(February 21, 2024)

What images come to mind when you conjure up Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London? For me, scheming pirates and straining sled dogs. Treasure Island and The Call of the Wild were among my most alluring childhood fantasies, first encountered in Classics Illustrated comic books, soon graduating to hard-cover editions.

What a treat in old age to explore both these bards’ Northern California connections. It turns out our region was crucially formative in their lives and in their work. Here are some notes from a recent expedition.

Photo credit: Olga Popova


            You wouldn’t expect an Edinburgh engineer’s son and a San Francisco juvenile delinquent to turn out having much in common. In fact, there was a remarkable abundance of parallels between Stevenson’s and London’s life journeys.  

  • Born just 25 years apart, they both died in their early forties. Stevenson’s brief lifespan extended from 1850 to 1894; London’s, from 1876 to 1916.
  • Both ached from their earliest days to escape from their likely paths. Born into a distinguished line of lighthouse designers, Stevenson took his father’s advice to first pursue education in engineering, then in law. But from earliest childhood, he was a compulsive storyteller and scribbler. Writing was always his dreamed-of vocation. London started life with hard knocks as a child laborer and vagrant. He chose arduous occupations in remote locations, not merely to claw his way out of poverty but to collect first-hand material for exotic stories. Remunerative publishing was his permanent priority.
  • Both were plagued and eventually killed by lifelong ill-health. Stevenson’s unshakeable tuberculosis manifested itself in a chronic cough and congested lungs that drove him to seek a series of dry, healing climates. London suffered intermittently from scurvy, yaws, malaria and gout. Debilitated by severe alcoholism and depression, he eventually succumbed to kidney failure.
  • Both pursued and eventually married accomplished women older than themselves. Stevenson’s siren was Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, a bohemian free spirit, already married, with three children. He literally chased her from France to California. Following her divorce and remarriage to Stevenson, the couple traveled the world with her son Lloyd, who became Stevenson’s frequent co-author. London too found a brave, risk-taking soulmate decades ahead of her time. Charmian Kittredge shared his passions for travel, sailing, horse-riding and swimming. A skilled athlete, she became his boxing and fencing sparring partner.
  • Both authors slogged through years of early writing rejections but persisted to win international popularity and huge commercial success. At his peak, London was the most popular and highest-paid writer in America, earning the current equivalent of $250,000 per month.
  • Both specialized in crafting action-packed adventure tales, combining harsh realism with romantic fantasy. Their protagonists suffered cruel adversities but almost always emerged triumphant and vindicated. Despite, or perhaps because of, their own chronic disabilities, both authors celebrated superheroes in those tales: physically powerful, mentally incisive, temperamentally bold. Their challenges featured combat and endurance. These scenes were visual, audible and gripping. No wonder the pair’s most popular novels have provided inspiration for literally dozens of films.
  • Both migrated to Northern California seeking medical relief and seclusion. Their Calistoga and Glen Ellen bases were just 20 miles apart. While there, they made significant civic contributions, Stevenson promoting Napa Valley literacy while London pioneered organic, sustainable farming.
  • Both followed their wanderlust to the South Pacific. First, to Hawaii, where Stevenson visited with the royal family and London and his wife enjoyed three extended sojourns. (In his published Stories of Hawaii, London wrote of the thrill of learning to surf at Waikiki – a battered but determined 140-pound novice on a 75-pound koa-wood board.) Then on to Polynesia for the Stevensons, first visiting the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti and New Zealand before settling in Samoa where Robert and Fanny both died in 1894.The Londons commissioned and helped design a sloop and then sailed it from San Francisco to Australia.
  • Both writers were prolific and wide-ranging in their literary genres. Mostly remembered today for his novels Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson also produced short stories, poems, essays and travel journals. London was famously disciplined, cranking out 1,000 words every morning for decades. Best known for The Call of the Wild, White Fang and The Sea Wolf, he published more than 50 fiction and non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and dozens of magazine articles.
  • While internationally famous and commercially successful during their lifetimes, both authors have experienced widely fluctuating critical reputations. Stevenson was well-known to and respected by Marcel Proust, Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. He took Sir Walter Scott as his role-model. Throughout the 20th Century, his literary esteem plummeted, demoting him to a second or third tier in children’s and horror genres. More recently, he’s enjoyed a marked re-elevation as an original and influential storyteller, his reputation boosted by a steady stream of successful movie interpretations. Interestingly, he’s now acclaimed as a prescient critic of European and American colonialism in the South Pacific, pairing him with Joseph Conrad. London was always more popular and successful than critically respected. His most lasting works featured heroic dogs, not coincidental for a pioneering animal-rights activist.



            Robert Lewis Stevenson

            Stevenson came to California a smitten swain. He was in hot romantic pursuit of Fanny Osbourne, an American free spirit he’d met at a writers’ retreat in southern France. There were ample reasons why he should not have risked this scandal: Fanny was 10 years Robert’s senior, married, and the mother of three. But practical constraints were no match for his passion. Although desperately ill with consumption, he followed her to Monterey in 1879, then San Francisco a year later. There she divorced her abusive husband, nursed Stevenson back to health, and married him in June of 1880. The infatuated couple immediately set off for the Napa Valley on a whirlwind honeymoon, Fanny’s 12-year-old son and a pampered pooch in tow. Stevenson picked Calistoga as their therapeutic destination. Its thermal baths and clean, dry air promised to relieve his chronic cough and clear his congested lungs.

Museum mural            Nancy and I bolstered our familiarity with Stevenson’s California connections during our December wine-country excursion. St. Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Museum is a compact but serious historical repository. For me, by far the most useful resource was the author’s published travel journal, Silverado Squatters. I’d long known of this work from its alliterative title but had never gotten around to dipping in. What a delightful surprise! A small gem, the essay offered faceted pleasures: a window into his world, a demonstration of his art, a mirror on the man.

            I delighted in the journal’s entree to time travel. No touristic reassembly of frontier kitchens and rusted farm implements but an animated vision from nearly 150 years ago of the same scenes and streets we were visiting. On his way north from San Francisco, Stevenson marveled at the Golden Gates, in his era twin, unbridged cliffs framing the Bay entrance. His wry account of stage coaches showcased a living, local hero: 

The cultus of the stage-coachman always flourishes highest where there are thieves on the road, and where the guard travels armed, and the stage is not only a link between country and city, and the vehicle of news, but has a faint war-faring aroma, like a man who should be brother to a soldier. California boasts her famous stage-drivers, and among the famous Foss is not forgotten. Along the unfenced, abominable mountain roads, he launches his team with small regard to human life or the doctrine of probabilities. Flinching travelers, who behold themselves coasting eternity at every corner, look with natural admiration at their driver’s huge, impassive, fleshy countenance.

           From my blogger’s perspective, I consistently admired Stevenson’s journaling craft. First he’d describe a landscape, then populate it with colorful characters, then add context from historical research, finally signing the sketch with personal impressions. His sequential vignettes were segmented as stand-alone chapters. Here again, the time bridge could be enchanting. The honeymoon couple rode a horse-drawn wagon along “a rude trail to an oasis in the tangled wood” where German immigrant Carl Schram was solo-pruning a steep, compact plot of grapevines. Today, that reclusive yeoman’s successors still operate Schramsberg Vineyards, a renowned sparkling-wines producer. Stevenson also riffed on his encounters with fellow Scots, pausing to air shared accents and affiliations 5,000 miles from home. In one hilarious anecdote, he recorded the inventive patter of a slick compatriot brazenly burglarizing the author’s Calistoga cottage.

            After such an auspicious beginning, the Stevensons’ Northern California fortunes took a nose-dive. Pressured by diminishing savings, the couple accepted an offer of gratis accommodations in an abandoned silver-mine compound on the slopes of Mt. Saint Helena. From the get-go, the impulsive relocation was a disaster. The terrain was treacherously steep. All on-site buildings were in ruins, with shattered windows, battered doors and 20 years’ worth of accreted rubble. The adjacent spring had slowed to a trickle. The isolated squatters had no communications or transport. Provisioning was hit-and-miss. Unsurprisingly, the journal’s contents and tone pivoted with the predicament. Stevenson’s appreciative curiosity in town gave way to disgruntled complaints in the tailings. More disheartening for this reader, the author indulged in explicit anti-Semitism when criticizing his landlord and disdainful mockery when profiling local hunters and laborers. I realize that his barbed prose probably voiced his depression, while his cruel caricatures may have reflected the prejudices of his educated British class. But they caught me up short. And it annoyed me, as a fan, that never once did Stevenson the squatter or the journalist acknowledge personal responsibility for having eagerly solicited these isolated, ill-chosen lodgings.   

            Much more welcome were his journal’s capsule history of the regional boom-and-bust mining settlements and his awe-struck account of brilliant constellations. Even more impressive was his lyrical, minute-by-minute narration of billowing sea fog, rolling in to blanket Napa Valley 1,000 feet below Stevenson’s mountainside vista.

            Towards the end of his nine-week ghost-town ordeal, Stevenson mellowed sufficiently to report on local flora and fauna, down to resident crickets and wood-boring beetles. Growing resigned to procurement snafus and blustery winds, he came to value and write about the site’s silence and solitude.

Stevenson’s new marriage and California sojourn sparked his artistic creativity and professional success. Back in Britain and reconciled with his parents, in a three-year burst he produced all three novels that secured his international reputation. First off the press was the pirate tale penned for his stepson.

           Jack London

           Getting a handle on Jack London is a challenge. This one individual was a Dickensian child laborer, an Ayn Rand archetype and a Hemingway precursor. A celebrity as well as an author. Tracing his meteoric biography, it seems as if London squeezed in three lifetimes by the time he was 30. Born out of wedlock to a San Francisco spiritualist and a footloose father, Jack was nursed and raised by an African-American former slave. At the age of 10, he held down two paying jobs. By 12, he was working 18-hour days in a West Oakland cannery. Within a year, he broke away to moonlight as an oyster pirate in Tomales Bay. At 17, he worked his way to Japan and back on a sealing schooner. On his return, he labored in a jute mill and a railway power-plant. By 18, he had crossed the States as a hobo and served 30 days for vagrancy in a notorious New York county penitentiary.

           At 20, he spent a semester at U.C. Berkeley. That same year, he accompanied a friend to the Canadian Klondike, in a futile trek for Gold-Rush fortunes. Back in the Bay Area, while unsuccessfully struggling to break into publishing, he joined Socialist activists and a Bohemian literary circle. Magazines began to pay for his articles at 23. At 24, he married and soon sired two daughters. By 27, he achieved his publishing breakthrough when The Saturday Evening Post serialized The Call of the Wild and Macmillan bought hard-cover rights. Divorced the following year, London was sent to East Asia by Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner­ to report on the Russo-Japanese War. Following multiple arrests by the Japanese authorities, he was released and repatriated on the personal intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt. At 29, London married Charmian Kittredge, a free spirit and soulmate.  Three months after his 30th birthday, he filed an eyewitness account of the San Francisco Earthquake.

           The most revealing California connection to London’s life and work is Beauty Ranch, his cherished sanctuary near Glen Ellen, on the slopes of Mt. Sonoma. Comprising 129 acres when he acquired it in 2005, the retreat had expanded to 1,400 acres by his death in 2016. It remains accessible today due to a strategic parcel preserved as Jack London State Historic Park. We visited three key structures: the House of Happy Walls Museum, the Wolf House ruins, and the Londons’ Studio Cottage.

           Happy Walls was constructed in 1916 by Jack’s widow Charmian as a personal shrine to her late husband’s memory. In it she collected and displayed photos and texts commemorating the couple’s Beauty Ranch lives together. Redesigned today, the exhibits resemble a family scrapbook, not only capturing contemporary images but letting hand-written and typed commentaries composed by the couple interpret their local experiences and aspirations. A featured topic is London’s experimentation with organic, sustainable farming, drawing on his research into Japanese and European practices. There are also numerous snapshots of the couple riding and swimming together and of Jack writing at a portable table set up under shade trees.

moss and brick wall           The Ranch’s planned centerpiece was the grandiose Wolf House mansion, a four-story Arts & Crafts lodge designed by Albert Farr. Fifteen thousand square feet in area, the floorplan encompassed 26 rooms and nine fireplaces. Honoring London’s enthusiasm for technological innovations, the infrastructure featured an earthquake-resistant frame, interior water-heater, electric lighting, refrigeration, a built-in vacuum-cleaning system and mechanized laundry facilities. Shockingly, the just-completed mansion burned in 1913, just two weeks before its scheduled occupancy. With the interior entirely gutted, only the massive masonry walls remained standing.  Charmian wrote “the razing of his dreamhouse killed something in Jack. He never ceased to feel the tragic inner sense of loss.” Walking the perimeter of the moss-draped ruins today is an up-close exposure to Ozymandian hubris.

           More attractive to our tastes, the Londons’ Cottage was the couple’s basecamp during Wolf-House construction. A one-story wooden ranch house acquired from the former owner, it expanded in tranches as guest quarters were added. Jack and Charmian each had a charming suite, with writing studio and adjacent sleeping porch. They’d work separately in the mornings, keeping houseguests at bay until a shared lunch. Afternoons were devoted to group horse-rides and animated conversations. The cottage is positioned to maximize natural ventilation and light. With unpretentious wood finishes and compartmentalized window seats, this stand-alone sanctuary is a writer’s dream.           To an unusual degree, London’s real-life

experiences and fictional adventures were reciprocally inspirational. Understandably, he drew on his actual knowledge and activities to inform his novels. But his make-believe stories also seemed to influence his reality. Here’s an example of this symbiosis, drawing on his 1905-10 Beauty Ranch journals and his 1910 novel, Burning Daylight. First, a journal excerpt:

 When I first came here, tired of cities and people, I settled down on a little farm…130 acres of the most beautiful, primitive land to be found in California. All I wanted was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf and get out of Nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don’t know it.

Next, a reflection by the novel’s protagonist and narrator:

Many people, themselves city-bred and city-reared, have fled to the soil and succeeded in winning great happiness. In such cases they have succeeded only by going through a process of savage disillusionment. But with Daylight and Dede [the protagonist and his wife], it was different. They had both been born on the soil, and they knew its naked simplicities and rawer ways. They were like two persons, after far wandering, who had merely come home again. There was less of the unexpected in their dealings with nature, while theirs was the delight of reminiscence. What might appear sordid and squalid to the fastidiously reared, was to them eminently wholesome and natural. The commerce of nature was to them no unknown and untried trade. They made fewer mistakes. They already knew, and it was a joy to remember what they had forgotten.

            An alter-ego to his author, Daylight experiences a landscape identical to Beauty Ranch. Alone at first, he borrows a horse in Glen Ellen and explores scenic open-space on the slopes of Mt. Sonoma. Marveling at redwoods and oaks, manzanita and wildflowers, he interviews two recluses and pauses to pay his respects at the maintained gravestones of two pioneer children.

            Returning with Dede, his new bride, Daylight shows her the unspoiled beauty and the two of them decide on the spot to make this splendid property their restorative retreat. The described fictional terrain is recognizable to modern visitors. And the excerpt’s reserved reference to the couple’s experiential superiority to mere mortals is too typical of London’s own assertive enthusiasms posted on Charmian’s museum walls. This restless striver wanted to make sure we would recognize him as exceptional.

            To conclude this comparison with a moving testament to life imitating art, years after Daylight’s fictitious encounter with the pioneer cemetery, Jack and Charmian’s cremated remains were interred in a Beauty Ranch graveyard established for two pioneer children.



            I began this post recalling my childhood zest for the rousing tales of Stevenson and London. Last fall’s wine-country road trip invited Nancy and me to visit those authors’ Northern California connections. Back home, I reached out to our local public library to take another look at those archived sagas, this time through aging eyes.

            Unsurprisingly, my senior tastes and appreciation bore scant resemblance to those schoolboy pleasures. In place of enthrallment by scowling pirates and snarling wolves, I now paid attention to the writers’ craft. As with Kipling’s Kim where I’d experienced a comparable re-assessment, my own life changes made the unchanged books brand new.

            Revisiting Stevenson Favorites

            Treasure Island illustrates the turnabout. As a kid, I’d devoured the Black Spot, Blind Pugh, duplicitous Long John Silver and creepy Ben Gunn. I’d inhabited Jim Hawkins and memorized the map. The 1950 Disney film put different faces on these characters, but I was with them every frame.

            At 80, to my dismay I found this novel shallow and contrived. Two-dimensional stereotypes, plodding, predictable plot developments, a schmaltzy, hindsight coda. (I suspect my literary pretentions may have blocked my appreciation for an enduring classic.)

            With a totally different senior reaction, I now judged Kidnapped to be a first-rate historical novel. I could envision an entire creative-writing seminar featuring this single work’s multiple virtues:

  • Short peppy chapters served its original publication as a serial. Though designed for adolescent readers, its historical content held this elder’s interest.
  • The chronological distance, set in the 18th Century 100 years before the novel’s publication, was familiar to Stevenson’s readers. Much less so to me, but I could enjoy the antiquity as an entertainment, without fully comprehending the contesting factions.
  • The cast of characters was operatic. Principals and extras were all three-dimensional. There were no angels or devils; everyone was flawed, therefore recognizably human. There were deft pairings: our two heroes, the feckless teen and the seasoned fugitive; and the chief villains, a cowardly usurper and a ruthless sea captain. Not a pair but equally credible were the cave-trapped Highland chieftain and the Latin-spouting family lawyer.
  • Costumes colored the drama. The vain fugitive’s French greatcoat and feathered hat; his accompanying companion in worn-out rags. Props too were all instrumental, like the lawyer’s spectacles “forgotten at the office” for plausible deniability.
  • In his youth, Stevenson had traipsed all over Scotland tagging along on his father’s inspection tours of coastal lighthouses. His descriptions of terrain and topography, vegetation and foul weather are convincing and visible.
  • In contrast to the landscapes, which I knew Stevenson had seen, I was curious how a lifelong invalid could capture major physical crises like a sword-and-pistols donnybrook, a storm-shattered shipwreck and a rock-face ascent. I know it’s a novelist’s job to paint actions with words. But we writers are also taught to write what we know.
  • It took me a while to adjust to the dialects, but I soon came to comprehend and relish the macho puffing of Scottish Highlanders, trotting out their clan affiliations, revered chiefs and combat resumes. Their recitations could be inflated but their code of conduct celebrated bravery, pride, honor, loyalty, even music and dress. Never a Scottish nationalist, Stevenson’s politics were Conservative and he traveled in comfortable London literary circles when writing this novel. That said, he described the oppressive English occupation unsparingly, condemning its marauding soldiers, summary executions, bans on tartans, export blockades, inflicted poverty and famine.
  • All of this narrative infrastructure made sense of the spare dialogue, advancing the story with a few exchanged phrases. Stevenson expected his readers to keep up with the pace, remembering who was who, what they stood for, and the hidden meanings of what they said and refrained from saying.
  • Equally skillful was his use of a first-person, teen narrator. The lad never quite figures out what’s happening, much less what’s coming. Notwithstanding his vulnerable naiveté, we’re rooting for him to survive the gauntlet.

            Here’s an excerpt from the shipboard melee to give you a taste of the action. The teen protagonist, David Balfour, and his Highland vagabond escort, Alan Breck, are besieged by the kidnapping gang in the treacherous captain’s cabin. Hyperventilating David is pausing for breath:

I had begun to think my share of the fight was at an end, when I heard someone drop softly on the roof above me. Then there came a single call on the sea-pipe, and that was the signal. A knot of them made one rush of it, cutlass in hand, against the door; and at the same moment, the glass of the skylight was dashed in a thousand pieces. A man leaped through and landed on the floor. Before he got his feet, I had clapped a pistol to his back, and might have shot him, too; only at the touch of him (and him alive) my whole flesh misgave me, and I could no more pull the trigger than I could have flown.

He had dropped his cutlass as he jumped, and when he felt the pistol, whipped straight around and laid hold of me, roaring out an oath; and at that either my courage came again, or I grew so much afraid as came to the same thing. For I gave a shriek and shot him in the midst of the body. He gave the most horrible, ugly groan and fell to the floor. The foot of a second fellow, whose legs were dangling through the skylight struck me at the same time upon the head; and at that I snatched another pistol and shot this one through the thigh, so that he slipped through and tumbled in a lump on his companion’s body….

Alan, leaping back to get his distance, ran upon the others like a bull, roaring as he went. They broke before him like water, turning and running and falling one against another in their haste. The sword in his hands flashed like quicksilver into the huddle of our fleeing enemies; and at every flash there came the scream of a man hurt. I was still thinking we were lost, when lo! They were all gone, and Alan was driving them along the deck as a sheepdog chases sheep.  

The roundhouse was like a shambles; three were dead inside, another lay in his death agony across the threshold; and there were Alan and I victorious and unhurt. He came up to me with open arms. “David,” said he, “I love you like a brother. And oh, man,” he cried in a kind of ecstasy, “am I no a bonny fighter?”

            Kidnapped reads at first like an adolescent serial. I came to respect it as an artfully choreographed drama. Characters, back story, landscape, politics, even inheritance law – all contribute to entertaining, credible relationships and resentments. A crackerjack romp. Four stars.

            Returning to London

            For me as a child, reading The Call of the Wild was an emotional experience. I remember wincing, almost weeping, when Buck, the hero dog, was savagely choked and beaten by vicious handlers. I preserved a final image of the giant creature mourning his kind master.

            My recent re-reading gave me a broader and deeper appreciation for London’s methods and messages.

            I was impressed by his journalistic style. Public interest in the Klondike Gold Rush was undiminished when London composed this Far North tale. He devoted careful attention to ground-level details: snow, mud and slush; below-zero temperatures; parkas and porridge. And although his main story featured sled-dogs, he sketched accompanying humans with photographic focus. Eye-witness encounters unspooled like live action, as in the tenderfoot trio’s disastrous overloading of their sled. High-speed drama is another signature: a white-water near-drowning and Buck’s lightening attack on Native American raiders are two scenes that work. 

            London wrote as if journalistic “reporting” gave him tacit permission for graphic depictions of violence, bloodshed, injuries and death. He also credited research “digging” as key to his fiction’s credibility. One sample here was his taut profile of the dognapping pipeline. London also prided himself on technological comprehension. His grasp of sled construction and operation, dog-training and care, gives the reader the impression that this guy knows what he’s talking about.

            London’s views about life also color his narrative choices. A Social Darwinist, he not only accepts but endorses survival of the fittest. Protagonist Buck swiftly transitions from pampered domesticity to Arctic self-preservation:

This first theft [of another sled dog’s nightly ration] marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feeling; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and insofar as he observed them he would fail to prosper….the completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by his ability to flee from the defense of a moral consideration and so save his hide. He did not steal for joy of it, but because of the clamor of his stomach. He did not rob openly, but stole secretly and cunningly, out of respect for club and fang.

            A product himself of a hard-knocks, rags-to-riches struggle, London is celebrating conflict and competition, for humans as well as sled dogs. In the unforgiving North, scarred survivors’ experience, guile and calculated patience consistently prevail over arrogant novices’ impulsiveness, inattention and ignorance. However, while his own Klondike exposure was brief, unhealthy and unrewarding, his fiction pumps up reality with the exploits of two- and four-legged superheroes. Buck is not merely a 150-pound hybrid who can haul a thousand-pound sled load all by himself. He also thrashes every other sled dog and wolf in the entire Northland. Although based on ground-level observation, this hero’s quest is a Homeric epic.

            That said, previewing a compassion that became a vocation at Beauty Ranch, The Call evidences London’s visceral opposition to animal cruelty, and his respect for canine intelligence. It also demonstrates his close recording of animal interactions, among the squabbling sled teams and in Buck’s strategic pursuit of a formidable bull moose.

            London’s critics and biographers have often speculated about his possible bisexuality, interpreting in particular the author’s intimate relationship with soulmate George Sterling. In this novel, there’s a distinctly curious chapter entitled “For the Love of a Man.” It portrays the intensifying affection between Buck and his rescuer in almost erotic terms, as tactile bonding between two males. The human recognizes “the dog’s feigned bite as a caress.”

            One other theme anchoring this saga was representative of London’s personal values. Although he invariably characterized his narrative style as unblinking realism, he also sustained a Romantic devotion to “Nature.” At Beauty Ranch and in his fiction, this appreciation lauded pristine open space, indigenous flora and fauna, seasons and weather. In The Call, this enthusiasm inspires Buck’s inchoate memories of primordial ancestors. His haunting dreams summon images not merely of canine antecedents but also a resilient human precursor. The “Call” itself represents not only wolf-pack howls but a siren song luring the hero dog away from human campsites into nurturing wilderness. Buck’s “ecstasy” at sylvan liberation is as much mystical as instinctive. London’s zoological field notes are spiced by anthropomorphic fantasy. The exotic potion still packs a wallop after 120 years.



Thanks to the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum and Jack London State Historic Park for historical access and to Nancy Swing and for the use of their photos.



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