The real stories behind famous works of literature are often more interesting than the works themselves. Jack London's 1903 novella, The Call of the Wild, packs plenty of drama into its 80 pages – and there was even more action behind the scenes.
The story's canine protagonist, Buck, takes a journey from a mundane – but socially acceptable – life of domesticity to ascendancy over the limitations of human (and canine) morality in the kill-or-be-killed wild of the Klondike Gold Rush.
In many ways, Buck’s character arc can be compared to the classic hero journey: Buck is kidnaped from his California ranch and taken to the primitive dangers of the Alaskan gold rush where, in order to survive, he unearths internal strength he never knew he had. In doing so, Buck becomes the wild and dangerous animal he was always meant to be.
London wrote the novella from the perspective of a non-human animal with human emotions and perspectives. This personified viewpoint allows London to work through the philosophies and experiences that inspired his deeply personal book. Jack London's inspirations for the text ranged from the literal to the philosophical to the existential. In a peculiar stroke of irony, the hugely successful Call of the Wild would see London plucked from his wild, ragtag origins and reared into a tortured domesticity.
While many of Buck's experiences are based on some of the philosophies with which London was grappling while writing The Call of the Wild, Buck himself was based on a real dog. When London first arrived in Alaska in 1897, he became the tenant of two brothers, Marshall and Louis Whitford Bond. Their dog made an immediate impression on London, for they shared the name Jack.
The dog was a St. Bernard-Collie mix, as Buck would be in London's novella. In a letter London wrote to Marshall Bond in 1903, he explicitly states, “Yes, Buck was based on your dog.”
Jack London died at the age of 40 after a lifetime of health problems. These issues began during his time in the harsh Klondike wilderness. Like Buck, London battled malnutrition and starvation. He developed a serious case of scurvy, which led to swollen gums, tooth loss, and marks that would remain on his face for the rest of his life. His mobility was also affected by hip and leg muscle pain. In The Call of the Wild, Buck is able to overcome the threats to his health, but, like some of the unlucky sled dogs, London could never truly escape his time in the Yukon.
London’s experiences in the Klondike Gold Rush were not his only inspiration for The Call of the Wild. He also was "influenced" by the nonfiction book My Dogs in Northland by Egerton R. Young. Young was a Canadian priest who traveled via dog sled. In his book, Young provides a detailed account of a variety of dog breeds replete with adorable chapter titles like “Cassar, The Clever Rascal” and “Cuppy, The Beautiful Newfoundland.”
An article in The Independent claimed that London had stolen Young’s experiences for The Call of the Wild. London said that the text was merely inspiration, and the two were not comparable, as his was a fictional story. He also claimed to have written Young a letter "thanking him" for the inspiration, though Young denied that he ever received such a correspondence.
This was not the only well-founded charge of plagiarism London faced during his writing career.
London dropped out of school twice, first at the age of 14 to travel and help his family earn an income. He returned in time to graduate from high school and was even admitted to UC Berkeley. After one year in college, however, London dropped his education a second time in order to "find himself."
In July of 1897, after receiving a devastating letter from his father, London left California for Canada’s harsh Klondike territory where a new gold rush had begun. This phase of London's life became the setting for The Call of the Wild – he lugged heavy gear through narrow mountain passes, he made beds in snow banks, and he witnessed the dangers resulting from his fellow men's reliance on man-made rules. The only rule in the wilderness was survival. This existential lesson became a driving theme in The Call of the Wild.