Andersen: The banned book of Jack London
Claims of brutality and violence led to banning one of my favorite books, “The Call of the Wild,” by Jack London. I learned this thanks to a banned book program put on by Explore Booksellers on Thursday.
Published in 1903, London’s tale had all the trappings of a “man and his dog” story. It takes place in the great white north of Canada where Buck, the ultimate alpha dog, hears the call of the wild — “a long-drawn howl.”
The “call” unleashes, if you will, a savagery born of Buck’s earliest, most primitive instincts. “Irresistible impulses seized him,” wrote London. “From the forest came the call…and he knew it in the old, familiar way, as a sound heard before.”
Extrapolate that same call to the innate wildness of man and you have an idea why this book was banned. That which lurks in our DNA can be seen as dark and foreboding — a brutish violence that can bring man to the brink of the animal world.
That’s how British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) described it in “The Leviathan,” in which Hobbes defended the authority of the King of England. Without an overarching power to control unrestrained human nature, mankind, wrote Hobbes, would relapse into a world where “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau saw it differently, celebrating our primitive selves as children of pure nature. The true source of primitiveness blessed mankind as “the noble savage.” Contrived human culture, Rousseau said, robs us of these innate qualities.
Jack London, one of America’s greatest writers and thinkers, brought Hobbes and Rousseau together in the characterization of an uber dog. Buck, he wrote, is not a mere dog. He is a manifestation of all that is great and powerful in nature.
London describes violent displays within Buck’s tooth-and-claw world into which many of us peer with trepidation and fascination. Violence is part of nature, though, in the animal world, it is without anger, vindictiveness or emotion. It is the violence of necessity through instinct.
What really set London up for censorship was his portrayal of evolution. Over 20 years before the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925, when evolution was a blasphemy against organized religion, London described deep memories etched on our collective subconscious. “It filled him (Buck) with a great unrest and strange desires,” wrote London.
The Scopes Trial challenged a law in Tennessee that forbade teaching evolution because it brought into doubt the biblical interpretation of divine Creation. Long before Clarence Darrow made his famous defense against William Jennings Bryan and won the case for teacher John Scopes, London’s “Call of the Wild” characterized an ape-like man swinging through the trees.
“Call of the Wild” evoked a haunting glimmer of reflection through Buck, who experienced his own return to wildness through “the call” that resonated within his every fiber. Irrevocable and inexorable, the call occasionally casts its spell on man, piercing as it does the cacophony of industrial life.
The veneer of civilization is thin. The line between our civilized selves and our natural depths can dissolve. When it does, man either takes on a brutish animalism ala Hobbes or a superior human strength and vitality ala Rousseau. The outcome is dependent upon the fiber of the character within the individual.
In another of his books, “The Scarlet Plague,” London provides more insight. This apocalyptic tale describes a germ that wipes out most of humanity. Set in 2013, the story tells of how horrific man can become when all systems fail— especially moral and ethical standards. When all does fail, however, an indefatigable spirit allows the few survivors to carry on with instinctive, animal skills.
London’s quasi autobiography, “Martin Eden,” displays a similar tract as his rough edged alter ego aspires to wisdom and sophistication. Through great trials Martin Eden perseveres only to eclipse his flawed role models and witness from above the failings of the elites.
London was a radical who asked whether we have the innate character to rise willfully to our better natures, or whether our bestial selves will find it a survival necessity to become less than human in a long fall from grace.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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