Jack London's books ?- A guide to the author's best titles

Jack London’s books

The first years of the 20th century were made to order for Jack London. The frontier had been tamed. Cities were springing up where the buffalo had roamed. The horse and the sailing ship were giving way to the car and the ocean liner. But North America was still young, there still were wild, new places in the world, and technology hadn’t yet made the struggle between man and nature as lopsided as it soon would become.

It was in such wild places as Alaska and the Yukon and the far reaches of the Pacific that London found the characters, the stories, and his favorite theme — the individual struggling to survive the hostile world — that would make him the most famous writer of his day, and one of the greatest American writers of all time.

When he died in 1916 at age 40 — setting off a controversy over the cause of death that continues today — London had published 46 volumes of fiction and essays. Five more were published post-humously. Nearly all his work is about the fight of people and animals to hold on to life against heavy odds. And nearly all his novels and short stories — certainly his best ones — take place out there, somewhere, on some far edge, where the strong have a tough time and the weak are doomed.

Now, almost a century after London’s first stories were published, most of the wild places about which he wrote are no longer so wild, and survival in them is a routine matter. Most of us now live so far from nature that we look upon it as something cute and gentle.

So it’s good to have London’s stories to remind us what the frozen wilderness and the treacherous sea once were. London’s soaring imagination, his robust prose, and clearly articulated ideas make much of his work timeless, and his best stories remain as fresh and powerful today as they were when he wrote them.

Rare is the student who has escaped high school without reading at least one Jack London short story — usually ”To Build a Fire,” a masterpiece and one of the best-known stories in the world.

His writing grows on you, whether you’re young or old. The more you read of his work, the more you want to read. Fortunately, he wrote a lot. Many of his protagonists are young people and animals, with whom young adults can easily identify. Below, a list of our favorites, all of which are available in several editions by different publishers:

The Son of the Wolf (1900)
London’s first book, is a collection of short stories that he had published in periodicals following his search for gold in the Yukon. His yearlong venture with a brother-in-law was one of the most important events of London’s career. Before the trip, his writing efforts had produced almost nothing of value. But these stories, about people and animals London encountered in the Yukon, were immediately popular and still attract wide audiences today. Had he not gone north from California it’s unlikely that we ever would have heard of Jack London. B+

Children of the Frost (1902)
This is London’s third short-story collection — and maybe his best — explores the lives of the native inhabitants of the Yukon in a memorable and sympathetic fashion. One of them, ”The Law of Life,” is a moving account of an old man who is abandoned by his tribe. A

The Call of the Wild (1903)
London’s second novel and the book that made him internationally famous. It has never been out of print, and it’s still his most popular work. No wonder. It’s one of the greatest animal stories ever written, and probably the most beautifully told. Set in the frozen wastelands of the Yukon, it tells of a magnificent part-Saint Bernard dog, Buck, who is stolen from his comfortable home in California, shipped north to the gold fields, and sold as a sled dog. To survive in his new world of lethal weather, vicious dogs, and bestial men, Buck must forget the life which he was born and adapt to a different reality. The story’s Darwinian theme of survival of the fittest is repeated throughout London’s work, but never more effectively than here. A+

The Sea Wolf (1904)
This is both a great sea story and a debate about the meaning of life. Humphrey Van Weyden, an effete urban intellectual, is about to drown in San Francisco Bay when he’s rescued by the crew of the Ghost, a seal-hunting ship headed out to sea. Instead of returning Van Weyden to shore, the captain of the Ghost, Wolf Larsen, forces him to become a member of the crew. In addition to hair-raising adventures at sea, the reader is treated to a war of words and wills between the civilized intellectual, Van Weyden, and the equally brilliant, but primitive and cruel, captain. The main issue of their debate is: Can a civilized man survive in a savage environment without reverting to savagery himself? In Wolf Larsen, London created a character comparable to Melville’s Captain Ahab. A+

White Fang (1906)
The fascinating reverse side of The Call of the Wild. White Fang is three-quarters wolf and one-quarter dog. He’s born in the wild but is captured by an Indian and trained to be a sled dog. The Indian sells him eventually to a cruel white man who, through brutality, turns him into a deadly champion of the ”sport” of dog fighting. White Fang is saved from death by Weedon Scott, a young man who with love and kindness tries to tame the man-hating killer and make him a pet. White Fang isn’t as taut and powerful as The Call of the Wild, but it’s still a rattling good tale. A

Martin Eden (1909)
The semiautobiographical book about being a writer. The hero, a young sailor from a poor background, falls in love with a young woman from upper-middle-class society. He sets out to educate himself and become a writer of great works in order to raise himself to the woman’s intellectual and social level and win her hand. One of London’s darkest stories, Martin Eden describes in vivid detail the painful but exhilarating struggle to become an artist and the disillusionment that success and celebrity can bring. A+