It turns out that all of my writing and most of my life philosophy is lifted without modification from the prose of Jack London, particularly “The Call of the Wild.”
As far as sources for character and prose go, “The Call of the Wild” is not a bad choice. London’s writing is gorgeous, and his books usually detail men of stout character facing tough circumstances, such as temperatures as low as fifty below, surviving because of grit and wisdom. Jack London admires honor but not chivalry, sense but not education, and a vitality in life that defies the mind to ever produce anything as beautiful as the body. Take the following passages:
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.”
“He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.”
If you are unconvinced that this style is part of my personality, you nevertheless cannot deny that my prose is Jack London digested and written anew. Just read my writer bio under the “About Us” section of this blog. I wrote it earlier this month, a couple weeks before opening London’s work for the first time in years.
I re-read “The Call of the Wild” over the past few days for a class, Expos 50, in which our instructor told us that good writing, especially great writing, was reworked from older greats. Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” so the apocryphal story goes, was inspired by Beddoe’s “The Phantom Wooer.” Although I am not convinced our instructor’s story is remotely true, I was prepared to believe him and go about re-reading my favorite writing to begin building my style.
When I opened “The Call of the Wild” and started copying out passages, as instructed, I made the sudden discovery: my writing is nothing more than the stewed sum of many writers that I admire, and the most prominent flavor in this style soup is London. The blatant stealing which my instructor described has already happened, when I was young and without my notice.
At first I found it troubling to think that I am merely writing less-sophisticated versions of stories that were published long ago.
Worse, the theft in style has gone beyond my writing and shaped my personality. My friends suddenly have a “Handbook to Understanding Allan” ready to go; just read through four or five of my favorite books and whatever mysteries remain in my character will suddenly be laid bare by a sentence or two of London’s frozen Yukon. I can hear the snickers now: I will look up at a waxing crescent moon, deeply inhale the cold February air, and a friend will say, “Flying exultantly under the stars, are we Allan?” and the moment will be gone as I mutter and stammer about wintry beauty.
Gradually, though, I am moving beyond the embarrassment. Perhaps I am easily summarized by a seven-chapter story driven by canine testosterone and an idealized Romance with brutal weather, but there are far worse foundations for personal flair. Also, my prose did benefit, whatever flaws and limitations may remain.
In any event, my instructor certainly proved his point.
Bonus Material: “A Handbook to Understanding Allan,” by Allan
“Peter Pan” by J.M. Barrie (read the novel, not the play)
“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding
“All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque
The poetry of Edward Thomas, Edna St Vincent Millay, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Orpheus Descending” by Tennessee Williams (go see the play; don’t just read it)
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain
“Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse
“The Stranger” by Albert Camus
and of course, “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London (also see his short stories, especially “To Build a Fire”)