle of a dogfight—putting himself in danger not only from the dogs but from a furious Beauty Smith—and struggling to save White Fang, Scott then pays a small fortune for a wolf who is nearly dead. There is nothing in it for him. Two weeks later, the moment Scott unchains a recovering White Fang, the wolf kills one of his sled dogs and bites both Scott and his musher, Matt. Instead of anger, Scott feels deep regret at the thought of shooting White Fang as a hopeless case; he seizes on White Fang's next action, a knowing dodge when he sees the gun raised, as a reason to believe that the wolf is intelligent enough to be redeemed after all. In coming days, Scott is willing to risk being attacked again to win White Fang's trust.
And yet, there is this: After Scott has taken White Fang back home to California, he sometimes takes him into town, where a trio of dogs harass White Fang mercilessly. White Fang has learned not to attack dogs, and so he soaks up their abuse for Scott's sake—until one day Weedon Scott, the icon of unconditional love, addresses this injustice, not by speaking to the dogs' owners or by taking some other civilized measure, but by giving White Fang permission to kill the dogs. White Fang does so with dispatch, and of course the townspeople henceforth make sure that their dogs do not bother him. Scott's solution is as effective as it is shocking to readers who thought they knew him. This makes Scott very much like people we have all known, people whom we think we know completely, who one day suddenly do something that makes us recoil and shrug our shoulders and add a question mark to what we have written in our hearts about them. Even people who make unconditional love a habit are not perfect.
There is one more human who is White Fang's master, the Indian Gray Beaver, and he is the one whom London fails to elevate above stereotype. Although he is not cruel, he is portrayed as being incapable of showing affection toward White Fang. The relationship between the two is strictly pragmatic: Gray Beaver provides food and protection and does not beat White Fang as long as he obeys; White Fang helps pull Gray Beaver's son's sled and guards his family and his property. The two have made a covenant, to use London's word, but after five years Gray Beaver breaks the covenant, and it is whiskey that makes him do it. He at first refuses to sell White Fang to Beauty Smith, but Beauty Smith, the least of all white men, finds it easy to manipulate Gray Beaver. He at first gives him whiskey and then sells him whiskey until the considerable amount that Gray Beaver has earned by trading at the fort is gone. By that time, Gray Beaver is addicted to alcohol and, drunk and broke, finally turns White Fang over to Beauty Smith in return for still more whiskey. He beats White Fang severely when the wolf tries to escape Beauty's tortures and return to him, and he leaves the fort, and the story, to return, ruined and shamed, to his village. Gray Beaver is a stock character, lacking individuality and vitality. London's portrayal of White Fang's Indian master is a distracting weakness in an otherwise strong supporting cast.
Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on White Fang, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following interview, Treadwell and London cover topics ranging from politics, literature, philosophy and social commentary.
"Magnifique, by gosh!"
One of the ranch men was driving me from the Glen Ellen station to Jack London's place in the hills. He was a French Swiss, who had lived in South America before coming to California; and he was giving polyglot expression to his love for the fields, the flowers, the trees, and Jack London. We had come to a crest in the road from whence we could see the startling ruins of the great brown stone pile London built for a home that was burned some months ago, just when it was done.
"Three years we work to build him and someone burn, What a tristesse for me! But Jack London say, 'Cheer Pierre, we build again.' 'Not for a life of you,' I tell to heem. 'There is not in me so bigness of heart for a work and a expense.' But already we cut the trees. One year to—what you call—season? Por Dios! Get up you lassie—Magnifique, by gosh!"
The Londons live in the sprawly old house of an ancient winery that was on the place. It is set in the midst of the quiet hills. Mrs. London has arranged it cleverly, and there is an air of comfort and happiness and work about it as well as sunshine and country calm.
At the end of a long hall running through the center of the house is a door bearing the legend in heavy black letters on a white card: "Hands Off!" Behind this mute but screaming protector the California author is secure until noon. One hundred dollars' worth of story writing is done there every morning—1000 words at 10 cents a word. This takes between one and two hours. Then the mail is gone through with, and about then a dull booming South Sea gong sounds. The midday meal is ready. The forbidding door opens, an attractive looking man with an adorable smile comes out—tramp, political economist, rancher, philosopher, author—and laugher.
Mr. London was late for lunch this day, but when he got there he made up for lost time—from the point of view of the interviewer—talking swiftly and to the point. I suppose he ate, too. That's what he was there for; so no doubt he did it. Action and directness seem to be two of his many middle names.
London answers every question one puts to him, quickly, directly and without hedging. Yet he is a very difficult man to interview. The very minute he came into the room, in spite of the blue eyes, in spite of the smile, in spite of a very charming expression, I knew that I was in for it. He has a steel-trap body and a steel-trap mind. He turns this battery on you, and lets it go at you, slam-bangs own success and self-confidence. And he laughs.
"Why have you come to ask me? Out with it! I know your paper didn't send you up here for nothing. Just to talk to Jack London? Here in California? I'm only interesting to interviewers away from home. All that the papers here can do for me is to misquote and belittle me! No? Say, I know what I'm talking about.
"So you know that when a university girl wandered into the hills in back of Berkeley and was attacked by a tramp the papers said it must have been Jack London? Don't know about that, eh? Well, do you know that when some Italians sought to play the badger game—do you know what the badger game is? All right! Well, these Italians tried to pull the badger game, and when the victim didn't come through with the money they cut him up in pieces and dumped him in the bay, or tried to, when they were interrupted. Do you know what the papers said then? That it must have been Jack London who did it. You don't believe that? Well, look it up in the files! How long have you been in the newspaper game? It was before your time. But it's the God's truth.
"Do you belong to the Woman's Press Club? No? Take a harp! Take two harps! Ever hear that story of Bierce's about the woman who had committed every sin in the book and went up to be questioned by Saint Peter? He told her to tell all and was just going to send her below, when she said she had been blackballed by the Woman's Press Club. 'Come in,' said Peter. 'Take a harp! Take two harps!' But they are no worse than the men's press club. Of all the flat-footed, bone-headed pinheads! Do you know that they knocked me consistently for twelve years; never as much as invited me to their club, and here the other day I got a letter asking me for $2000 for their clubhouse! Can you beat that?"
"My new novel? I think I'll call it "The Jacket." It's a punch against prison conditions in California. What I have to say in it is just what is said by every well-known criminologist in the world. Everybody who thinks knows it, and they have been hiring little halls and telling it to each other.
"What's the use of people who all more or less, think the same, getting little halls, and agreeing with one another?"
"I'm trying to get some of these ideas over to fiction readers. Do you know that today it is possible to sentence a man to solitary confinement in California? That it is possible for us to hang a man for assault and battery? That, in fact, last year in 1913 we did hang a man for assault and battery? Jake Oppenheimer was hanged for assault and battery here in your own State, in California. The straitjacket still obtains in our prisons. Didn't you know that? "Do I put any constructive ideas for prison reform into this novel? No, I do not. I just draw the picture of conditions as they are now. Have I any constructive ideas along those lines? Of course I have. I would turn prisons into hospitals. My basic belief is one of pure determinism. Each person moves along a line of least resistance. We do what is easier for, us to do than not to do. We can't help doing what we do."
"If I'm short-sighted and bump into posts, I'm not to blame. It's because of my short sight. I ought to get glasses? Of course. That is just it! If I break our so-called laws, I can't help it. I do it because I am sick. There is something wrong with me, I'm a sick man. And I need doctors. I need all the skilled science of the twentieth century to investigate and see, and try if anything can be done for me to keep from doing what is hurtful to the whole body of my fellow-creatures. The whole school of scientific criminology is with me in this. It's only the fools who are not.
"Do I believe in capital punishment? No, I do not. It is too silly. I saw a man hanged because he killed another man. And he killed the other man over 25 cents. One said that the other owned the 25 cents. That one said he did not. They began to quarrel and finally, like two bulls in a pasture, they got to fighting; and in the fight one killed the other. So the state hanged him. Oh, the pomp and circumstances with which they stretched that man's body at the end of a rope! And when it was all over the warden said: 'Gentlemen, take your hats off!' It was then that I laughed."
"London answers every question one puts to him, quickly, directly and without hedging. Yet he is a very difficult man to interview."
"Am I still a Socialist? I'm in the same position that I've always been. Now they call it Syndicalism. I'm a Syndicalist. I believe in taking over, by whatever means necessary, the existing forms of government. The Boston Tea Party was an expression of that kind of feeling. Revolution? What about it? Our Pinker-tons, our police, our soldiers—they are all organized for an allied purpose, the purpose of banging an offensive foreign substance into another man's body. But after all, Syndicalism is only a blind expression of personal feeling, of emotion."
"I have been interested in the Western Fuel case. And I'll tell you the point that got me, in that—the absolute horror and consternation of those men when one director was finally found guilty. Well, why not? They feel that they haven't done anything wrong. And they haven't. This is their society. The United States is their clubhouse. That same game is going on by gentlemen members all over the clubhouse. Why should these men go to jail?"
"Yet, other men are going to jail—thousands of them—every day. And some of them are going, denied the right of trial by jury, denied the right to plead guilty or not guilty. You don't believe that? But it is true. I myself have been sent to jail, denied the right of trial by jury; denied the right to plead guilty or not guilty. And my name is legion. What was I doing? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Walking along the streets of a city, when a cop hauled me in."
"What was I booked for?-Vagrancy, yer Honor.' I tried to plead not guilty, to explain. The judge didn't even look at me. 'Thirty days. And I was yanked aside while the judge went down the line. You must have seen men sentenced like that, dozens of times, haven't you? Then why do you look at me as though you doubted when I told you men were sentenced to jail without the right to plead? You have heard too much Fourth of July oratory. Be more brass tacks! Lose some of your illusions!"
"It's your education that's to blame for your lack of brass tacks, not you. What a training we give to children! If I had a son I would not send him to school until he was ready for the last year of grammar school, and then only that he could get used to our form of democracy. No, I wouldn't give him a free choice of what he wanted to learn any more than I give a colt a free choice! I'd train him—freedom—but within limits. No, he would not go to a university; not unless he could run faster than I."
"The reason I quit the university was because I did not have money enough to get through and because I wasn't getting anything there that I wanted. Do you know what happened to me over there, in that State university at Berkeley, supported by the taxes of the people? I was called out before a whole regiment of students undergoing, as I was, enforced military drill, and I was publically humiliated by an officer of the regular army because my uniform was shabby, because I lacked $40 to buy a new one. My uniform was a second-hand one. I bought it from a fellow for five dollars, and he had bought it from one before him. It was handed down from one poor student to another, and no doubt it did lack style. But was that any reason why the poor boob who had to wear it because he couldn't get a better one should be humiliated?"
"Do you know who are the arbiters of American literature today? The failures of American literature! Men who could not get a half cent a word for a story of their own, dictate to men who get ten. When I was in New York this time a $6000 a year editor tried to tell me what to do. His magazine pays me $24,000 a year."
After luncheon Mr. London drove to the station. He drove a light team and handled it well; with all the firm ease one would expect of him. Conversation turned to farming. As the rig wheeled smartly down the country roads, Mr. London would wave the whip hand over the landscape."
"My land goes to the crest of those mountains there. We stretch the length of that valley. I have 500 acres in vines. These are my eucalypti. I put all these in. Got several hundred acres of them. This road isn't bad, is it, considering the rains we've had? This is my private road. Wait until you come to the county road—a fright. I always keep my own roads up—and my gates."
"Mr. London," I asked, widening my eyes to the breadth of valley and mountain that he calls "mine." "Is there such a thing as a Socialist capitalist?"
"I don't know," he answered easily. "When I was in New York I met a man who told me he was a bourgeois anarchist."
And I was just making a mental note about a clever hedge—when he burst out:
"You mean that for me. But I'm no capitalist. What is a capitalist?"
"One who has capital," I ventured weakly.
"No, a capitalist is one who lives off capital, who makes money earn money. I don't. I live off wage, the wages that I coin out of my Own brain. And you don't think this ranch earns me anything, do you? Why, if I'd die today you wouldn't believe it if I'd tell you how much in debt I'd be. But that's my way of getting ahead of the game. If I die owing $200,000 I'm just that much ahead of the game, am I not? If you die owing eight dollars, you'd be just eight dollars to the good, wouldn't you? Of course, one can take pride in always paying their bills and all that, but somehow that slide to eight bones as a possible debt capacity for me didn't thrill as it might."
"What are your ideas about marriage?" I asked. That's always a good way to change the subject.
"I believe in marriage. The march of civilization has proven out monogamy and shown it to be the best proposition along those lines for the human race. I insist that all the people that work for me be married. I'm not going to have any promiscuity around here."
"I hope not."
I wanted to ask him if there is such a thing as a socialist dictator, but I knew he was laughing at me."
For there is something that I haven't been able to put into this interview, the undercurrent of laughter that is new in Jack London—that laughter that is born of vision and disillusion.
When I was on the train coming back the conductor came right away to punch. "Was that Jack London?" he asked. "That man in the sombrero at the station?"
"That was Mr. Aristophanes," I told him.
"Guess Jack London isn't back yet. Pretty smart fellow, all right." I thought of the words of the French-Swiss ranch-hand:
"Magnifique, by gosh."
Source: Sophie Treadwell, "Is Jack London a Capitalist? No! But Is Certainly 'Magnifique, by Gosh!'" in Jack London Journal, No. 3, 1996, pp. 199–203.
In the following interview, Julius and London focus on London's politics and sense of pessimism with the political system.
Ten minutes after meeting Jack London, one is impressed by his grim pessimism. He is, confessedly, a pessimist. But, before viewing this phase of London, let us have some small talk about things that may prove interesting even though they may not be of great national importance.
To begin with, he looks much handsomer than his pictures, for the camera never gets his soft, gray eyes. Though 37 years old, he doesn't appear to be more than 30. He has a magnificent body—a fine form, with nothing pugilistic except his shoulders. He has a chin that doesn't appear to be of the son to invite dispute. When he laughs, his mouth looks like a Jewelry store window. Dressed simply, he wears a plain ready-made suit of clothes; a soft collared, white shirt and a black silk tie produce a striking effect. His hat is one of those abominable sombreros.
His conversation is decidedly colloquial, having neither the refinement of an over-cultured scholar nor the roughness of a stage westerner. It is just ordinary English, the kind one hears on city street cars and office building elevators. He is quite approachable, always willing to talk streaks just for the asking. His speech is interspersed with mild, harmless oaths. And, here let us give thanks, he doesn't carry himself with an air of dignity. In brief, he is an open, frank fellow, in appearance more of a good fellow than our common conception of a famous author.
When I saw him he was in the hands of a Los Angeles moving picture man, who was using him to pose before the camera. A company has contracted to have London appear in a number of films that will depict many of his famous stories. These films will begin with London sitting at a desk, pen in hand, cigarette at his elbow, writing one of his tales. Of course, if the moving picture man wanted to be realistic, he would have London seated before a typewriter, but that, it is generally agreed, would be lacking in romance. Authors, in pictures, should pen their stories, not typewrite them. He will scratch away for about 200 feet of film, when the scene will fade, soon to open with the action of the story. So says the manager.
After proper intervals, London will reappear on the screen. Then, it will close with a hundred or more feet of film showing the writer in the act of closing the story and inserting the manuscript in an envelope, intending doubtlessly to send it to the harsh, hard-hearted editor. A photoplay of "John Barleycorn," a serial that appeared in a popular weekly magazine, will be one instance, it is announced by the film managers, where London will actually take pan in the action. As this story is autobiographical, it will add much to have London himself in the cast. His famous trip in the Snark will be included. London's wife, Charmian, will also appear in this play, it is said.
"Of course," says London, "I never pretend to be an actor. I don't know a thing about the profession. I'll do whatever I'm told, for I am in the hands of my-friends."
"What, in your opinion, is the effect of the capitalist system on art?" London was asked.
"Awful! Absolutely killing! The editors are not interested in the truth; they don't want writers to tell the truth. A writer can't tell a story when it tells the truth, so why should he batter his head against a stone wall? He gives the editors what they want, for he knows that the stuff he believes in and loves to write will never be purchased."
"What a pleasant view you take!" I said.
"That's why I am a pessimist. I see things in the light of history and the laws of nature."
"You may wonder why I am a pessimist," said Mr. London; "I often wonder myself. Here I have the most precious thing in the world—the love of a woman; I have beautiful children; I have lots and lots of money; I have fame as a writer; I have many men working for me; I have a beautiful ranch—and still, I am a pessimist. I look at things dispassionately, scientifically, and everything appears almost hopeless; after long years of labor and development, the people are as bad off as ever. There is a mighty ruling class that intends to hold fast to its possessions. I see years and years of bloodshed. I see the master class hiring armies of murderers to keep the workers in subjection, to beat them back should they attempt to dispossess the capitalists. That's why I am a pessimist. I see things in the light of history and the laws of nature.
"I became a Socialist when I was 17 years old. I am still a Socialist, but not of the refined, quietistic school of Socialism. The Socialists, the ghetto Socialists of the east, no longer believe in the strong, firm Socialism of the early days. Mention confiscation in the ghetto of New York and the leaders will throw up their hands in holy horror. I still believe that Socialism should strive to eliminate the capitalist class and wipe away the private ownership of mines, mills, factories, railroads and other social needs.
"I do not believe that Socialists should soften and yield, eventually becoming mere reformers whose greatest desire is economy in government and low taxes, and the like. They should take upon themselves the task of doing away with the robbing capitalist system, do away with the profit system and place the workers in possession of the industries."
"Are you opposed to political action?" Mr. London was asked.
"I believe there is much to be gained by entering political campaigns," he answered. "The real advantage, in my opinion, is the great opportunity to educate the workers to an understanding of the wrongs of the present system and the means of class consciousness."
"You think that a peaceful and legal change is impossible?"
"History shows that no master class is ever willing to let go without a quarrel. The capitalists own the governments, the armies and the militia. Don't you think the capitalists will use these institutions to keep themselves in power? I do."
"What do you intend to do, Mr. London?"
"I feel that I have done my part. Socialism has cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the time comes I'm going to stay right on my ranch at Glen Ellen and let the revolution go to blazes. I've done my part." After a pause, he added: "That's the way I feel now. I suppose when the time comes I'll let my emotions get the best of my intellect and I'll come down from the mountain top and join the fray."
"What a grim, pessimistic view you have, Mr. London!"
"Well, I'm a pessimist; I admit."
As I rose to leave, I shook his hand and said: "Yes, and I think I know the cause of your pessimism."
"I feel positive that your liver is out of order."
Source: Emanuel Julius, "The Pessimism of Jack London," in Jack London Journal, No. 3, 1996, pp. 189–91.
Allen, Mary, "The Wisdom of the Dogs: Jack London," in her Animals in American Literature, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 77–96.
Geismar, Maxwell, "Jack London: The Short Cut," in his Rebels and Ancestors: The American Novel, 1890–1915, Houghton Mifflin, 1953, pp. 139–216.
Kasdin, Steven J., ed., The Collected Jack London, Barnes and Noble Books, 1992, pp. 217–329.
Ward, Adolphus William, Sir, Alfred Rayney Waller, William Peterfield Trent, John Erskine, Stuart Pratt Sherman, and Carl Van Doren, eds., The Cambridge History of English and American Literature: An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes, Vol. XVI, Cambridge University Press and G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1907–1921.
Dutcher, James, Jamie Dutcher, and James Manfull, Wolves at Our Door: The Extraordinary Story of the Couple Who Lived with Wolves, Pocket Star, 2002.
James Dutcher and his wife, Jamie, spent six years living in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains with a wolf pack. The documentary film they made of their experiences, also entitled Wolves at Our Door, won an Emmy Award. This book details their experiences with the wolves, who lived in a twenty-acre enclosure with the Dutchers.
Kershaw, Alex, Jack London: A Life, Griffin, 1999.
This engaging biography covers all aspects of London's life, including his politics and his love of the wilderness and of adventure as well as his writing.
Lawlor, Mary, Recalling the Wild: Naturalism and the Closing of the American West, Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Lawlor discusses the various ways in which Americans have thought of the West throughout their history and examines how the literature of each period both influenced and reflected these ideas. Naturalism is a major focus of the book.
Pizer, Donald, ed., The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism: From Howells to London, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Pizer discusses realism and naturalism as literary movements and then provides more in-depth analysis of ten representative works, including London's The Call of the Wild.