Of Words and Wolves: Thoughts on Jack London

By the end of grade school, I knew, or sensed, that vast forces – parents, teachers, and church – were arrayed against me in a vast conspiracy to civilize me. My relationship with them had become one of wariness and secrets. I had friends of course, but after changing schools fairly often, I regarded friendship as a tenuous thing, subject to disruption at any time. I tended not to get too close to anyone.

My one constant companion was Ranger, the German Shepherd I had grown up with since the age of six. Once, alone in the woods in my coonskin hat, something exploded out of the brush at my back – a buck, with Ranger at his heels. The twentieth century vanished. We were back in the era when Daniel Boone would pack up and move when things got so crowded he could see the smoke of a neighbor’s chimney.

By the sixth grade, there weren’t any woods. We had moved from rural New York to the San Jose suburbs, where you had to look hard to find a decent tree to climb. Ranger hadn’t fared well either – he grew listless in our little fenced in yard, and within a year, developed a tumor. We put him down when he was six.  I was on my own and largely clueless.  And then, something wonderful happened.

They used to bring carts of inexpensive books into the sixth grade class, and one day I spent my lunch money on a paperback because the dog on the cover looked like Ranger. I hadn’t heard of Jack London or Call of the Wild, and though I loved to read, I didn’t yet know how deeply an author could speak to your soul.

For several years I followed Jack London through his dreams of silent forests, solitary men, dogs, and wolves.  I read everything of his I could find, but especially his tales of the Klondike – Call of the Wild, White Fang, and the collected of stories.  This past week I finally got to visit Jack London State Park and learn much I didn’t know about this author.  I didn’t realize what a toll his various adventures took on his health.  During his year in the Klondike, he:

” developed scurvy. His gums became swollen, leading to the loss of his four front teeth. A constant gnawing pain affected his hip and leg muscles, and his face was stricken with marks that always reminded him of the struggles he faced.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_London

London tried to live out the dream of sailing to tropical islands.  He built a ship, the “Snark,” to carry him and his second wife, Charmian, on a seven year, round the world voyage.  Instead, plagued by mechanical problems with the ship, and health problems of his own, London sold the “Snark” after 27 months.  That was one of his heartbreaks.  http://www.parks.sonoma.net/JLStory.html Another was the miscarriages that prevented him and Charmian from having children.   A third was the fire that destroyed “Wolf House,” the 27 room, rustic mansion he and Charmain were building, at a cost of $80,000 pre-WWI dollars.  The house was nearly complete, and London remained severely depressed after its destruction.


Wolf House Ruins


In addition to these travels, London was constantly on the go. He’d been a war correspondent twice, had an active social life, tried unsuccessfully to make his ranch profitable, and wrote more than 50 books. For long stretches, he slept only 4 or 5 hours a night. His flesh could not keep up with his spirit, and he died in November, 1916, at the age of 40. The certificate lists the cause of death as uremic poisoning, complicated by hepatitis and kidney problems. The morphine he took for the pain of his other conditions apparently played a part, and though there was talk of suicide at the time, most historians now agree that if there was an overdose, it was accidental.  His correspondence and papers were always full of plans and projects for the future – his dreams were far bigger than his human capacity.




Sage at the Folsom City Zoo, ca. 1994


His best friend called him “Wolf.”  He named his dream home, “Wolf House.”  James Dickey notes how closely London identified with his totem animal, and says:

The reader should willingly…conjure up the animal in the guise of the mysterious, shadowy, and dangerous figment that London imagines it to be. We should encounter the Londonian wolf as we would a spirit symbolic of the deepest forest, the most extremely high and forbidding mountain range, the most desolate snowfield: in short, as the ultimate wild creature, supreme in savagery, mystery, and beauty.” – (Dickey’s intro to the Penguin edition of The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories_

The “reality” of wolves as observed by biologists is very different, and Dickey says:

The mythic wolf that London “found” in his single winter spent…in the Klondike Gold Rush…bears in fact little resemblance to any true wolf ever observed. In studies…the wolf emerges as a shy and likable animal with a strong aversion to fighting. There is no evidence that any wild wolf has ever killed a human being in North America.

Reality and Truth can appear in different places depending on where and how we look for them. I don’t think I would have stayed up late as a kid – the old flashlight under the blanket trick – to read stories of lost trappers whose fires burn low while packs of shy, likable, creatures pace the perimeter.

Besides, it is the fact that wolves, like dogs, can accept humans as members of their pack, that allowed me to bond with several wolves when I was a volunteer at the Folsom City Zoo Sanctuary.  This was a marvelous opportunity I stumbled into – right place at the right time – and I often thought of Jack London, and imagined it as an inoculation of wildness – I got my fix without having to risk scurvy on the tundra.


A kiss from Redbud, a wolf pup, ca. 1996



Sometimes a degree of sophistication is a real pain in the ass.  I’d long lost my copies of Jack London’s books, so I picked up a collection on our visit.  I sat back that evening and looked at some of the stories, and noticed things I never saw as a kid:  in George Orwell’s words, “the texture of the writing is poor, the phrases are worn and obvious, and the dialog is erratic.” Yep – the agents at any writing conference would hammer him today.  And yet…

“The key to London’s effectiveness is to be found in his complete absorption in the world he evokes.  The author is in and committed to his creations to a degree very nearly unparalleled in the composition of fiction.  The resulting go-for-broke, event-intoxicated, headlong wild-Irish prose-fury completely overrides a great many stylistic lapses and crudities that would ordinarily cause readers to smile….Once caught in London’s swirling, desperate, life-and-death violence, the reader has no escape.” – James Dickey.

Fifty of Jack London’s stories and books have been made into movies. I’m not sure that can be said of any other author, let alone one whose youth was spent in abject poverty, and whose life was over at 40. And even those facts pale when the sight of a cold winter moon, or the scent of a pine, or the yip of a coyote in the distance sends shivers down the spine and spins you off, just for a moment, into arctic dreams.


Grave of Jack and Charmian London


7 thoughts on “Of Words and Wolves: Thoughts on Jack London

  1. Thanks for this. I have had a Jack London project in mind for quite a while. This may be just the kick in the pants I need to get going on it.


  2. Pingback: State Parks That Are Going Away | The First Gates

  3. I have just one question, I have read many theories about his death. Do you thing he committed suicide? I was wondering why … is it beacuse “world is getting old”? What do you think?


    • I had always heard he committed suicide until I toured the state park. There and in the brochure was a discussion of his death and the statement that many at the time thought it was suicide but “most historians now” believe it was uremic poisoning that killed him, not a deliberate overdose of the morphine he was taking for the pain. I certainly hope that is the case, but I don’t know if we will ever know for sure.


  4. Really enjoyed reading this and Dickey puts it perfectly why someone like me has such an admiration for the man. His work ethic and life overall is nothing short of inspirational and his conjuration of the wild that looms deep within the heart of the forest is as captivating as ever, especially nowadays when most of us merely exist, and not live, as he puts it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s