Read an Excerpt
From Tina Gianquitto's Introduction to The Call of the Wild and White Fang
By the time London boarded the steamer for his trip from San Francisco to Alaska, he had already led a colorful and dramatic life. He was a sloop owner and oyster poacher on San Francisco Bay and a deputy for the Fish Patrol at fifteen, a sailor traveling through the North and South Pacific hunting seals at seventeen, a coal-shoveler in a power plant, a Socialist, and a tramp at eighteen. By nineteen, a weary London saw himself, with others of the working classes, near "the bottom of the [Social] Pit . . . myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat" (London, War of the Classes, pp. 274-275; see "For Further Reading"). Although London was far from relinquishing his love of the active life, he feared being ruled by it. London fought in these early years to educate himself, and by that education to get himself out of the hard-laboring classes. As his hero informs his readers in the semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden, writing offered a way to stoke the fires of both the body and the imagination, and so with characteristic determination, London set himself to the task of becoming a professional writer. By 1896, however, he realized that writing alone could not support a hungry family. The following year, London and his brother-in-law Captain James H. Shepard decided to try their luck panning for gold in the recently discovered strikes along the Yukon River in the Klondike.
After disembarking in Juneau, Alaska, London, Shepard and their companions made their way to Dyea, the principle departure point for the gold fields of the Yukon and the Klondike. Buck travels the same trails that London covered-leaving Dyea, making the arduous climb over Chilcoot Pass, and pushing on to Lakes Linderman and Bennett before making the waters of the Yukon River. From here, the party traveled downstream, toward Dawson City, where they navigated the dangerous White Horse and Five Finger Rapids before reaching the relative safety of Split-Up Island, 80 miles from Dawson between the Stewart River and Henderson Creek. London staked a claim near here and made a brief visit to Dawson City to record the claim. He returned to the island, where the group passed the winter in an old miner's cabin. These long five months proved difficult for London, who contracted scurvy by the spring from poor diet and lack of exercise.
Upon his return to San Francisco in 1898, London began his writing career in earnest. Clearly, the Klondike turned London into a writer of note, not only because he was able to tap into a ready market for all things Gold Rush, but more important, because the landscape offered London a barren theater for his characters to work out their paths in life. If, as London believed, environment determined the course of an individual's life, then the austere and brutal, yet ultimately simple environment of the North tested the capacities of the individual (and by extension, the species) to adapt to the environment.
London's intellectual experiences during the winter spent on Split-Up Island are as important as his physical ones; he spent his time reading, rereading, and sharing with his friends the two books he carried with him to the wilderness: Milton's Paradise Lost and Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Less than a year after his return to San Francisco, London summed up his understanding of Darwin in a letter to his friend Cloudesley Johns: "Natural selection, undeviating, pitiless, careless alike of the individual or the species, destroyed or allowed to perpetuate, as the case might be, such breeds as were unfittest or fittest to survive" (Labor, p. 101). Such struggle characterizes human and animal life in The Call of the Wild and White Fang.