Published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is Jack London’s most-read book, and is generally considered his best, hailed as the masterpiece of his “early period.”
Critic Maxwell Geismar, in 1960, referred to The Call of the Wild as “a beautiful prose poem,” and Editor Franklin Walker said that it “belongs on a shelf with Walden and Huckleberry Finn.”
But, as one might expect, such a classic work of American literature would find itself on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most-frequently challenged classics at #33.
Because the main character is a dog it is sometimes misclassified as children’s literature, but the truth is the novel carries a dark tone, and the mature concepts explored in the story contain numerous scenes of cruelty and violence.
In the story, a domesticated dog named Buck reverts to his primal instincts after serving as a sled dog in the Yukon during the famous 19th-century Klondike Gold Rush.
The book is commonly challenged in the United States because of its violent scenes. Jack London personally experienced the Klondike Gold Rush, including its triumphs and its horrors. The Yukon of the early 20th century wasn’t a Sunday picnic. It was barren, and hard on the mind and body.
Dogs like Buck were cheap, and animal cruelty was commonplace, leading some to criticize London of glorifying or condoning animal abuse.
Furthermore, the real-life atrocities committed against Native tribes in the name of Manifest Destiny were thought of as just and honorable in the wake of the Great Indian Wars that wiped out the cultures across the United States.
This point of contention is explored in the tribe that takes in Buck, the Yeehats. This tribe is entirely of London’s creation, but some groups feel that the negative light he sheds on the Yeehat is a slam against all Native tribes.
So, here we are again, having an early American novel about a period in history challenged because it paints a picture of a past that is dark and bloody that we’d much rather forget about than admit to, or learn from.
But most notably, according to the University of Pennsylvania, Jack London’s writing was not favored among several European dictatorships during the 1920’s and 1930’s, resulting in many regimes censoring his work.
In 1929, Italy and Yugoslavia banned Call of the Wild for being ‘too radical’. London’s works were also burned by the Nazi Party in 1933 because he had an infamous reputation for being an outspoken supporter of Socialism.
London dedicated both his novels The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden to criticizing Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the übermensch (or superman) and radical individualism, which London considered to be selfish and egotistic.
The themes in Call of the Wild are, nonetheless, often compared to Nietzsche’s übermensch because this person betters himself to become something new, something more human than before. Nietzsche’s perspective was of man surpassing a need for gods, to become a god himself.
In Call of the Wild, Buck is initially torn away from his comfy existence, becomes a successful sled dog, and eventually becomes leader of a wolf pack, the alpha male. Dogs are descended from wolves, having been tamed, domesticated, and selectively bred. In essence, they were created by gods- humanity. By finding his true nature, his authentic self, God was now dead. Buck was a god in his own right.
Although few major incidents against Call of the Wild have been reported in recent years, the reasons indicated above remain ominously close to so many other titles on the list. When titles promoting individuality and self discovery are often met with swift action to silence their words in fear that it will spark revolution, we must remain ever vigilant in our right to read those words if we so choose.
Perhaps this is what frightened a post-WWI Europe the most as its ruling class fought to retain power. A dictatorship’s power rests in its populace being bound by the State. The last thing they wanted floating around was a book about finding the true self and casting off the shackles of servitude.
Sources: American Library Association, Wikipedia, University of Pennsylvania
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions