Historical Context in The Call of the Wild
Since Jack London sold the manuscript for The Call of the Wild to MacMillan in 1903, it has never been out of print. The story follows a dog, Buck, as he is taken from a comfortable California life to the cold wilds of the Klondike during the 1896–1899 Gold Rush. London himself made the trek to Alaska as a prospector, but he was one of the many who left without striking it rich. Buck was inspired by the dog of two brothers London befriended while in Alaska. Although London would write other books with canine main characters, such as White Fang, and wrote about other areas than Alaska (including California, Mexico, and Hawaii), he remains most associated with this short novel. It presents vividly and compactly his ideas about relationships between personalities and places, cruelty and bravery, and the spirit of adventure. These ideas mixed London’s own reading of works by John Milton, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin, among others. Many of these ideas were circulating among London’s contemporaries including Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, now often referred to as literary Naturalists. All of these writers drew inspiration from the reputation of the American West as a wild setting, but London was the one who would most memorably extend the West’s dynamics of opportunity, risk, and violence up in the Alaskan territories.
Klondike Gold Rush: Over a period of approximately four years between 1886–1899, about 100,000 people traveled to the Canadian Klondike area, which lies to the east of Alaska. This migration was triggered by the discovery of gold in the region in 1868. To get around the snowy region, many prospectors used dog sleds. Though some would become massively wealthy from gold deposits, the vast majority would wind up finding nothing or dying in the extreme conditions. The Call of the Wild is set during the height of the Gold Rush, when many are still journeying through the harsh environment seeking the promise of gold and wealth.
Historical Context Examples in The Call of the Wild:
"“If I don't get the hydrophoby—”..." See in text (Chapter I)
Hydrophobia, meaning literally a fear of water but referring to a sudden resistance to drinking fluids of various kinds, is a symptom of rabies, which the man fears after having been bitten by a dog. Although the first rabies vaccine was introduced in 1885, rabies was still often fatal in the 19th century, especially because access to doctors was not always immediate. A better vaccine was developed in 1908, after London’s novel was published.
"money chinked between them...." See in text (Chapter I)
The word “chinked” here is an example of onomatopoeia. Something else to notice here (especially in connection with being led by a rope around the next, as Buck is described in the next paragraph), is the echo of the historical context of chattel slavery. Slave narratives also sometimes began with a scene of abduction. The Civil War had been over for decades, but many of London’s contemporaries, such as Charles W. Chesnutt, were also still telling stories about slavery because of the ongoing political developments of Reconstruction. As a socialist, London would have drawn connections between the economic structures of the American South and the broader dynamics of a capitalist enterprise such as gold mining. Buck’s heritage has already been tied explicitly to European breeds, so he is not directly symbolic of African Americans. But the suggestion that even such a proud figure could be treated like an African slave would resonate a bit outrageously.
"There could not but be other dogs on so vast a place, but they did not count. They came and went, resided in the populous kennels, or lived obscurely in the recesses of the house after the fashion of Toots, the Japanese pug, or Ysabel, the Mexican hairless—strange creatures that rarely put nose out of doors or set foot to ground...." See in text (Chapter I)
In this passage, London’s political themes are beginning to emerge. Distinctions between the strong and the weak (drawn partly from Friedrich Nietzsche) combine with a sense of social power to produce a kind of thinking called Social Darwinism, which actually distorts principles of Charles Darwin despite its name. Social Darwinism is a set of ideas used to justify individual and even societal or national winners and losers on the basis of “natural” or “inherent” qualities. It involves taking a phrase such as Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” out of context to argue that anyone who does not succeed is not fit to succeed. The following few paragraphs continue developing Buck’s internalized sense of superiority.
"Buck lived at a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley...." See in text (Chapter I)
This setting is notably idyllic and pleasant—positive words like “sun-kissed” appear throughout the paragraph. And the wealth and status of Judge Miller allow for luxuries that allow the boys to mitigate any harsh effects of the environment such as “the hot afternoon,” as air conditioning allows today. Although cultures around the world had used different architectural means to help airflow in buildings, the first modern air-conditioning mechanical system was invented by William Carrier in 1902, the year before London published The Call of the Wild. The first uses of the technology were industrial, however; air-conditioning wouldn’t be used for human comfort until the 1920s.
"groping in the Arctic darkness..." See in text (Chapter I)
This refers to the Klondike Gold Rush (1896–1899). The portion of the Klondike River where the Rush was concentrated is in Canada’s Yukon territory, but many prospectors passed through Alaska to get there. Also note the use of “groping,” which means here to mean “to attempt to find something by feeling about as in the dark or as a blind person.” This blind searching characterizes the men as overpowered by their environment.
" Chilcoot Divide..." See in text (Chapter II)
The Chilcoot Divide (now spelled Chilkoot,) is a 33-mile-long trail through the Coast Mountains that leads from Dyea, Alaska, to Bennett, British Columbia. It was a major access route from the coast to the Yukon goldfields in the late 1890s.
"Dawson..." See in text (Chapter III)
Dawson is a city in the Yukon that experienced a population boom because of the gold rush, peaking at 40,000 inhabitants but now home to only 1,300. Those who lived in Dawson were usually miners or providers of services and supplies to miners. Jack London lived here for about one year.
"He wanted it because it was his nature, because he had been gripped tight by that nameless, incomprehensible pride of the trail and trace..." See in text (Chapter III)
London’s vocabulary is influenced by 17th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed that beings were either natural masters or servants. Buck shows himself to possess the qualities that a master requires—pride, resilience, strength—in most situations, because he is by “nature” a leader. Notice also the allure of the natural world in this passage; it cannot be rationally understood, only felt and desired.
"Then three or four western bad men aspired to clean out the town, were riddled like pepper-boxes for their pains, and public interest turned to other idols...." See in text (Chapter IV)
As a prosperous gold rush town, Skaguay was a destination for miners and, consequently, a target for robbers. Here, we see the kind of punishment dealt to criminals. A few men tried to rob the various industries around town but are shot—their bodies afterward resembling pepper-boxes, referring to the holes in a household pepper grinder. The heroes of this event overshadow Buck’s team and their accomplishments after a few days of being celebrated for their quick run.
"Skaguay..." See in text (Chapter IV)
During the Klondike Gold Rush, the Alaskan city of Skaguay’s population swelled and the community was riddled with crime. When the rush ended, miners and prospectors rapidly left. It is also spelled as “Skagway.”
"And so it went, the inexorable elimination of the superfluous...." See in text (Chapter V)
Notice the word choice in this sentence. The adjective “inexorable” means “impossible to stop,” and “superfluous” means “unnecessary.” This mirrors the idea of survival of the fittest, which is especially relevant in the harsh, life-threatening journey through the Yukon. In order to survive, a sled team must carry only what it needs. Likewise, in evolutionary thought, individuals which are unable to endure will be eliminated, and their detrimental genes removed. This word choice shows the human characters’ inexperience and poor planning, which will eventually lead to destruction.