Photo of the dog that inspired Jack London's Buck. Copyright Richard Bond and Helen Abott.
Credit: Used with permission by Jack London International.
[The] line between fact and fiction is repeatedly crossed and… a deliberate attempt is made to induce the reader to cross too… Mr. Thompson Seton says in capital letters that his stories are true and it is this emphatic assertion that makes the judicious grieve.
—John Burroughs on Ernest Thompson Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known, in "Real and Sham Natural History," Atlantic Monthly, vol. 91, no. 545 (March 1903), p. 299
True it is that all the animals whose lives are portrayed… are simply human beings disguised as animals; they think, feel, plan, suffer as we do… But in other respects they follow closely the facts of natural history and the reader is not deceived.
—John Burroughs on Charles D. Roberts' Kindred of the Wild, in "Real and Sham Natural History," Atlantic Monthly, vol. 91, no. 545 (March 1903), p. 299
Jack London published The Call of the Wild and White Fang after a new kind of animal story had become wildly popular. Most of the authors of such tales (Anna Sewell and Ernest Thompson Seton, for example) wrote with the specific goal of increasing public awareness of wild and domesticated animals and often represented the animal's point of view, sometimes in the first person. Some, like Thompson Seton, purported to describe the natural world and the consciousness of animals with a high degree of scientific accuracy. Others, like Sewell, used anthropomorphism unapologetically—to enhance the reader's identification with their animal protagonists.
In 1903—the same year in which Jack London published The Call of the Wild—John Burroughs, the renowned naturalist, attacked popular nature writers such as Ernest Thompson Seton and William J. Long, whom he called "nature fakers" for portraying animals in what he claimed was a sentimental and anthropomorphic fashion ("Real and Sham Natural History," Atlantic Monthly 91, 545 [March 1903]: 298-310). Eventually, London became embroiled in the controversy, accused of being a "nature faker" by Burroughs and even the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Some critics dubbed London's animal heroes "men in fur."
Yet London himself shared many of Burroughs reservations, as he argues in his essay,"The Other Animals" (available here as a link on the EDSITEment reviewed Center for the Liberal Arts). Responding to the charge of being a "nature faker," London maintained that his own animal stories in fact represented
…a protest against the "humanizing" of animals, of which it seemed to me several "animal writers" had been profoundly guilty…I did it in order to hammer into the average human understanding that these dog-heroes of mine were not directed by abstract reasoning, but by instinct, sensation, and emotion, and by simple reasoning. Also, I endeavored to make my stories in line with the facts of evolution; I hewed them to the mark set by scientific research.
To what extent has London succeeded in these aims? How does he solve the technical problems of portraying Buck, the animal hero of The Call of the Wild, without the sort of "humanizing" he faults in other nature writers? Is Buck truly "not directed by abstract reasoning"? Can any writer create a believable and compelling nonhuman character without being a "nature faker"? Why might London have chosen to attempt this difficult technical feat and what is he trying to communicate to readers through his portrayal of Buck?
Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a sequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Metaphorical Gold: Mining the Klondike Gold Rush for Stories.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to:
Jack London International, a link from the EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts, provide some evidence:
Share the documents with the class. The eulogy discusses the model for Buck and also offers first-hand (though not unbiased) observations about London and how he related to dogs. In the photo, students can see the dog on whom Buck was based.
In what way, if any, should knowledge that London based Buck on an actual dog change the way a reader approaches The Call of the Wild? How, if at all, does that knowledge add to our understanding of London's approach to portraying an animal?
In response to the accusations of Burroughs and Roosevelt, London wrote the essay "The Other Animals," available on The Jack London Collection, a link from EDSITEment resource Center for the Liberal Arts. London claimed he wrote his two dog novels as "a protest against the 'humanizing' of animals, of which … several 'animal writers' had been profoundly guilty." He also claimed to have "hewed them [his dog heroes] to the mark set by scientific research." London considered it ironic, then, that he was being criticized as a "nature faker."
Also in the essay, "The Other Animals," London suggests his intentions in his portrayals of Buck and White Fang. Share this essay with your class (it is about 10 pages long, downloaded) or the "Selections from 'The Other Animals'" on pages 1-2 of the PDF. How does London describe his approach to portraying Buck (and White Fang)?
Animal tales, especially those purporting to be based on the truth about the natural world, were in vogue by the time London published The Call of the Wild. Download, copy, and distribute to students the handout "Selections for Comparison" on pages 3-7 of the PDF. Read the brief selections from London and his peers and fill in the "Chart for Comparison of Animal Stories" on page 8 of the PDF. What variety of approaches do the students find? Which excerpts make no pretense of portraying the natural world? Which succeed in portraying the natural world with reasonable accuracy? Which do a reasonable job of portraying the natural world even while over-humanizing animals? Which, if any, would you label "nature fakers?" Which most resemble The Call of the Wild?
Select some examples of London's portrayal of Buck from the first chapter of The Call of the Wild to share with the class. If desired, use excerpts from the handout "Buck in Chapter 1" on pages 9-10 of the PDF. Is there a pattern among the selections to indicate London's approach at this point in the book? Remind students that his approach could change during the novel. Ask each student or small group to locate one or two examples of the author's approach from each of the succeeding chapters the class has completed. (Remind students to note a page number for each.) In this way, the class can quickly build up a source of textual evidence for everyone to use. Discuss what the excerpts and the hypotheses of individual students reveal.
Share and discuss each of the sample hypotheses on the chart "Hypotheses for Explaining London's Portrayal of Buck in The Call of the Wild," on page 11 of the PDF, as well as any variations conceived by students. Collect the text excerpts and make them accessible by posting them on a bulletin board or having students enter them into a computer word processing file or database. Everyone should now be ready to take a stand on London's approach to Buck.
Students should fill in the chart "Hypotheses for Explaining London's Portrayal of Buck in The Call of the Wild," on page 11 of the PDF, based on the hypothesis they have developed or accepted about the portrayal of Buck in The Call of the Wild. Then, using the evidence from the text that the class has compiled, students should take a firm stand on the issue in the form of an essay, with a clearly stated hypothesis as its thesis. How does Jack London portray Buck? Does London's approach change during the novel as Buck changes? Is London faithful to scientific research as he claimed? Does it matter? What is London trying to communicate to the reader through his portrayal of Buck?
2-3 class periods