Wednesday, January 05, 2011

White Fang, by Jack London

Jack London’s problematic racial views are faintly evident in his short novel White Fang (1906) in his comments on the difference between pure and mixed breed wolves and dogs. Pure blood wolves hold entirely to the laws of nature, of the wild. They have pure instincts, cannot be lured into complacency by the wiles of men, they are pure predators. White Fang’s mother is a half breed, the product of the union between a wolf and a dog. Although London describes her in purely adulatory terms, it’s clear that her domesticated side distinguishes her from the pure bred wolves that run in the woods nearby. She is drawn to the fires of men.

There’s certain logic to London’s comments on the differences between pure-blood wolves and half-bloods. Interbreeding animals of different species can produce offspring who carry some of the weak traits of the parents as well as strong ones.

In his comments on human beings—especially on white men and Indians, and on men of good breeding as opposed to others less well bred--his racial views become clearer. The Indian men who look after White Fang after he joins their tribe with his mother treat him with cruelty. But White Fang looks up to them as “gods”—the word London uses to characterize how he regards them—as beings above and supreme to himself. But the white man who rescues him from Beauty Smith, a dog fighter, is clearly above and beyond any other men he has ever encountered. To White Fang, the man who comes to be the owner he grows to love is a “super god.” In this novel white men and clearly superior to Indians, and some white men, by dint of breeding or their innately moral natures or whatever, are clearly superior to all others. They are the super gods, the super men, the ubermensch.

London’s descriptions of the behavior of Indians are probably based on his own observations. He appears to know much about their ways of life, their diets and family habits and social habits. His descriptions are not for the most part condescending or negative. In fact, he treats Indians with far more respect than many other writers of his day. But when he compares them to white men, simply by the judgments he draws, his racial views are evident.

Of the books in American literature that exemplify in the most literal and straightforward fashion the meaning of naturalism, White Fang is among them. In telling the story of white fang’s first year as a pup, London makes clear the harshness of the natural world into which he is born. The pups born with him die of starvation during a famine. His father dies in a fight with a lynx. Wolves pursue and apparently kill two men lost in the wilderness. White Fang learns to kill prey to nourish himself. He learns to fight and defend himself against becoming prey. In his world, the fittest survive and the weak perish. London apparently knows his Darwin.

London makes White Fang out to be a product of heredity (breeding and interbreeding) and of environment. He refers to White Fang’s genetic makeup as “clay” but makes clear that environmental factors, what he has learned in his life, the influence of his encounters with people and other animals, mixes with clay to form his character.

Oddly, there is sentimentality here in this book about an animal. Many of the animals have names—some are given by men but others are not—who gives White Fang’s father the name One Eye, for example? London presumes to know what they think and feel and why they act as they do. He sometimes ascribes motives and logic to their thought. The ending of the novel seems particularly sentimental, which is not to say that I didn’t like it. Everyone wants a dog story to have a happy ending. But if London sought to make this story a purely naturalistic, Darwinian tale, he didn’t really succeed.

London writes with a spare and descriptive narrative force. He has observed the behavior of wolves and other animals in the wild and therefore writes with a convincing attention to detail that gives his narrative credibility.

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