Maybe you’d like to know real cold, Chicago

Win­ter and ‘Call of the Wild’ re­mind us of Jack Lon­don

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - Rick Ko­gan rko­[email protected] tri­

him for­ward. But he ran no more than 100 feet, when he fell head first. It was his last mo­ment of fear. When he had re­cov­ered his breath and his con­trol, he sat and thought about meet­ing death with dig­nity.”

Jack Lon­don knew cold. Once the most fa­mous writer in the world, his best novel is “The Call of the Wild.” H.L. Mencken, a per­cep­tive critic, wrote: “No other pop­u­lar writer of his time did any bet­ter writ­ing than you will find in ‘The Call of the Wild’ … Here, in­deed, are all the el­e­ments of sound fic­tion: clear think­ing, a sense of char­ac­ter, the dra­matic in­stinct, and, above all, the adept putting to­gether of words — words charm­ing and slyly sig­nif­i­cant, words ar­ranged, in a French phrase, for the res­pi­ra­tion and the ear.”

It is a pow­er­ful book, the story of a dog (half Saint Bernard/half Scotch Col­lie) named Buck, kid­napped from his “big house in the sun-kissed” Santa Clara Val­ley in Cal­i­for­nia and pro­pelled into the harsh and frozen north and the sav­age char­ac­ters of the Klondike Gold Rush, there to come un­der the gen­tle hand of gold prospec­tor John Thorn­ton and even­tu­ally dis­cover his an­cient roots.

It has been the ba­sis for many movies, the first in 1923. The lat­est cin­e­matic ver­sion (the ninth) ar­rives Feb. 21. This “The Call of the Wild” stars Har­ri­son Ford, look­ing par­tic­u­larly scraggy in a white beard as Thorn­ton. The dog? It is not real. It is a CGI cre­ation, “played” by ac­tor Terry No­tary via that tech­no­log­i­cal de­vice known as “mo­tion-cap­ture.”

This may not be the only lib­erty taken. There are some things in the trailer for the film that are not in the book: a mas­sive avalanche and Buck’s res­cue of a woman who falls through the ice on a frozen lake. There is also a fight with a bear, barely noted in the novel. Oh, Hol­ly­wood.

But al­low me to push you to­ward the work of Jack Lon­don.

If you are af­flicted with a short at­ten­tion span, “To Build a Fire” is not a long story. There are two ver­sions of it, one writ­ten in 1902 and the other in 1908. I pre­fer the lat­ter be­cause it fea­tures a dog and it is colder and there is death. It is only 6,708 words long.

I gave a copy of the story to noted lo­cal writer Peter Ferry, who has writ­ten two fine nov­els, “Travel Writ­ing” and “Old Heart.” He too had read it be­fore and upon reread­ing it told me, “I had for­got­ten just how cold ‘To Build a Fire’ makes you. I am turn­ing up the heat.”

Jack Lon­don never knew of wind chill fac­tors, but he knew the cold. He was only 21 in 1897 when, af­ter some mis­er­able Cal­i­for­nia years as an oys­ter pi­rate and hobo, he made his way to Alaska in search of gold. He never found any but did ac­cu­mu­late the ma­te­rial for short sto­ries and for “The Call of the Wild” (1903) and such other nov­els as “White Fang” (1906). He was wildly pro­lific, writ­ing 1,000 words a day, and ever trav­el­ing.

He was a ma­jor celebrity and there is lit­tle doubt that he in­flu­enced such fu­ture writ­ers as Ernest Hem­ing­way, John Stein­beck and Up­ton Sin­clair. But his views on politics and race com­pelled one of his biog­ra­phers, James L. Ha­ley, to write in 2010’s “Wolf: The Lives of Jack Lon­don” (Ba­sic Books) that Lon­don was “the most mis­un­der­stood fig­ure in the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary canon.”

He died in 1916 at the age of 40 and though his books still sell and are taught in schools, he re­mains, as Ha­ley puts it, “the mostread rev­o­lu­tion­ary so­cial­ist in Amer­i­can his­tory, ag­i­tat­ing for vi­o­lent over­throw of the gov­ern­ment and the as­sas­si­na­tion of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers — and he is re­mem­bered now for writ­ing a cute story about a dog.”

The new “The Call of the Wild” movie is sure to draw some to the book, where they will read: “When the long win­ter nights come on and the wolves fol­low their meat into the lower val­leys, he may be seen run­ning at the head of the pack through the pale moon­light …”

En­joy. But know, if and when you watch the movie, that the en­tire film was shot in Cal­i­for­nia.

Oh, well. So it goes. Win­ter will be over, so I am told, in a few weeks.


Har­ri­son Ford stars as John Thorn­ton in the lat­est film ver­sion of Jack Lon­don’s “The Call of the Wild.” The dog, Buck, is a CGI cre­ation.


Jack Lon­don wrote “The Call of the Wild” on this type­writer, cur­rently on dis­play at the Amer­i­can Writ­ers Mu­seum in Chicago. It is a Bar Lock #10 dat­ing from 1902, the old­est in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

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