The classic Jack London novel, The Call of the Wild, was penned in 1903 and is generally hailed as London’s best work. The Call of the Wild is commonly challenged for its dark tone and bloody violence. Because it is seen as a man-and-his-dog story, it is sometimes read by adolescents and subsequently challenged for age-inappropriateness. Not only have objections been raised here, the book was banned in Italy, Yugoslavia and burned in bonfires in Nazi Germany in the late 1920s and early 30s because it was considered “too radical.”
The story is set in the Yukon during the 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush, a period when strong sled dogs were in high demand. The novel’s central character is a dog named Buck, a domesticated dog living at a ranch in California as the story opens. Stolen from his home and sold into the brutal existence of an Alaskan sled dog, he reverts to atavistic traits. Buck is forced to adjust to, and survive, cruel treatments, fight to dominate other dogs, and survive in a harsh climate. Eventually he sheds the veneer of civilization, relying on primordial instincts through lessons he learns, to emerge as a leader in the wild.
London lived for most of a year in the Yukon and gained from that experience material for the book. The story was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the summer of 1903; a month later it was released in book form. The novel’s great popularity and success made a reputation for London. Much of its appeal derives from the simplicity with which London presents the themes in an almost mythical form. As early as 1908 the story was adapted to film, and it has seen several more cinematic adaptations since that time.
The Call of the Wild falls into the genre of animal fiction in which an animal is given human traits. In the story, London attributes human thoughts and insights to Buck, so much so that when the story was published he was accused of being a nature faker for attributing “unnatural” feelings to a dog. Along with his contemporaries Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, London was influenced by the naturalism of European novelists such as Émile Zola, in which themes such as heredity versus environment were explored. London’s use of the genre gave it a new vibrancy, according to scholar Richard Lehan.
The story is also an example of American pastoralism—a prevailing theme in American literature—in which the mythic hero returns to nature. As with other characters of American literature such as Rip van Winkle and Huckleberry Finn, Buck symbolizes a reaction against industrialization and social convention with a return to nature. London presents the motif simply, clearly, and powerfully in the story, a motif later echoed by 20th century American writers William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway (most notably in “Big Two-Hearted River”). Doctorow says of the story that it is “fervently American”.