Call of the Wage

By: Matthew Battles
September 28, 2011

Having recently devoted considerable attention to Jack London’s Call of the Wild, I was grateful to see this tweet from critic and lit-blogger Edward Champion: “Now that my COTW essay’s done (, I direct your attentions to @MatthewBattles’s thoughtful take!”

In his own essay (one in a series he’s devoting to one hundred titles in the Modern Library), Ed considers the essential role of work in Call of the Wild

Call has more going on than a soft Southland mutt growing into a legendary Ghost Dog who “sings a song of the younger world.” London, who spent much of his formative years laboring hard as a “work beast,” is also writing about the honor and integrity that emerge from doing a job well even in the worst of all possible worlds. This wild world of hard labor, in which one must eat faster and push one’s muzzle harder to grab that bit of protein needed to keep pulling the sleds and one must ward off belligerent “co-workers” like Spitz (if you think you’ve got annoying cubemates, wait until you meet this dog), still has its virtues…

As Champion points out, Call of the Wild works well when it’s considered as a novel of the workplace, with sled and cabin in place of office and subway. In this wise, London offers argument for bringing the feral qualities to bear on work and life —

London’s daughter, Joan, would write that Call was “the story of all strong people who use the cunning of their minds and the strength of their bodies to adapt themselves to a difficult environment and win through to live,” but this strikes me as a little pat. It is certainly interesting that The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf both rely on bourgeois protagonists being plucked from their safe environments in order to learn invaluable lessons in individualism and morality. Perhaps you can learn such lessons within middle-class comforts. But London’s romantic view makes a compelling case that it is better for instincts to quicken and become alive when you are thrown outside your comfort zone. In other words, every MFA student and passive-aggressive vacillator needs to read Jack London pronto.

And here I think it appropriate to add that Champion’s ongoing man-with-a-microphone coverage of Occupy Wall Street is worth your considered attention.


Kudos, Read-outs