Friday, February 10, 2012

Adventure classics -- Spinning fool's gold into fame

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London


In November 1902, 26-year-old Jack London returned to the United States from England with the manuscript of his first book in his pocket, and not much else. He was glad to accept his publisher’s advance for his next several books -- as long, he said, as he wasn’t expected to write about Alaska. He’d had enough of the far north during the gold rush of the late 1890’s. All he managed to find was a load of iron pyrites, glittering rocks better know as fool’s gold.

“I want to get away from the Klondike,” London wrote, indicating he wanted “to attempt a larger and more generally interesting field.”

Within a month, however, he was writing a story whose protagonist, a dog named Buck, reverts from a paragon of civility to primitive denizen of the wild. The story would become his famous book, The Call of the Wild. And as millions of readers know, it was set in Alaska.

“For three weeks,” biographer Alex Kershaw reports in Jack London: A Life, “(he) did nothing but follow Buck through the white silence, scratching out word after word in thick pencil. . . For once he had not paused to lecture his readers. . .but had concentrated instead on telling a story.”

In it, the half-St. Bernard Buck, who “had lived the life of a sated aristocrat” in his home in California, is stolen and sold for $300 as a sled dog during the gold rush. (The inflation calculator at estimates Buck’s price was the equivalent of more than $7,000 currently.)

But high value doesn’t insure good treatment, and Buck soon finds himself in a struggle for survival.

George Platt Brett, Sr., head of McMillan Publishing, asked London to remove some
profanity, anticipating a school-age audience. And although assuring London of his liking for the story, he feared “it is too true to nature and too good work to be really popular with the sentimentalist public.”

He could not have been more wrong. Instantly hailed as a classic, the novella has since sold millions of copies and inspired numerous filmed versions. The picture illustrating this post comes from the earliest Call of the Wild movie in 1935. It starred Clark Gable and Loretta Young, whose on-screen love affair overshadows the dog’s story. (And stimulated the economy of the Pacific Northwest where it was filmed, according to )

Years after publication of The Call of the Wild, London, in debt as usual, would return to the theme of Buck’s transformation but in reverse, to write a companion book, White Fang. London himself, after all, had returned from Alaska to his home state of “sun-kissed” California, to fame, fortune and civilization.

(Next Friday -- in a February of animal adventures, Adventure classics looks at Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka.)

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