Jack London, who died 100 years ago this week, occupies a space in which few writers can set foot. Although it’s not especially unique for writers’ lives to be marked by sickness and excess, London was prolific despite these constant threats to his productivity. Even as illness loomed, he managed to publish over 50 books and hundreds of articles in the last 16 years of his life.
At a young age, London developed a hard discipline for writing — often jotting down as many as 1,000 words a day and getting by on little sleep. “All I wanted,” he said once, “was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that ‘something’ which we all need.” For much of his career, financial strains didn’t afford him the luxury of slowing down. But in time, that work ethic literally paid off, and made him the first American author to earn a million dollars in his lifetime. (It also likely contributed, however indirectly, to his untimely death at the age of 40.)
When Mrs. Foster-Grant, my 11th grade creative writing teacher, passed out copies of The Call of the Wild, I was immediately uninterested. Its cover — a large dog howling against a backdrop of the full moon — wasn’t enough to make me care. Weeks went by before I even cracked the thing open; I got by on assignments with the help of smart neighbors whose shoulders I could see over without a problem. But life has a strange way of ensuring you give specific books their proper due.
Around that time, I was listening to a track by a rap group called L.A. Symphony when one of the MC’s unleashed an odd couplet that gave me pause: “Slip to the right and then left/My name is Jack London and I got bad breath.” I replayed it over and over to make sure I was hearing correctly. While I figured the lyric was just an attempt at being provocative and didn’t hold any deeper meaning, it got my attention. I fetched the book from my knapsack and dug in to see what the big deal was.
And that’s when I finally heard the call of the wild. There is a melancholy that runs through books like The Call of the Wild and White Fang, London’s biggest books. The novels are rich and expansive, easily the most insightful novels ever to star dogs. They are also notably different in scope: One is about transformation and the power of embracing one’s true self, while the other revolves around the reality of oppression and allowing oneself, at least to some extent, to be tamed for the purpose of peace and harmony. Both books can be uniquely difficult to read at points, their violence and cruelty taking center stage and revealing harsh truths about the cost of survival. And about their author.
In a 1913 interview with the Milwaukee County Leader, London shed some light on his approach to life and work:
“You may wonder why I am a pessimist. 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.”
Sure, that kind of pessimism can seem too emotionally taxing. But the ability to look at certain areas of society “dispassionately,” as London puts it, can be beneficial in sparking change, and creating art that considers the variety of human experience and suffering.
On the last day of my 11th grade year — after also having devoured The Sea-Wolf and other London short stories — I left Mrs. Foster-Grant a burned copy of the L.A. Symphony CD with “Jack London Has Bad Breath” written in Sharpie. I provided no explanation beyond that. Each one teach one, I thought to myself.
Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He’s on Twitter: @itsjuanlove