Editor’s Note: In an attempt to work through the implications of having gone half-feral up in Alaska, Tessa is currently using the Seen to explore stories about people who are remembered for disappearing.
Four years ago, while traveling through El Salvador and Honduras, I was leafing through a hostel bookshelf and stumbled upon a curious double edition of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and White Fang.
The cover illustration and layout indicated that the book was made for a child, perhaps a middle school student. But as I opened the book and began to read, I was given an unexpectedly rich gift: the introduction to this edition contained a stunningly incisive, tragically thought-provoking essay by Abraham Rothberg.
Jack London was a conflicted man, an icon of the Rugged American Ideal who collapsed beneath the weight of the myth that he himself had created. London was born in 1876, the illegitimate son of Flora Wellman, a woman in whom, Rothberg writes, “the remains of the pioneer spirit had become a fly-by-night restlessness.” London’s stepfather and namesake, whom Flora married the year that Jack was born, played rooted counterpoint to Flora’s flightiness, and these dichotomies were adopted in Jack.
Rothberg’s essay lays out a devastating sketch of the two novels as vessels for London’s conflicted desires. In Call of the Wild, London writes of the triumph of regression, of the completeness of becoming feral. And in White Fang, London attempts to tell the story of a wolf-dog losing its wild otherness to become tame. “Buck had listened to the call of the wild,” Rothberg writes, “and White Fang presumably to the call of the tame, but White Fang’s acceptance of human civilization is only partial, at best contingent and unconvincing, while Buck’s rejection is total and quite convincing.”
London had gone rogue: he had lost his ability to function within the constraints of the society he found himself in, but was psychologically unable to live with the isolation inherent to that rejection. And so he wrote White Fang in an attempt to refute the completeness of his own atavism. Rothberg addresses this tension, writing “On both biological and allegorical levels, London’s retreat from the cities and from socialism was in full force, while in fiction he clung with a desperation born of despair to the vain hope that the wolves might come in to sit at the fires and be dogs, a belief he had actually abandoned both in his behavior and in his heart.”
Ironically, London’s personal, philosophical failures came in the same breath as his financial and creative successes. The public devoured the rugged romance of stories and relished the opportunity to be transported to the frontier of the Far North. But London could not continue to deliver an ideology whose tenets he was no longer able to meet, and gradually, he stopped writing and lapsed into torpor and alcoholism. He disappeared into the failure of his own myth: he committed suicide at the age of forty, unable to live up to the harsh demands of “the law of club and fang” that he had laid out in his books.