Jack London and
Spending time with our animals, we better understand what it means to be human. Jack London’s dog novels of the frontier, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, celebrate humans’ and animals’ shared hunger for lives rich with companionship and possibility. Touching hearts from Alaska to the fictional city of Duckburg, London’s books have blazed an impressive path through history and culture. Trace some of their connections here.
In the summer of 1897 when he was just 21 years old, Jack London arrived by boat in Juneau, Alaska; he was one of the tens of thousands of adventurers (mostly men) who trudged through the Klondike region of the Canadian Yukon in search of gold. London lived with a handful of other prospectors in a remote cabin, struggling to endure the punishing winter of 1897 to 1898. Though he found no gold, London acquired a wealth of real-life experience surviving in an unforgiving wilderness. He started writing about his time there.
At the turn of the 20th century, as the era of widespread global travel began, the reading public was hungrier than ever for accounts of faraway places, including the Great White North of the Canadian Yukon. In summer 1899, The Atlantic Monthly accepted London’s story “An Odyssey of the North” for publication. Four years later he published The Call of the Wild, perhaps the best and best-known of all Klondike Gold Rush tales.
Jack London’s essay “The Other Animals” (1908) was in part a response to then president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who, in a 1907 interview in Everybody’s Magazine, had lumped London among the authors he considered “nature fakers.” London’s detractors argued that he wrongly portrayed canines as thinking, feeling beings that are on a par with humans, rather than showing them as animals that act only out of instinct. London replies in his essay,
Time and again, and many times, in my narratives, I wrote, speaking of my dog-heroes: “He did not think these things; he merely did them,” etc. And I did this repeatedly, to the clogging of my narrative and in violation of my artistic canons; and 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.
Years later London seemed to have forgiven the president. In a 1916 interview in The New York World, he called for Roosevelt to run against Woodrow Wilson.
The Walt Disney Company has made its reputation in part by filming new versions of well-known stories, particularly tales involving animals from classic books, such as Disney’s Old Yeller (1957), The Jungle Book (1967) and The Rescuers (1977). More recently, in 1991, the studio adapted Jack London’s White Fang (published in 1906), starring a young Ethan Hawke. The wolf-dog Jed who portrays White Fang also starred in Disney’s canine-centric adventure The Journey of Natty Gann (1985).
White Fang’s financial and critical success prompted Disney to make a sequel London never dreamed of—White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf (1994). Hawke returns for a cameo as Jack Conroy, but most of the film focuses on another figure, Henry Casey, played by Scott Bairstow. White Fang 2 ups the ante on the original movie in a bid for more action. According to New York Times film critic Stephen Holden, “In the most spectacular of the movie’s several rescue scenes, White Fang leaps from a cliff onto a speeding horse-drawn wagon to save an Indian princess from being spirited away by a slave-driving gold miner.” The movie is high entertainment but a far cry from London’s original wilderness adventure story.
Like the author Jack London, the fictional character Scrooge McDuck traveled as a young man—well, as a duckling—to seek his fortune in the foothills of the Yukon Territory mountains. Unlike London, though, Scrooge found gold in the Klondike and went on to become the world’s wealthiest duck.
In the classic Scrooge McDuck comics story “North of the Yukon,” written and drawn by Carl Barks, the old duck and his team of sled dogs are nearly killed when a frozen river cracks beneath them and the sled sinks into the icy depths. The plot device mirrors a scene in The Call of the Wild in which a group of tenderfoot humans drowns after beating London’s dog-hero, Buck, who is cut loose before the disaster.
Although Scrooge’s Klondike tales bear more than a passing resemblance to London’s stories, Barks never claimed London as an influence. Yet in “Hearts of the Yukon,” comic-book artist Don Rosa’s reimagining of Scrooge’s Klondike days, London himself makes an appearance. He even mentions his current writing project: a novel named The Call of the Wild.
In the Scrooge McDuck story “The Buckaroo of the Badlands,” the not-yet-richest anthropomorphic duck in the world goes to Montana to become a cowboy. The year is 1884. After confronting the infamous bandit Jesse James, Scrooge encounters a young Theodore Roosevelt and convinces the 20-something to return east and pursue politics. In “The Sharpie of the Culebra Cut,” set in 1906, Scrooge journeys to Panama to prospect for gold. He once again runs into Theodore Roosevelt, who has taken the duck’s advice and become U.S. president. This time, however, they come together as rivals: Scrooge’s search is preventing the completion of Teddy’s pet project, the Panama Canal.
Scrooge McDuck’s life, intersecting impossibly with the forces and characters of history, is not so different from the life led by the real Roosevelt, whose experiences as a politician, patrician, populist, naturalist, hunter, conservationist, rancher, author, soldier, iconoclast and diplomat took him to the far reaches of the world and acquainted him with characters such as Deadwood’s famous sheriff Seth Bullock. Roosevelt fought in Cuba, ranched in the Dakota Territory, hunted game in Africa and found time to write several books while serving as assistant secretary of the Navy and as commander-in-chief.
In August 1896 a small party of prospectors discovered a thumb-sized nugget of gold in the rugged wilderness of Canada’s Yukon Territory, near the border of the U.S. territory that would eventually become the state of Alaska. Because of vague language describing the boundaries of Alaska when the United States purchased it from Russia in 1867, the territory’s border with the Canadian Yukon was not clearly defined at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. The ownership of huge fortunes often changed hands even when these boundaries shifted only slightly. Once gold was discovered, its exact location became very important.
As president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt took a strong stand on the issue; he prepared to send troops to the region, enforced a policy that kicked Canadian miners off Alaskan claims and generally threatened Canadian and British interests there. The dispute was for the most part resolved in 1903, around the time Roosevelt uttered the phrase “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
The city of Duckburg, home of Scrooge McDuck and his nephew Donald Duck, is populated half by anthropomorphic ducks and half by anthropomorphic dogs. When Scrooge takes a break from world traveling to relax at his Duckburg estate, he can generally expect an attack on his giant money bin by his primary adversaries, the Beagle Boys, a group of nearly identical dogs dressed in dungarees and orange shirts. These human-like dogs are ex-cons who almost never bother to change out of their prison uniforms, probably because their attempts to seize Scrooge’s fortune typically end with their return to the slammer.
Perhaps for the same reason, or because there is a seemingly endless supply of brothers and cousins in the Beagle Boy clan, they generally refer to one another by their penitentiary identification numbers. In Don Rosa’s comic-book story “The Beagle Boys vs. The Money Bin,” we learn the Beagle Boys themselves do not even know their own names.