10/24/2013 08:04 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Jack London's Work Is Universally Appealing

If I were trying to name America's greatest novel, my choice would be "Moby-Dick." I know that some favor "Huck Finn" or nowadays maybe "The Great Gatsby," but Melville's masterwork still awes me every time I read it. Yet I can't rightly call it our "Greatest World Novel." I haven't counted the number of foreign translations of any of these three, but I'm reasonably sure that none can match the near-one-hundred for "The Call of the Wild." Nor the thousands of editions of London's classic that have appeared here and abroad during the past century. I have several dozen of these in my own library, and our Jack London Museum and Research Center at Centenary College in Shreveport houses another score or so.

Looking at the bookcase in my study, I see four long shelves filled with various editions of Jack's most famous work. I also spot a number of books about "The Call of the Wild." Particularly worth noting are Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin's study of the novel as a naturalistic romance alongside the two collections of critical essays edited by Earl and Elizabeth Wilcox. And for those readers and scholars who might want to know about the geographical and linguistic sources of London's narrative, there's Daniel Dyer's handsome, definitive and annotated edition. On a shelf above that stands a hefty doctoral dissertation I refereed a while back, written by a grad student in India: a sophisticated structural analysis of the novel. Next to that is a collection of critical essays, edited by China's most prominent London scholar, and a literary history of the United States published in Albania, featuring Jack London on the cover.

Speaking of Jack's worldwide appeal, I'd like to mention one of my most memorable experiences related to the author. During the 90s, I directed four summer seminars for teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. My first seminar on "The World of Jack London" elicited nearly 400 inquiries, from which I could select fifteen of the finest teachers in the country. A teacher's dream! I was also privileged to accept one teacher from overseas, the first was a woman from Germany who applied soon after The Berlin Wall had fallen. The second was a woman from the Philippines. The third was a young teacher from Albania, who gave me the literary history I mentioned above. Granting my familiarity with London's overseas reputation, I could never have guessed the participant in my fourth seminar: a young man from the Congo. He told our group a remarkable personal story:

"I was born in a jungle village. My father was killed when I was a boy, and I migrated into Brazzaville. There I learned French and read 'The Call of the Wild.' That book inspired me to survive."

How to account for such widespread appeal? Like Mark Twain, Jack wrote for the people--the common readers--not for the literary critics and English professors. As Katherine Mansfield observed, "He is one of those writers who win the affection of their readers--who are, in themselves, the favourite book." Because London wrote so clearly, his fiction takes the bread off the critics' table, threatening their very livelihood--which is one reason they consigned him to the dead-letter dustbin.

This essential clarity accounts in considerable measure for Jack's universal appeal: Novels like The Call of the Wild can be easily translated into any language. Imagine the challenge of translating Henry James's later novels, not to mention James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. (You'll note, by the way, how easily I refer to London as "Jack." It would never cross my mind to refer to Henry James as "Henry," much less as "Hank." Nor to mention James Joyce as "James," much less as "Jim" or "Jimmy.")

But clarity alone does not account for universal appeal. Explaining the difference between writing fiction and sociological tracts, Jack admonished his friend Cloudesley Johns, "Don't you tell your reader... But have your characters tell it by their deeds and actions... and get the atmosphere... then, and not till then, are you writing fiction."

London was a consummate literary craftsman. Witness, for example, the following passage from the concluding chapter of "The Call of the Wild":

The months came and went, and back and forth they twisted through the uncharted vastness, where no men were and yet where men had been if the Lost Cabin were true... In the fall of the year they penetrated a weird lake country, sad and silent, where wild-fowl had been, but where there was no life nor sign of life--only the blowing of chill winds, the forming of ice in sheltered places, and the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches.

But clarity and superb craftsmanship, impressive as they may be, do not guarantee universal appeal. If they did, I might well consider Ernest Hemingway as the author of "America's Greatest World Novel." "The Sun Also Rises" is beautifully crafted, and so is "The Old Man and the Sea"; but neither compares with the tremendous international audience captured by Jack's masterpiece. For that, we seek a deeper level, where we encounter what C. G. Jung terms the "collective unconscious," that dark "hinterland" of the human mind deeper than the individual conscious or unconscious mind. This is the mysterious world of myth and universal symbols called archetypes. When London read Jung's newly translated "Psychology of the Unconscious" a few months before his death in 1916, he exclaimed to his wife, Charmian, "I tell you I'm standing on the edge of a world so new, so terrible, so wonderful, that I am almost afraid to look over into it."

What he didn't realize was he had been unconsciously drawn into the wonderful world throughout his career--and much of his finest work is informed by images from that world. The Call of the Wild is only one outstanding example. "I thought I was just writing a very good dog story," he said. The four-thousand-word narrative he had planned "got away from me before I could call a halt." His daughter Joan says that as far as her father was concerned, his masterpiece was "a purely fortuitous piece of work, a lucky shot in the dark that had unexpectedly found its mark." When reviewers enthusiastically interpreted the novel as a brilliant allegory, he seemed surprised: "I feel guilty, but I was unconscious of it at the time. I did not mean to do it."

That lucky shot in the dark found its mark in my heart more than seventy years ago, and its charm hasn't diminished since then. If anything, it's more potent now than ever.