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4 August 2017

A week or so ago I trotted off to the annual bookarama at our nearest town. Amid the other forty or so books that I bought was a Penguin Classics copy of Jack London’s assorted tales, including White Fang, and The Call Of The Wild. I happily read my way through them, and then turned idly to the ‘introduction by James Dickey,’ to be startled, surprised, and then annoyed, by the pontificating of a man who seemed intent on pulling down the author. Hmmm. Who is this guy? I looked him up on Wiki, and wasn’t that impressed. He seemed to me to be decrying London’s poverty-stricken background – from his own of middle-class privilege, to comment on London’s lack of education – from his own extensive one (clearly affordable, as London’s wasn’t.) And to comment unfavourably on London’s knowledge of animals.
In connection with that I noted in particular his denial that a fighting dog is capable of learning its trade. What? He suggests that he knows fighting dogs, that he had seen dogs fight often, and I suggest that ‘the heck he had.’ Animals that fight do learn ‘tricks of their trade.’ Why else do the bull-fighting organizations refuse to allow a bull to return again and again to the arena? Because a bull learns, with each fight it knows more, is more dangerous, and after several fights, it has learned enough to, more often than not, kill the matador. I’ve seen dogs fight, and I’ve observed that they do learn from each fight. I had a small Doberman in the 1970s, Cassie was a fighter when she felt it was necessary, fast, deadly, and more so with every time she fought, so that she could take on a considerably larger dog, and have it pinned by the throat in two passes. She most certainly did learn, and I wonder why James Dickey was so adamant dogs don’t.
Dickey complained that London anthropomorphized animals, that’s true, but he found it a grave and huge fault. What part of metaphor/lyricism, didn’t he get? London is saying that if a dog or wolf could think as a human does, this is what he would think. That an animal may be driven by instincts, but then so are people. We merely verbalize ours, as animals cannot. And which of us who are long-time owners of animals genuinely believe that animals do not feel emotions. Even sheep can grieve, remember, and build on instincts to achieve the occasional action that is something like intelligence.I’ve been a farmer for almost 30 years now and I can cite instances of that.
Of course, it may be that Dickey was only saying what he honestly believed, however his introduction reads like a condemnation of London’s impoverished background, his lack of education, and even his ability to write 50 readable books over his 20 productive years. (Dickey produced fewer than a dozen over a long lifetime.) In my opinion there are two things wrong with this introduction, one is that reading it before the book is likely to put off whose who would have normally gone on to read London’s work. The other is my own impression that here you have a man who could afford everything Jack London could not, who could do little if anything that Jack London did, and who produced little that has even already lasted as long as London’s finest works, who chose to use his position to tear down the greater man. He may not have intended to do so, but that is the impression I had, and in the end, the reader’s impression is what counts.

4 Comments »

  1. Yes animals, especially dogs, do learn. That is how it was possible to domesticate the dog in the first place. Though I do believe there is a dog in Africa that cannot be domesticated despite it being intelligent. I suppose it comes down to whether or not the animal can see the advantage of being with humans or not. Certainly many species of bird do have a capacity to learn. Cockatoos certainly. A researcher back in the 1960s killed the myth than only MAN can be he tool maker. Chimps have been known to use sticks to get termites out of termite mounds. Orangutans have been known to use large leafs to shelter under when it rains. A butchwer bird will watch a fisherman with his bait and, when the time is right, swoop in and steal some bait.

    Comment by Rodney Marsden — 4 August 2017 @ 15:44

  2. Yes animals, especially dogs, do learn. That is how it was possible to domesticate the dog in the first place. Though I do believe there is a dog in Africa that cannot be domesticated despite it being intelligent. I suppose it comes down to whether or not the animal can see the advantage of being with humans or not. Certainly many species of bird do have a capacity to learn. Cockatoos certainly. A researcher back in the 1960s killed the myth than only MAN can be he tool maker. Chimps have been known to use sticks to get termites out of termite mounds. Orangutans have been known to use large leafs to shelter under when it rains. A butcher bird will watch a fisherman with his bait and, when the time is right, swoop in and steal some bait.

    Comment by Rodney Marsden — 4 August 2017 @ 15:44

  3. Oh yes! A large portion of the human race, in our sublime arrogance, believe that we are superior to animals. Animals are often way smarter than us, and it’s been proven, by long term observation, that even some spiders are capable of cognitive thought processes.

    Comment by Lynn Erasmus — 4 August 2017 @ 16:40

  4. Call of the Wild and White Fang have NEVER been out of print in the 100 plus years they’ve been on the market. Few writers have that kind of staying power. These are simply the two best dog stories ever written.

    As for dogs learning stuff, they love to learn. Look at all the service dogs, police dogs, bomb dogs that have learned their craft.

    Amazing animals.

    Comment by David B. Riley — 10 September 2017 @ 12:24

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