Jack London's The Call of the Wild: "Nature Faker"?
[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.
How does Jack London approach the literary problem of telling a story from the point of view of an animal?
How well has he succeeded in his aims?
Why might London have chosen to write from an animal's perspective?
In doing so, what was he trying to convey to his readers?
After completing this lesson, students will be able to: Take a stand on whether or not London could be dubbed a "nature faker";" support position with evidence either historical or from the text.
Take a stand on what London is attempting to communicate through his portrayal of Buck; support position with evidence either historical or from the text.
Write an essay, complete with hypothesis and textual support, on London's approach to the animal story in The Call of the Wild