National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Call of the Wild

The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

No man ever became great who did not achieve the impossible.


Jack London
(Copyright Bettman/Corbis)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Robert Redford reads from The Call of the Wild...

It was a hard day's run, up the Canyon, through Sheep Camp, past the Scales and the timber line, across glaciers and snowdrifts hundreds of feet deep, and over the great Chilcoot Divide, which stands between the salt water and the fresh and guards forbiddingly the sad and lonely North. They made good time down the chain of lakes which fills the craters of extinct volcanoes, and late that night pulled into the huge camp at the head of Lake Bennett, where thou­sands of gold-seekers were building boats against the breakup of the ice in the spring. Buck made his hole in the snow and slept the sleep of the exhausted just, but all too early was routed out in the cold darkness and harnessed with his mates to the sled.

Reed: That's Robert Redford, reading from Jack London's tale of adventure and struggle in the frozen Yukon, The Call of the Wild.

Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I'm Josephine Reed. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature.

Richard Rodriguez: Jack London touches something very deep in the American psyche, this confrontation with wilderness.

Susan Balée: It just gets to the fundamental questions of humanity, how can you get through the natural difficulties that are put in your way especially in a rugged atmosphere like the Klondike?

Kevin Starr: The Call of the Wild is for survival, survival in a hostile world.

Reed: Today, we're talking about Jack London's The Call of the Wild — and here's your host, poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia.

Gioia: The main character of Jack London's The Call of the Wild isn't who you'd expect. It's not a story of a human, but rather a dog named Buck. Buck is a huge dog, half Saint Bernard and half Scott Shepherd, and he is the favorite pet of a prosperous California judge.

Founder and owner of Patagonia Clothing Company, Yvon Chouinard.

Yvon Chouinard: The story begins with Buck living on a very posh farm in Santa Clara.

Gioia: Writer and former California State librarian, Kevin Starr.

Starr: Santa Clara Valley, South of San Francisco — a beautiful agricultural region dominated by plum trees, apricot orchards, vineyard — really the essence of California as a new Eden, as garden of the West.

Chouinard: He has a loving master and has everything he needs, didn't have any problems, he ate dog food whenever he was hungry and goes out bird hunting and things like that.

Gioia: Dog behaviorist, Cheri Lucas.

Cheri Lucas: It sounds like it is an idyllic life for a dog, but the reality is that he didn't really become completely fulfilled until the very end of his life.

Robert Redford Reads from The Call of the Wild...

Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for him­self, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.

Gioia: This idyllic life lasts only a few pages for poor Buck. He's dognapped by a gardener with gambling debts, sold and shipped North.

Yvon Chouinard.

Chouinard: He gets stolen and gets shipped to Alaska to work basically as a sled dog in the Gold Rush. And there were a lot of dogs stolen during that time to do that.

Starr: Just like they used to shanghai sailors. In San Francisco, they'd take men and bring them down to the bar and give them a Mickey Finn in their drink and they'd wake up on a ship offshore on a year's voyage. In effect, the dogs were being shanghaied for up there. The dogs became very precious.

Gioia: Writer and critic, Susan Balée.

Balée: Buck goes along with him because up until then he's always been well treated by humans so he has no idea that this guy has ulterior motives until the leash is handed over, and then his introduction into the school of hard knocks quite literally begins.

Gioia: Yvon Chouinard.

Chouinard: He was sold to a guy who immediately started beating him. In those days, you know, this is late 19th century, everybody thought that you had to beat a dog until he followed you and we realize now that the guy didn't have to beat Buck. Buck would have done anything you wanted him to do, but it was a different mentality in those days.

Gioia: Curator of Literary Manuscripts at the Huntington Library, Sara S. Hodson.

Sara Hodson: Jack London was born in 1876 in San Francisco and then most of his youth was in Oakland. He went to public schools in Oakland until he dropped out. He grew up in a tough household. His mother and father struggled financially. When he dropped out of school it was really to start earning money to help support the household.

Gioia: Kevin Starr.

Starr: In the 1890s, he was still a youngster and he becomes an oyster pirate, harvesting oysters illegally, running over to San Francisco and selling them on the pier for use in the great San Francisco restaurants.

Hodson: He worked at every kind of laboring job, common laborer, he worked in a laundry in a hotel. He worked in factories. He was always just trying to make some money.

Gioia: London also worked as a sailor in Japan and as a seal hunter, but despite beginning his working life at age nine, Jack London became a voracious reader. He spent long hours at the Oakland Public Library. His high school also encouraged his early literary interests.

Kevin Starr.

Starr: So even from the beginning there was two sides to his nature: the bookish side/the dreamy side, and then that hunger for experience. It is amazing how much life London packs into his early years before, say, he's even a freshman at Berkeley. He goes up with up with Coxey's army marching up to Sacramento; he takes to the railroads as a hobo under the name Sailor Jack....

Gioia: Sara Hodson.

Hodson: So he learned life from the ground up and these were the years when his former schoolmates were just high school students, but he's out there learning life as it is, real life, life that's rough, life that's harsh, life that throws you many curves and you have to try to get ahead anyway.

Chouinard: All this by 1819 and then of course up to the Klondike and he's harvesting the impressions upon which he will draw for his first phase of fiction.

Gioia: Writer, Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriquez: Here he is this young man in San Francisco and Oakland, at a time when the West had been achieved. This long migration of Americans across the prairie, across the Rockies, across the Salt Lake, across the Sierra and established a city called San Francisco. The wilderness has come to an end and now he begins to think not of going West, young man, but going North and it is to Alaska with the first discovery of gold in the Yukon that he himself goes.

Gioia: Sara Hodson.

Hodson: London is much like the dog Buck in that he was a scrapper. He fought for what he knew was his right. He fought for what he felt was due him, he never settled for less and Buck is very much that way. Buck starting out in a sheltered environment and then being thrown suddenly, rudely, brutally into this environment where he has to fight for his very life. Fight for food, fight to survive every single day and he has to learn those laws. If he doesn't learn the laws, he's not going to survive.

Gioia: There are two sets of characters in the novel—one is human, and the other is canine. Buck's first owners were a pair of French Canadians, Perrault and Francois, employed by the government to deliver mail to the remote outposts of the Yukon.

Robert Redford reads from The Call of the Wild...

Day after day, for days unending, Buck toiled in the traces. Always, they broke camp in the dark, and the first gray of dawn found them hitting the trail with fresh miles reeled off behind them. And always they pitched camp after dark, eating their bit of fish, and crawling to sleep into the snow. Buck was raven­ous. The pound and a half of sun-dried salmon, which was his ration for each day, seemed to go nowhere. [...]

He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life. A dainty eater, he found that his mates, finishing first, robbed him of his unfinished ration. There was no defending it. While he was fight­ing off two or three, it was disappearing down the throats of the others. To remedy this, he ate as fast as they; and, so greatly did hunger compel him, he was not above taking what did not belong to him. He watched and learned.

Gioia: Yvon Chouinard.

Chouinard: When he gets to Alaska, he starts learning survival skills; he's never had to learn survival skills because everything was taken care of for him. He's had to learn that some people are evil and that he has to avoid clubs, and he has to learn to steal food to stay alive and he has to learn to be crafty, otherwise he gets beaten. He kind of has to learn all the skills of a kid in the ghetto—survival skills.

Gioia: Cheri Lucas.

Lucas: He was moving forward, he was having to grapple with what he was going through. These were the rules then, these are the rules now. Eat or be eaten, I am either a beast of burden or a beast of prey and he understood that that's the way it worked. He was incredibly bright, even the people that abused him would say, "That Buck, he is an amazing dog. That's one smart dog," and he got his adversaries out of the way. He learned how to deal with humans, he knew who he could steal from and who he couldn't and which dogs he could get along with and tell what to do and so on and so forth. He was extremely adaptable.

Gioia: As Buck adapts to his new life in the North, his inner wildness is awakened. That deeply ingrained part of his nature that connects him with wolves and other untamed ancestors.

Susan Balée.

Balée: He moves back into his more primitive state, actually relatively easily because he can't survive unless he does and he quickly discovers the call of the wild is the natural thing.

Gioia: Kevin Starr.

Starr: And so he strips away at various levels. He strips away the human associations and then in his encounter with fellow animals, he realizes that implanted in the fellow animals is also this code of survival. He has to learn that too. He also has to learn it internally as he copes with hunger, he copes with cold, he copes with physical fatigue.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: Jack London belongs to a Darwinian age. He belongs to an age in which from Europe had come Charles Darwin's reminder that the strongest survive and that the creatures who make it in time have to essentially assert their will against the wildness. And asserting their will against the wildness, they become part of the wildness. Because this dog, this creature who enters Alaska, essentially discovers the wildness within himself.

Robert Redford reads from The Call of the Wild...

With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence. 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.

Gioia: You are listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we are discussing The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

Gioia: In 1896, Jack London finally attended college at the University of California at Berkeley, but only for one year.

Historian Kevin Starr.

Starr: He joins the Gold Rush in July 1897, drops out of Berkeley after his first year. I think he was as hungry for experience as he was for gold.

Hodson: What actually happened of course is that he didn't get any gold, but he got a ten-strike of story ideas.

Gioia: Scholar, Sara Hodson.

Hodson: And he really struck it rich with gold nuggets of adventure and stories that he heard from other Klondike miners and the things he experienced himself.

Gioia: Susan Balée.

Balée: He went with a brother-in-law up there and they did not strike gold, they did not make it rich, but he did get scurvy and nearly die and his front teeth fell out because of it. So he knew something about starvation. He knew something about freezing to death.

Hodson: Jack London saw dog sled teams in the Klondike. He saw the way they behaved. He saw the way they were treated by their owners, and mistreated. He saw life at its most harsh, at its most elemental, where to make a very small mistake can mean the loss of your life.

Gioia: Kevin Starr.

Starr: The whole epic of that gold rush shapes him enormously and shapes his concept of what literature is. The key issue is the extraordinary physical challenge of going up over the passes, the winters, just the sheer physical encounter. Another key message is, you find out what human society is when it's reduced to a few people facing these challenges together, in company and so the analysis of relationships. And then you find out what the relationship between man and nature is when nature is confronted, not as pastoral, not as ennobling, but as challenging fundamental human survival.

Gioia: Yvon Chouinard is an experienced mountain climber and adventurer.

Chouinard: I have been in that very country, in fact. I have been to Dawson, so I know that country pretty well and I can tell you it is extremely remote. The Yukon is the most remote country in North America and it's rough. You see remnants of people having been there and it's all disasters. You know, in the gold rush very few of those people knew even how to camp or light a fire. They were just greedy city people who were out to make a fortune.

Gioia: After working as a sled dog for various owners, Buck is sold to an inexperienced trio of prospectors.

Susan Balée.

Balée: Buck falls in with these three bickering people who do not know what they're doing -- a brother and sister, and the sister's husband. They are basically an example of the kind of incompetent members of the species who don't survive.

Gioia: Buck's new owners—Hal, Charles and Mercedes—have no experience with dog sledding. They work their team nearly to death. They run out of food and force the dogs to pull too heavy a load. As spring arrives, the ice is wearing dangerously thin. They come upon a camp of a man named John Thornton. Buck, now the lead dog of the pack, is too weak even to stand. Nonetheless, Hal tries cruelly to beat the starved and exhausted Buck into action.

Robert Redford reads from The Call of the Wild...

He felt strangely numb. As though from a great distance, he was aware that he was being beaten. The last sensations of pain left him. He no longer felt anything, though very faintly he could hear the impact of the club upon his body. But it was no longer his body, it seemed so far away.

And then, suddenly, without warning, uttering a cry that was inarticulate and more like the cry of an animal, John Thornton sprang upon the man who wielded the club. Hal was hurled backward, as though struck by a falling tree. [...]

John Thornton stood over Buck, struggling to control himself, too convulsed with rage to speak.

"If you strike that dog again, I'll kill you," he at last managed to say in a choking voice.

It's my dog," Hal replied, wiping the blood from his mouth as he came back. "Get out of my way, or I'll fix you. I'm going to Dawson."

Thornton stood between him and Buck, and evinced no intention of getting out of the way. Hal drew his long hunting-knife.[...] Thornton rapped Hal's knuckles with the axe-handle, knocking the knife to the ground. He rapped his knuck­les again as he tried to pick it up. Then he stooped, picked it up himself, and with two strokes cut Buck's traces.

[...] A few minutes later they pulled out from the bank and down the river. Buck heard them go and raised his head to see. [...]

As Buck watched them, Thornton knelt beside him and with rough, kindly hands searched for broken bones. By the time his search had disclosed nothing more than many bruises and a state of terrible starva­tion, the sled was a quarter of a mile away. Dog and man watched it crawling along over the ice. Suddenly, they saw its back end drop down, as into a rut, and the gee-pole, with Hal clinging to it, jerk into the air. Mercedes' scream came to their ears. They saw Charles turn and make one step to run back, and then a whole section of ice give way and dogs and humans disappear. A yawn­ing hole was all that was to be seen. The bottom had dropped out of the trail.

John Thornton and Buck looked at each other.

"You poor devil," said John Thornton, and Buck licked his hand.

Gioia: Yvon Chouinard.

Chouinard: When John Thornton saves Buck's life by taking him away from these people who were abusing him, it begins a relationship that is just phenomenal in that he finally finds someone who is kind to him and it's a real love affair between dog and man and that's a very deep love.

Gioia: Cheri Lucas.

Lucas: John saved his life, of course, and he was grateful for that and John did give him a lot of really intense affection. John would be reading and Buck would be gazing at him and John would end up feeling his stare and turn and look at him and they would just make this connection. He got that fulfillment where he was closer to a human than he'd ever been in his original life.

Gioia: Buck develops a savage loyalty to the man who saved his life. The violence of gold rush society gives Buck many chances to repay the favor.

Robert Redford Reads from The Call of the Wild...

"Black" Burton, a man evil-tempered and malicious, had been picking a quarrel with a tenderfoot at the bar, when Thornton stepped good-naturedly between. Buck, as was his custom, was lying in a corner, head on paws, watching his master's every action. Burton struck out, without warning, straight from the shoulder. Thornton was sent spinning, and saved himself from falling only by clutching the rail of the bar.

Those who were looking on heard what was neither bark nor yelp, but a something which is best described as a roar, and they saw Buck's body rise up in the air as he left the floor for Burton's throat. The man saved his life by instinctively throwing out his arm, but was hurled backward to the floor with Buck on top of him. Buck loosed his teeth from the flesh of the arm and drove in again for the throat. This time the man succeeded only in partly blocking, and his throat was torn open. Then the crowd was upon Buck, and he was driven off; but while a surgeon checked the bleed­ing, he prowled up and down, growling furiously, attempting to rush in, and being forced back by an array of hostile clubs. A "miners' meeting," called on the spot, decided that the dog had sufficient provoca­tion, and Buck was discharged. But his reputation was made, and from that day his name spread through every camp in Alaska.

Gioia: London began selling stories about the Yukon while still in his early 20's. He was already gaining broad notice when The Call of the Wild was published a few years later in 1903.

Susan Balée.

Balée: After this book came out, The Call of the Wild, he was probably the richest author in America and he was also the most popular.

Gioia: Sara Hodson.

Hodson: His stories just shook the literary world. They were raw. They were harsh, whereas the literally establishment was used to much more restrained, refined kinds of works of fiction. So his stories really took the literary world by storm.

Balée: They printed 10,000 copies initially. It was sold out in hours.

Gioia: Kevin Starr.

Starr: The Call of the Wild put him not only just on the national map, but the international map. I think it could be documented that The Call of the Wild has never been out of print and that it's one of the two or three American books that have been translated in to the most foreign languages.

Gioia: Sara Hodson.

Hodson: Jack London was an enormous influence among especially American writers. The writers who fell into the realm of naturalism and realism, the Ernest Hemingways or the Steven Cranes and many others are all authors who are influenced by Jack London. Writers who wanted to get to the heart of the most elemental issues of humanity; those are the authors who were attracted to Jack London.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: Jack London was, throughout his life, was always going to find some release to this energy -- this wildness within him. Americans are a very unsettled people. We keep moving. There is this restlessness in us. Jack London is writing very much to that American spirit and, in that sense, he may be one of the most characteristic of the American writers I know.

Gioia: London was an extremely prolific writer. Before his untimely death at 40, he produced 20 novels, more than 200 short stories, 400 works of non-fiction, and three plays.

Late in the book, John Thornton and his team take off for a remote region in search of the legendary lost treasure. Buck's love for his master has only grown stronger, although more and more often, he hears the call of his wild ancestors the wolf pack. He even has recurring visions of a prehistoric man squatting by a fire signaling Buck's regression back to his primordial roots.

Robert Redford reads from The Call of the Wild...

Spring came on once more, and at the end of all their wandering they found, not the Lost Cabin, but a shallow placer in a broad valley where the gold showed like yellow butter across the bottom of the washing-pan. They sought no farther. Each day they worked earned them thousands of dollars in clean dust and nuggets, and they worked every day. The gold was sacked in moose-hide bags, fifty pounds to the bag, and piled like so much firewood outside the spruce-bough lodge. Like giants they toiled, days flashing on the heels of days like dreams as they heaped the treasure up.

There was nothing for the dogs to do, save the hauling in of meat now and again that Thornton killed, and Buck spent long hours musing by the fire. The vision of the short-legged hairy man came to him more frequently, now that there was little work to be done; and often, blinking by the fire, Buck wandered with him in that other world which he remembered.

Gioia: Sara Hodson.

Hodson: The Call of the Wild is a classic of literature. It's for every time. It's a book about survival, and survival is an issue for everyone.

Gioia: Richard Rodriguez.

Rodriguez: You can say, as many people will say, that this is a boy's book, but in some sense for the adult to read this book is to realize that there is some wildness within us as human beings that Jack London is not only touching, but he's celebrating.

Gioia: Yvon Chouinard.

Chouinard: No matter how much we try to be sophisticated and, you know, be cool and all of that, we're animals. It was not very long ago that we were hunters and gatherers and there is a certain yearning to get back to that. Certain people like Robinson Jeffers and Jack London have always yearned for going backwards, like that. David Brower, the great environmentalist, said, "You know, the solution to the world's problems is to turn around and take a forward step."

Alan Mills sings "The Klondike Gold Rush"

Oh come to the place where they struck it rich.
Come where the treasure lies hidden.
Where your hat full of mud is a 5-pound note
And a clod on your heel is a quid.
Klondike, Klondike...

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read.

This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from The Call of the Wild were by Robert Redford.

Classical selections by Jean Sibelius and Edward MacDowell courtesy of Naxos Music.

"The Klondike Gold Rush" by Alan Mills used courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Original sound effects by Brent Findley at Sonic Magic Studios.

Production assistant: Adam Kampe. Administrative Assistants: Pepper Smith and Erika Koss. Special thanks to Ken Hoffman, Joyce Steed, Donna Gail and Kip Orneo. And to our contributors: Susan Balée, Yvon Chouinard, Sara S. Hodson, Cheri Lucas, Richard Rodriguez and Kevin Starr.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

Alan Mills sings "The Klondike Gold Rush"

Pack up your traps and be off, I say.
Off and away to the Klondike.

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