Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Jack London, old and new

Source: The Bancroft Library
Jack London was the writer who ignited my lust for books. Weirdly, I don't remember how old I was. It might have been 10, could have been 12. I had laughed over Dr. Seuss, of course, and I'd read a lot of stuff lying around our rambling old house. But it wasn't until The Call of the Wild fell into my hands that I experienced the impelling desire for books.

I remember that experience common to a lot of us: searching through the stacks at the library for "another [insert favorite author]." I found and devoured White Fang. But that was all our library had of Jack London. I moved on to other dog stories, thinking (hoping) that it was "dog stories" I wanted. It would have been too unbearable to imagine that I wanted only something that did not exist: more Jack London books.

In retrospect, it was an unexpected spark, that book. A more unlikely steel to my flint would be hard to imagine. I was a dreamy-eyed kid, anything but hardened by my travails, such as they were. I'd been raised to believe in a different ethic, not the one Jack London preached in all the pages of that book. I was taught to love my enemies; London's hero and mine, the reborn dog Buck, taught me valor, strength, cunning. Survival of the fittest. Later someone would label this for me: it's the heroic code in modern dress, the code of Beowulf and his ilk, and before him of Achilles and Hector, stalking glory on the battlefield. Here you boast, not in weakness, but in strength. Humility, on this field, is taken for weakness. And prowess is valued, not buried in shame.

There is no accounting for loves. What I devoured when I read those books was not social Darwinism, but the cold austerity of courage, stripped down, made vital. And the language--London's words are often deeply moving, merciless in their confrontation of that wildness he courts. Poetic, inspired, impassioned.

Maybe it was just that--his passion. Maybe I took that up in my veins through the ink that was, as it were, his blood on the page.

I couldn't say. I only know this: I revisited The Call of the Wild last month. And still, though I shrink back from that brutality, and though I sense better now the cost of embracing his vision of what and who we animals are, I felt the call of the wild in its pages, even so. It moved me, drew something from me, as Homer still does, and Beowulf.

And there's more, I think. In my exhausting efforts to lay low, bury my prowess at this or that, not vaunt myself--I start to hear that call drifting down from the timberland. Some day, I will meet that call. Not to become a brute, but to reconcile my desire and my skill with the things I've been taught, the civilizing influences I've taken in.

You can read The Call of the Wild at Project Gutenberg, or on an e-reader near you.
Here's a nice, brief biography, by Dr. Clarice Stasz.
Here's a nice summing up of its potency and value, by Robert McCrum.
Here's how you treat this book when you're afraid of the wild: "Common Sense" Media

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...