There’s no denying that Jack London knew how to write a story in an age when there were plenty of fine storytellers on the scene. Who else could make a man’s inability to get a fire started so compelling or make the dual-identity story “South of the Slot” seem plausible?
What might not be as commonly known, however, is that Jack London could read the minds of animals. In The Call of the Wild, he follows a stolen dog to Alaska where it is placed into duty as a sled dog. Gradually, this dog gets in touch with its inner dog nature, in much the same way that Freddie Drummond discovers his inner roustabout in “South of the Slot.” A reader can perhaps believe that London, at home both among the lettered and the rough and tumble sorts, could understand the pull of a less “civilized” lifestyle. That he could demonstrate the same level of understanding of dogs is absolutely miraculous.
Not only is London able to bridge the species gap, but he can perceive matters from a previous lifetime. When he hears the barks of wild dogs, “Buck knew them as things heard in that other world which persisted in his memory.” His memory? Apparently, like Shirley Maclaine, Buck had access to past lives, as we read in more detail:
It was an old song, old as the breed itself- one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad. It was invested with the woe of unnumbered generations, this plaint by which Buck was so strangely stirred. When he moaned and sobbed, it was with the pain of living that was of old the pain of his wild fathers, and the fear and mystery of the cold and dark that was to them fear and mystery. And that he should be stirred by it marked the completeness with which he harked back through the ages of fire and roof to the raw beginnings of life in the howling ages.
While London claims to be simply a “naturalist,” following no ideology and reporting things as they actually are, the author is, instead, pushing hard on an utterly unprovable premise. In his view, not only do all creatures have an evolutionary and cultural past–a very reasonable idea to my mind, depending on how far one pushes it–but we can, and perhaps must, access that memory. Strangely, for a Darwinian, London seems to argue, in both the Drummond case and that of Buck, for the superiority of a previous stage of development. To his mind, Natural Selection somehow let Freddie Drummond down, forcing him to revert to a less advanced stage in his development. More clearly, it seems, Buck has been softened by life with humans, yet when he reverts to a wilder stage, he out-wolves all of the genuine wolves as well as the other dogs.
The very notion that this pampered family pet could make his way to Alaska, get in touch with his “wild fathers,” and then out-dog all of the natives of the place is as preposterous as the typical sports movie, where a character manages to put in a few weeks of good preparation and triumph over those who have dedicated their lives to the game.
Yes, Jack London writes a good story, but let’s not mistake this for anything like reality or “naturalism.”