I’ll start by admitting that we use Jack London’s The Call of the Wild in our 7th grade English classes because I once found several hundred copies gathering dust in the book room.
I believe in using classic literature with my students as much as possible. For several years I taught the now defunct gifted and talented class with groups of students who were very high level readers. With only 250 dollars in my annual budget, I relied heavily on the books I found gathering dust in the book room, one of which was The Call of the Wild. Jack London used to live about 90 minutes up the road from my school. I thought why not use his book as an excuse to take a field trip to Jack London State Park? So I did and I did. Read the book, visit his ranch, see the ruins of Wolf House, stop by his grave site, explore the little museum there.
It was fun.
Eventually, I convinced the other 7th grade teachers to make The Call of the Wild one of our “core books.” It’s been a mixed bag. The teachers all love the book. A majority of the students do too, but just a slight majority. It’s a challenging book for 7th grade which is why it’s the last one we read each year. There’s some very difficult writing; some high-level, old-fashioned vocabulary; and some content that can be very rough going.
But for me, the writing, when it’s good, makes it worth while.
Which is what I wanted to talk about today, how can a book be both brilliant and bad? Because The Call of the Wild is both.
Take this description of Mercedes, the only female human character in the book, as she watches her husband Charles and her brother discard items from their overloaded sled:
And so it went, the inexorable elimination of the superfluous. Mercedes cried when her clothes bags were dumped on the ground and article after article was thrown out. She cried in general, and she cried in particular over each discarded thing. She clasped hands about knees, rocking back and forth broken-heartedly. She averred she would not go an inch, not for a dozen Charleses. She appealed to everybody and to everything, finally wiping her eyes and proceeding to cast out even articles of apparel that were imperative necessaries. And in her zeal, when she had finished with her own, she attacked the belongings of her men and went through them like a tornado.
To be honest, even I am not entirely sure what “inexorable elimination of the superfluous” means. (Imagine explaining it to a room full of 12 and 13-year-olds.) Why does she “aver”? Why can’t she just “say”? Why “articles of apparel” instead of just clothes? Just how much can one woman cry? Why would these two men bring along this particular woman? And “went through them like a tornado” was surely a cliché, even in 1903 when the book was written. I don’t shy away from discussing the problems this passage, and the book, has with the depiction of women, nor with the racial issues Jack London has, particularly with Native Americans. While I think he was a great writer, and a bad writer, he was a man with serious issues. It was 1903, which is not an excuse, however it’s important to present as much of the truth as we can to even middle school students.
But then there is the section with John Thornton. Chapters six and seven of The Call of the Wild make up one of the best pieces of writing in American literature. You have my permission to skip the rest of the book and just read these two. Here is a passage describing Buck as he is with John Thornton, torn between staying with this ‘good’ man and returning to the primitive state whose ‘call’ he has begun to finally hear:
He was older than the days he had seen and the breaths he had drawn. He linked the past with the present, and the eternity behind him throbbed through him in a mighty rhythm to which he swayed as the tides and seasons swayed. He sat by John Thornton’s fire, a broad-breasted dog, white-fanged and long-furred; but behind him were the shades of all manner of dogs, half wolves and wild wolves, urgent and prompting, tasting the savor of the meat he ate, thirsting for the water he drank, scenting the wind with him, listening with him and telling him the sounds made by the wild life in the forest, dictating his moods, directing his actions, lying down to sleep with him when he lay down, and dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of dreams.
That last sentence, the one that begins in the fourth line of the paragraph, is poetry. “dreaming with him and beyond him and becoming themselves the stuff of dreams.”
Darn. That is good.
And can’t you hear a little bit of Earnest Hemingway in the rhythmic use of “and”?
So we ended the year once again with The Call of the Wild and once again, like I do every year I use Jack London, I felt a sense of getting away with it. The other middle schools in my district do not use any “classic” literature. This seems to be a nation wide trend, one that’s even gone across the pond to the U.K. The Common Core, Project Based Learning, the demise of high-level everything in middle schools, all point towards more contemporary non-fiction, things the students will immediately “identify with.” Meanwhile, dinosaurs like me keep forcing children to read difficult books written 112 years ago with confusing words and themes that upset them from time to time.
For at least one more year.
I read The Call of the Wild twice this year–I have two sections of English. I meant to keep better track of the good and bad passages, but I just got too into the book to stop and take notes. And I was furiously reading it aloud much of the time. The Call of the Wild lends itself to over-acting when you read it aloud. There were much better and much worse examples of good and bad writing, as I recall. These were the two I could find today. Since I read this book before school got out, it does not count for the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.