Jack London was an amazingly prolific writer. Every day he got up early and before he did anything else he fulfilled his quota of words, which varied between one thousand and one thousand five hundred. He wrote novels, autobiography, social studies, and much more, but in my opinion his best work shines forth in his short stories, of which he wrote
many. It’s very difficult to choose just five to highlight, as he wrote so many great ones, so consider the stories I describe below as just a sampling, and go on to read more for yourself. He had his weaknesses to be sure; he was chauvinistic and racist and pugilistic and espoused as a personal philosophy a strange mix of communism and individualism, but in his best work he rises above all that into the realm of art. In my previous listing of my favorite short stories of all time I included “The Apostate” as his contribution, but I just as easily could have chosen one of the other stories listed below. So here they are:
1. The White Silence. This one I almost put as my favorite of his works rather than “The Apostate”. Three people journey across the Arctic waste on a sled drawn by huskies:
a man, Mason, his pregnant Indian wife, Ruth, and Malemute Kid, a recurrent character in several stories. London masterfully describes the snow-covered wilderness, the shrouded trees, the pale pitiless sky, but most of all the overwhelming, awe-inspiring silence by which they are surrounded. At one point they pause for a rest, and a branch breaks off one of the frozen trees and crushes Mason. This leaves the woman destitute, as she had forsaken her people and cannot return to them. Mason obtains Malemute Kid’s promise to help the woman. Short of supplies, they wait a day but can find no game for food, and Mason falls into a coma. In the end Malemute Kid is forced to shoot him and leave him high in a tree beyond the reach of wolves, that he might continue their journey and take Ruth to safety. It’s a tragedy, yes, but a beautiful tragedy. The prose is stark and poetic and brings tears to the eyes.
2. The Red One. Jack London wrote science fiction and fantasy as well as realistic literature; this long novelette, in fact, is a blend of realism and science fiction, and is one of my favorite science fiction stories ever. He wrote it late in his short life, after his cruise aboard his ship, the Snark, through the Pacific islands, which then were little-visited and in places rife with cannibals and headhunters. It concerns a man, Bassett, who becomes separated from his comrades and is trapped alone on an island pursued by savages. He hears a strange thunderous yet sweet sound deep in the interior and becomes fascinated by it. It turns out to be a huge red object of a metal unknown on Earth; it is some sort of alien artifact and is worshiped by the ignorant natives. The price of his discovery is his life: Bassett is captured and sacrificed to the huge sonorous red orb. But he had been dying anyway, and in the end achieves a measure of peace and contentment and surcease from pain. Another tragedy, yes. London specialized in what he himself called death-appeal, struggles against pitiless environments and circumstances. But there is beauty in such struggles, and in his unparalleled descriptions of such environments.
3. Love of Life. Two men, weak and short of supplies and food, hike across the barren tundra. One of them sprains his ankle and the other leaves him there and walks on. The story is of the abandon man’s fight for survival as he struggles to reach an outpost on the coast. Day after day he continues, becoming weaker and weaker, searching for any scrap of food he can find. A pitifully sick wolf begins stalking him, and eventually, after a terrible few days of being hunted, he struggles with the wolf and manages to kill it. He
finds the body of his former companion on the way and his gold as well, but leaves it all there and crawls onward. Unlike many London stories, however, this one has a happy ending. He makes it to the sea and boards a ship which takes him back to civilization.
4. In a Far Country. Two men have joined many others in the rush to the far north to find gold. In the company of more experienced travelers they journey through a primeval landscape as winter approaches. Though all are exhausted, most of the party decide to trudge onward to reach a better place to winter. The two novices, however, refuse to go further and determine to remain at a small cabin together to wait out the cold. As winter sets in and their supplies begin to dwindle, they regard each other with suspicion and then
animosity. Then follows a descent into madness, as the indifferent elements, loneliness, paranoia, and selfishness eat away at and consume them. An awesome tale that builds up to a shattering climax.
5. A Piece of Steak. Jack London was very interested in prize fighting, and wrote several short stories and a short novel about it. This is his best. It concerns an aging Australian boxer with a wife and small children. There is no money and little food left in the house, and he must win his next fight against a much younger opponent if his family is to eat. He consumes the last bits of bread and flour gravy just before the fight, while his kids go hungry. The young man with whom he competes is after glory, but he is concerned with survival. London describes the fight, during which the old boxer ruminates on his
past career, with consummate skill. For a time it appears as if the older man’s experience along with the young man’s overconfidence will see him through to victory, but in the end he lacks the strength to strike the knockout blow, and rues the fact that he hadn’t had just
a little piece of steak with his meal to give him the extra stamina he needed. A heartbreaking ending, but inevitable.
As I said, Jack London is a great short story writer, and many others of his stories are well worth reading. In addition, his novella “The Call of the Wild”, though long considered a children’s tale, is so much more. It’s truly a masterpiece of adventure writing, and to miss it because it is ostensibly a dog story would be a mistake. Give it a try, and enjoy.