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10 Fascinating Facts About "The Call of the Wild"

10 Fascinating Facts About “The Call of the Wild”

The Call of the Wild catapulted author Jack London to literary fame. The book follows a dog named Buck who’s forced from his cushy life in California to the Klondike Gold Rush, where he adapts and begins to thrive despite cruel conditions. The novel was one of the most popular books of the 20th century and made London the highest-paid writer of his time. Here are a few more facts about this 1903 bestseller.

As a young man in the slums of Oakland, California, London threw himself into writing. He later said, “On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for 15 hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat.” At first, this deluge yielded nothing but rejection. London would impale every rejection slip on a spindle in his writing room and soon had a column of paper four feet high. In fact, he amassed 664 rejection letters in the first five years of writing.

By age 21, London had minimal success as an author. Looking to make some money, he joined the thousands of people going to the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1897, he staked eight claims, but they yielded little gold. He suffered through a Yukon winter reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species—both influences on The Call of the Wild. Then, after almost a year of eating nothing but beans, bread, and bacon, he developed scurvy and decided to return to California. He rafted 2000 miles down the Yukon River then hired himself on boats to get back to San Francisco. He was as penniless as the day he left, but he had a wealth of new material for a novel.

London, a lifelong animal lover, was appalled by the cruelty he saw amid the gold rush. In one case, he wrote about Dead Horse Trail, a section of a mountain pass littered with the bodies of horses. “Men shot them, worked them to death, and when they were gone, went back to the beach and bought more,” London wrote. “Some did not bother to shoot them—stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone—those which did not break—and they became beasts, the men on Dead Horse Trail.” Though The Call of the Wild is about dogs, this same heartlessness is vividly depicted in the book.

While up north, London became friends with the brothers Marshall and Louis Whitford Bond. The brothers had a dog, a St. Bernard-collie mix named Jack, who must have made an impression on London. He later wrote to Marshall Bond, “Yes, Buck was based on your dog at Dawson.”

In 1901, London visited the Bond brothers at their ranch in Santa Clara, California, which was owned by their father, Judge Hiram Gilbert Bond. The home was the basis for Judge Miller’s ranch in the book, down to details like the “artesian well” and family involvement in a fruit growers’ meeting and an athletic club.

When London returned home, he promptly resumed being rejected by editors. The San Francisco Bulletin returned a 4000-word essay about Alaska with the note, “Interest in Alaska has subsided in an amazing degree.” But London persisted. Finally, six months after his trip, The Overland Monthly took the story “To The Men On The Trail.”

In 1902, London published a short story in Cosmopolitan called “Diable—A Dog,” in which a dog named Diable (or, depending on the publication, Bâtard) kills his master. On December 1, London started a companion piece to the story, this time focusing on writing about a “good dog.” He intended it to be a short story, but, as he would later say, “it got away from me, and instead of 4000 words it ran before I could call a halt.” He titled it The Call of the Wild.

The story ran as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post during the summer of 1903. The magazine paid London $750. Soon after, the book was published by Macmillan. The first printing sold out in 24 hours. Critics championed London as a brave new voice. “His books are strong meat for the anemic generation that worships at the shrine of Henry James,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle, “but they will delight all people with red blood in their veins.” The Atlantic Monthly commented that London was being called “the American Kipling.”

In 1907, an article in The Independent suggested that London had plagiarized Egerton R. Young’s book My Dogs in Northland. The article placed passages of both books side by side so the reader could compare. In an accompanying letter, London admitted using Young’s book as a source for the novel, and had even told Young that himself. But because Young’s story was nonfiction, and since London didn’t use the same language, he didn’t consider it plagiarism. “Fiction writers have always considered the actual experiences of life to be a lawful field for exploitation,” he wrote. “Really, to charge plagiarism in such a case [as this] is to misuse the English language. To be correct, ‘sources of materials used in ‘The Call of the Wild’ should be substituted for ‘Plagiarism.’ ”

London, who had sold all book rights to Macmillan for a flat fee of $2000, didn’t profit from The Call of the Wild’s runaway success. But it did make him a household name, and led to the success of his future books: When he followed up with White Fang, it wasn’t long before he was the highest-paid author in the United States. London wrote more than 50 books in his lifetime. And it all started with The Call of the Wild, which is still widely read today, and is considered to be one of the books that shaped America.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2024.

Source: Mental Floss