The Writing Allstars – Jack London

But especially he loved to run in the dim twilight of the summer midnights, listening to the subdued and sleepy murmurs of the forest, reading signs and sounds as a man may read a book, and seeking for the mysterious something that called — called, waking or sleeping, at all times, for him to come. (The Call of the Wild)

I remember meeting the writing of Jack London during high school. For my birthday, my aunt gave me hard-backed, illustrated copies of two classics: Black Beauty and Call of the Wild. I adored Black Beauty (though I thought my heart would break when Ginger was carted away, tongue lolling) but Call of the Wild was another story all together. To me, it was a boring, dragging, adventureless tale of wilderness and wild. I didn’t like the dog as narrator, though the horse posed no problem, and I thought the ending was a stretch. All in all, I wasn’t really left with a favorable impression. Looking back on that experience, I wonder if it’s really best to require kids to read stories like Call of the Wild. I wonder if it sours them on authors whose works are so much deeper than they realize. I am so glad that I got the chance to try London again because he had so much more to offer me than I was able to understand at the tender age of 14.

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances…[they] did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature…, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe. (To Build A Fire)

Older and, hopefully, wiser I ran into London again in an American Lit class at university. It was an evening class in the basement of the English building complete with flickering fluorescent lights, yellow tiled floors, and an instructor who was nearing his early eighties. We covered Whitman and Twain and all was well. And then came London. A short story. To Build a Fire. And in an instant, I was converted. Maybe because the tale was morbid and, therefore, instantly appealing to me. Maybe it was because I was attending college in the mountains and we were buried in snow all winter. Whatever the reason, there in the uncomfortable plastic chairs, surrounded by high, unwashed freshmen, I fell in love with Jack London.

Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes playing a poor hand well. (To Build a Fire)

Critics say that London is at his best in his shorter works and I have to agree. He takes the classic man vs. nature to new heights, inferring that man has strayed so far from his roots, embracing intellectualism over instinct, that he no longer has any instincts whatsoever. This lack of sense will make nature the winner every time. Nature is powerful and indifferent, caring nothing at all for those who seek to conquer it, cycling through its seasons with no thought of us. Rather than see this as a negative, depressing reality, London was able to inspire his readers with the comfort and security this knowledge brings with it. We are small and insignificant against a magnificent backdrop, but it is a beautiful and wonderful existence.

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time. (The Bulletin)

Because of Jack London, I looked at my role in the world in a new way. Because of Jack London, I embraced my finiteness and let it show through in my writing. Because of Jack London, I found Conrad and Kipling. Because of Jack London, I am the writer I am today.


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