[Note 127th June 2018: I have amended the exemplar essay. It now has better links to other texts studied (for AO3 – Exploring contexts) and weighs in at the right length (which should be between 900 to 1200 words).]
1: Write a critical appreciation of this passage, relating your discussion to your reading of American Literature 1880–1940.
Extract: Jack London – The Call of the Wild
Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.
Buck lived at a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley. Judge Miller’s place, it was called. It stood back from the road, half hidden among the trees, through which glimpses could be caught of the wide cool veranda that ran around its four sides. The house was approached by gravelled driveways which wound about through wide-spreading lawns and under the interlacing boughs of tall poplars. At the rear things were on even a more spacious scale than at the front. There were great stables, where a dozen grooms and boys held forth, rows of vine-clad servants’ cottages, an endless and orderly array of outhouses, long grape arbors, green pastures, orchards, and berry patches. Then there was the pumping plant for the artesian well, and the big cement tank where Judge Miller’s boys took their morning plunge and kept cool in the hot afternoon.
And over this great demesne Buck ruled. Here he was born, and here he had lived the four years of his life. It was true, there were other dogs, There could not but be other dogs on so vast a place, but they did not count. They came and went, resided in the populous kennels, or lived obscurely in the recesses of the house after the fashion of Toots, the Japanese pug, or Ysabel, the Mexican hairless,—strange creatures that rarely put nose out of doors or set foot to ground. On the other hand, there were the fox terriers, a score of them at least, who yelped fearful promises at Toots and Ysabel looking out of the windows at them and protected by a legion of housemaids armed with brooms and mops.
But Buck was neither house-dog nor kennel-dog. The whole realm was his. He plunged into the swimming tank or went hunting with the Judge’s sons; he escorted Mollie and Alice, the Judge’s daughters, on long twilight or early morning rambles; on wintry nights he lay at the Judge’s feet before the roaring library fire; he carried the Judge’s grandsons on his back, or rolled them in the grass, and guarded their footsteps through wild adventures down to the fountain in the stable yard, and even beyond, where the paddocks were, and the berry patches. Among the terriers he stalked imperiously, and Toots and Ysabel he utterly ignored, for he was king,—king over all creeping, crawling, flying things of Judge Miller’s place, humans included.
His father, Elmo, a huge St. Bernard, had been the Judge’s inseparable companion, and Buck bid fair to follow in the way of his father. He was not so large,—he weighed only one hundred and forty pounds,—for his mother, Shep, had been a Scotch shepherd dog. Nevertheless, one hundred and forty pounds, to which was added the dignity that comes of good living and universal respect, enabled him to carry himself in right royal fashion. During the four years since his puppyhood he had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation. But he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog. Hunting and kindred outdoor delights had kept down the fat and hardened his muscles; and to him, as to the cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver.
And this was the manner of dog Buck was in the fall of 1897, when the Klondike strike dragged men from all the world into the frozen North.
[Links to the major themes of American Literature are handily coloured blue.]
The extract appears to be an example of the genre of the animal biography. In this extract the narrative voice belongs to an omnipotent, third person narrator. This allows the narrator to have strong control over the voice of the text; which is a necessity as the central character is incapable of speech. We have representations of acts rather than any representations, free or otherwise, of thoughts. This links to the character-myth of Americans as doers rather than thinkers; practical people through migration and frontierism. The opening sentence reinforces this with the phrase “Buck did not read” – a negative representation of the mental verb process being used by the reader at that very moment (which is an interesting piece of phenomenological gymnastics). In this way the text is similar to Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath in which, although characters speak, they are always described by the narrator from a distance with no representation of thought acts. These characters are defined by actions rather than thoughts.
That opening phrase also establishes two other important elements in the creation of the character. Firstly the choice of the name “Buck” is one which marks the character as a product of the frontier. It is a western, cowboy, name which is used to denote individualism and aversion to authority. In this way the dog is being used to represent this set of American values. The fact that he “did not read the newspapers” linked to the epistemic modality of “was trouble brewing” (not “could be”) creates the sense that Buck is a naïf (someone who is unaware of the world) and sets up the subsequent, expected, narrative structure of his expulsion from paradise, trials and tribulations (at least, a very biblical story or at most, an allusion to Genesis). Both of these ideas have echoes in Mark Twain’s book, The adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Huck”, like “Buck” seeks freedom in the outdoors and cannot be destined for soft, un-American, domesticity. Twain’s book works as a tale of tribulation leading to freedom in a similar way to the way the extract is setting up London’s tale.
The frontier virtues of rugged individualism and anti-authoritarianism are reinforced throughout the extract through the choice of verb process. These are often physical and so are described through material verb processes. These verbs, include the semi-repetition of “plunge” and “plunged” (for both the boys and the dog), “escorted”, “guarded” and “hunting”. These verb processes also create a character which is ultra-masculine. Buck’s activities are firmly linked to the theme of American superiority and exceptionalism through the motif of dog breeds. Buck himself is a mongrel (a combination of Swiss and Scottish heritage) and this is contrasted with the pedigree “Japanese Pug” and “Mexican Hairless” who are described as “strange creatures” in a way which connotes racial inferiority and clearly links this text to the concept of white supremacy which was prevalent in the early twentieth century. This is unfortunately reflected in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The racism in this novel is omnipresent; Tom is obsessed with white superiority, Nick is surprised, and disturbed, by black displays of wealth and Gatsby’s real crime is his association with the Jewish criminal Meyer Wolfsheim.
This also links to a complex extended metaphor concerning class: demesne”, “king”, “ruled”, “right royal fashion” and “sated aristocrat” all come from the semantic field of European social hierarchies. Again the use of the material verb process “escorted” and the comparison of Buck to a “country gentleman” help to shape an image of an American, post-European, ideal, however the repetition of these could be interpreted as too strident, hinting at an inferiority complex, until you consider the description of Judge Miller’s “place”. An obsession with Europe is a key element within Ernest Hemingway’s novel A Farewell to Arms; a book which places American protagonists in Europe (Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night does this too) which was still felt by many Americans to be the cultural centre of the world.
The house may have the western shack-sounding title of “place” but the representation of space, through words such as “wide-spreading” and “spacious” as well as the representation of climate, “sun-kissed”, “wide cool veranda” and “grape arbors”, create the impression of an idyll beyond the dreams of Europeans (in the same way that Fitzgerald describes “pale” Europeans, as a negative comparison to the athletic and tanned Americans in The Great Gatsby). The description of the Californian ideal, in geography, property and lifestyle clearly echoes the post-frontier concept of manifest destiny in that American superiority has been gifted as reward for goodness, godliness and exertion.
As mentioned before the opening paragraph hints at the later loss of this Edenic paradise. Interestingly, through, the use of a dog as the protagonist and the description of gold as “yellow metal” (what use has a dog for money?), re-frame The American Dream. This cannot be the pursuit of wealth. Buck has, however, not earned his happiness (hence the use of negative descriptors such as “sated” and “egotistical” which are offset by the semi-religious phrase that he had “saved himself” through the pursuit of “outdoor delights”. Again the construction of character is through action and it seems likely that Buck will be put through a narrative which tests his character through adversity, another religious allusion (Job, Jonah, Moses and Jesus are all similarly tested in a recurring biblical theme).
Interpreting the text this way The American Dream needs to be the pursuit and achievement of happiness after overcoming adversity. Inheriting wealth is not enough and carries the charge of being “pampered”. This makes the individual aware of their fortunate state (similar to the Greek philosopher Epicurus’ dictates on happiness). The test is not voluntary (the word “dragged” is violently disruptive) but in this way the extract seems to modify the concept of The American Dream. One of California’s early monikers was “The Cornucopia of the World” in which life was “better and richer and fuller” (James Truslow Adams’ description of “the American dream” which he coined in his 1931 novel The Epic of America). It seems that London wishes to complicate that vision. For very different reasons Steinbeck’s California (in both The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men) is not the promised land (quite literally with all the Exodus allusions in the former novel) and proves to be just as class-bound as the old world.
Another way of reading the extract would be through the lens of American Romanticism, especially with reference to Kate Chopin’s work. Not only is the reader presented, in the novel The Awakening, with a protagonist who leaves a world of comfort for the chance to live freely but the short story Emancipation: A Fable clearly outlines how freedom is preferable to comfort. The list of material verb processes in this tiny story, “seeking, finding, joying and suffering”, are similar to Buck’s activities at the opening of London’s novel.
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