[(essay date 1975) In the following essay, originally published in 1975, McClintock finds the key theme of London's Malemute Kid stories in The Son of the Wolf to be "an optimistic affirmation of man's power to defy determinism and reassert life-giving ideals."]
Jack London's quest for a form, technique and philosophy of composition was characterized by his desire to present truth in the most forceful manner. In his moments of self-characterization, he thought of himself foremost as a truth-seeker and a public educator and, secondarily, as an artist. He mastered the rudiments of short story form and technique and assimilated Spencer's philosophy of composition, which had as a premise that the forceful communication of ideas and emotions was the primary function of fiction.
The forceful truth London wanted to demonstrate to the world was that life-giving values could be operative in a death-dealing environment, that ideals could triumph over actuality. Consequently, upon the cosmically cold, pulseless and deterministic "primary truth" embodied in the Northland landscape, he superimposed a more optimistic, idealistic order of truth--"secondary truth," he would later call it. In Barleycorn he writes of secondary truth:
This is the order of truth that obtains, not for the universe, but for the live things in it if they for a little space will endure ere they pass. This order of truth ... is the sane and normal order of truth, the rational order of truth that life must believe in order to live. ...What is good is true. And this is the order of truth ... that man must know and guide his actions by, with unswerving certitude that in the universe no other order can obtain.(p. 308)
The "whisper" in Barleycorn hints the truths from the secondary order, ideals like love, courage and individual completion that are missing in civilization, can be restored by responding to the call to adventure. Ideals may be revitalized even in the face of a naturalistic actuality.
The Malemute Kid series of stories in The Son of the Wolf, which drew initial critical attention to the young writer during 1899 and 1900, are the results of London's attempt to combine realism and romance, "actuality and ideals," or "primary" and "secondary" truths.1 "I am an emotional materialist," London explained, and associated the external world with realistic materialism and subjective man with romantic idealism.2 These stories which have the Malemute Kid as a central character or as a by-stander supplying the moral norm for the stories, are fictional attempts to validate the efficacy of the intuited whisper that somehow the individual man, a "spirit-groper" in love with the "stinging things of the spirit," can outwit a stultifying environment and find "things wonderful." In his youthful idealism, while writing the Malemute Kid series, he tried to stack the deck in this contest between actuality and ideals to prove that the ideal was possible even in a naturalistic universe. The ideal, the Kid, was to conquer actuality. His explicit theme for these stories is an...