Saturday, May 15, 2021

Jack London: The Man Who Lived “To Build a Fire”.

 

To Build a Fire is one of those stories that have stuck with me. Decades after the first reading, that image of just sitting down in the snow and letting yourself free to death haunted me. 



Jack London was a doer, a man equipped and willing to take on difficult jobs to provide for his mother and sisters, while he had dreams of being a writer. Young and strong, he had worked as an “oyster pirate, a sealer, and a hobo; had worked in a cannery, a jute mill and a laundry” (Haigh 1) where he was slogging in the steam when a ship brought word of a goldrush in the Klondike. London set out with thousands of others to add gold prospector to his resume.  He had little idea that his experiences in the northern brutal cold would inspire him to write his greatest works. In “To Build a Fire” Jack London pits man’s wisdom, or lack of, against the dangers of nature by fictionalizing experiences he had in the Yukon, through use of fable style writing, and an omniscient detached point of view.

Jack London relied on his own wisdom before he took his first step into the Klondike. He was a young man, twenty-one, with a string of difficult low-earning jobs behind him and looking to make a fortune. When he landed on the Dyea beachhead, three thousand men were already there. Tenderfoots, who had not realized that they were still five hundred miles from the Yukon and that the native porters were charging ridiculous amounts to carry all the supplies needed to survive for a year (McKay and McKay 1). Jack, however, was prepared. He had gotten hold of a miner’s account and studied the geography of the area. According to Brett and Kate McKay, Jack London “knew that the first leg of the journey was a 28-mile uphill hike to Lake Lindeman” (1) and that he would not be able to afford a porter’s high charges but would need to pack all his food and equipment himself.  Wisdom and preparation prevailed for Jack. He had already devised a method beforehand to get up the Chilcoot Pass to divide “his half-ton kit into around a dozen smaller loads, and would take each load a mile, cache it, and then return for another…Jack simply bore down in determination, put one foot in front of the other, and ignored the burn in his legs and back as he carried a half-ton of supplies to the summit, 100 pounds at a time” (McKay and McKay 1). Conversely, in his story “To Build a Fire” the main protagonist does not share in Jack’s wisdom to prepare for the harshness of the Yukon.

The story takes place in the same area that Jack London had traveled where the man turns off of the main trail “that led south five hundred miles to the Chilcoot Pass, Dyea, and salt water; and that led north seventy miles to Dawson” (London 47). Just as the majority of the three thousand men at Dyea beachhead were not prepared and had to turn back before ever starting their journey to the goldrush, the man in “To Build a Fire” did not prepare for his day long journey either, even when he had been given instructions by those who understood the dangers of the land. The man rejected the wisdom of others by first going out on the journey alone, a situation that London also experienced for himself. London had staked a claim in Henderson Creek, and then went to Dawson to register the claim. The hike back by himself turned out to be demanding through the snow just as “winter had thoroughly set in, and there was nothing left to do but ride it out” at his little camp on his claim. According to Brett and Kate McKay, it was this hike through what London called “White Silence” that “he would later draw on to write his best short story, “To Build a Fire” (47). The man in “To Build a Fire” did not prepare in other ways as well. He brought a limited amount of food, only a sandwich which he carried inside his coat so it would not freeze. He did not have the proper facial protection to cover his nose, and his final mistake was that in his rush to build his fire after he got wet, he did not heed the wisdom to build the fire out in the open, but instead built it beneath a snow-laden tree. That final unwise act sealed his fate when the snow fell and put out his fire. Because of London’s actual time in the Yukon and his personal experience with the dangerous aspect of the nature of the place, the setting of “To Build a Fire” is alive with hidden dangers and risks, from the white cold and quiet that a “sharp, explosive crackle” (London 47) of his own spit in the air startles the man, to the moisture of the dog’s breath crystallizing in its muzzle (London 48), to “the bulge of the earth intervened between it and Henderson Creek, where the man walked under a clear sky at noon and cast no shadow” (London 50).  London had experienced all of these aspects and put it in his writing with an economy of words that only someone who had been there could capture. Also during the winter London was in the Yukon, he learned a great deal from the miners he was with to draw on for his stories.

Snowstorms in the winter would last for weeks. The temperature would drop to sixty degrees below zero and everyone would remain inside. Because of his friendly nature, Jack London’s cabin became a place to trade stories and discuss the larger questions of the universe (McKay and McKay 1). According to King Hendricks, Head of the Department of English and Journalism of Utah State University, Jack London wrote that he had “learned to seize upon that which is interesting, to grasp the true romance of things and to understand the people I may be thrown amongst” (10). Hendricks further states that “’To Build a Fire’ is Jack London’s short story masterpiece. It is a masterpiece because of the depth of its irony, and its understanding of human nature, the graphic style of the writing, and the contrast between man’s intelligence and the intuition of the animal” (11). Recounting tales with other miners, old-timers, and the locals of the Klondike while snowbound was a wealth of rich characterization that London had to draw on. However, with the abundance of personalities surrounding him, “To Build a Fire” was written like a fable with a more narrow characterization to convey universal truths and morals.  

While wintering in the cabin at Dawson, London and his frequent visitors would spend “the time trading stories and debating life’s big questions” (McKay and McKay 1) One of these visitors was W. B. Hargrave, who said of London that “he had a mental craving for the truth. He applied one test to religion, to economics, to everything. ‘What is the truth?’ ‘What is just?’ It was with these questions that he confronted the baffling enigma of life” (McKay and McKay 1). With these types of questions in mind, London  wrote “To Build a Fire” in the style of a fable. Some argue that in his earlier works like “To Build a Fire” the fable aspect was done unconsciously, although it remains present. In his article “Jack London: The Problem of Form” Donald Pizer seeks to establish that London “is essentially a writer of fables and parables” (Pizer, Form 3). He explains that fables “seek to establish the validity of a particular moral truth by offering a brief story in which plot, character, and setting are allegorical agents of a paraphrasable moral” (Pizer, Form 3). Fables are universal stories shared for the purpose of explaining morals or lessons. In “To Build a Fire” the lesson conveyed is as simple as this: don’t go out in the harsh wilderness unprepared or nature will blindside you. Or be wise when dealing with nature. The strong and wise win the day. This is a universal theme to every man, so much so that London did not name the character. He is simply known as “the man” and his companion is known only as “the dog” as in most fables where the character is a moral type. Moral types represent ideas such as honesty, fear, or laziness. In this case the man represents ignorance while the dog is instinct, and nature itself represents danger (Pizer, Form 6).  Pizer states that the “success of the story, as in the successful fable, stems from our acceptance of its worldly wisdom while simultaneously admiring the formal devices used to communicate it—in this instance, the ironic disparity between our knowledge of danger and the newcomer’s ignorance of it, and the brevity and clarity of the story’s symbolic shape” (Pizer, Form 8). The moral of the story is stated directly within the story’s third paragraph as the man thinks about being cold and uncomfortable. London writes “it did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe” (London 47). As readers, we see the danger clearly as learners of this moral fable where the unwise newcomer does not see beyond his own unpreparedness. This moral lesson is conveyed to readers exactly as London intended. While writing in the style of a fable, London also places the narration in an uncaring all-knowing viewpoint.

The viewpoint of “To Build a Fire” echoes the cold detachment of the freezing landscape of the Yukon. Written in the third person omniscient point of view, the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of both the man and the dog, yet also places distance between the reader and characters. The narrator seems cold and almost monotone, like nature who doesn’t care if the man and dog lives or dies. Nature doesn’t care if the fire is built or not. It does nothing to help them, yet also does nothing to harm them either. It is a quiet observer or chronicler of the events, especially in the form of the fable. As nature, the narrator is not invested in the events, except to pass on the moral tale to those who will hear and learn the universal wisdom it is making a point of. In fact, in this story, it shows that the Yukon can be survived. The man did not survive due to his ignorance of how harsh the cold could be after he was warned not to go out alone. He did not follow the wisdom handed down to him. He represented foolishness, yet the dog who represents instinct (or knowledge passed down) did survive. However, at the end, the man does learn from his mistakes. His ignorance has been turned around to wisdom. As death overtakes him, his final thoughts turn to the old-timer who told him not to go out alone. The man says in the only dialog of the entire story, “’You were right, old hoss; you were right.’” (London 57). Unfortunately, the man gained his wisdom too late and this fable becomes one of being a cautionary tale. It is interesting to note that there was an earlier version of “To Build a Fire” that was published in Youth’s Companion six years prior to this version (Hendricks 16). In the original version the man, although still ignoring the wisdom of not going out alone, is named, Tom Vincent, and actually survives when he, with great luck, “came upon another high water lodgement. There were twigs and branches and leaves and grasses, all dry and waiting for fire” (Hendricks 14). It was the second version, written with the fable qualities that launched Jack London into one of the greatest Northern area writers of our time.     

By bringing his own experiences of his time during the goldrush in the Klondike into his story “To Build a Fire” Jack London relayed the universal theme that man’s lack of wisdom has no place in nature. He accomplished this through use of fables and casting the impartial attributes of nature as the narrator. In his article “Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’; How Not to Read Naturalist Fiction”, Donald Pizer points out that “the world, under certain conditions, can be an extremely dangerous place. If through ignorance, inexperience, false self-confidence, and the ignoring of what others have learned and told us (all weaknesses shared by the man) we challenge these conditions, we are apt to be destroyed by them” (223). I wonder if London had never rewritten the story where the man dies, if the earlier version would have ever become as beloved a story as the version that stands as a classic today. I think not. King Hendricks points out that “Jack London loved life and he lived it as fully and as completely as any man. He admired men who cling or have clung to life in times of adversity” (18). London made less than five dollars in his gold prospecting, but the insight, knowledge of the setting, and characterization he gained during that short time brought him fame and riches, and we readers are the wealthier for it.

 


 

Works Cited

Haig

HHai, Haight, Ken. “The Spell of the Yukon: Jack London and the Klondike God Rush.” The Literary Traveler, July 13, 2006. www.literarytraveler.com/articles/jack_london_klondike.

Hendr, King. “Jack London: Master Craftsman of the Shorty Story.” USU Faculty Honor Lectures. Paper 29. www.digitalcommons.usu.edu/honor_lectures/29

Lond,on Jack. “To Build a Fire.” Lost Face, edited by David Price, Mills & Boon, Limited, 1919, pp. 47-70. The Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/2429/2429-h/2429-h.htm#page47.

McKay, Brett and Kate McKay. “The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos--#7: Into the Klondike.” The Art of Manliness, March 31, 2013.  www.artofmanliness.com/articles/the-life-of-jack-london-as-a-case-study-in-the-power-and-perils-of-thumos-7-into-the-klondike/

Pizer, , Donald. "Jack London: The Problem of Form." Studies in the Literary Imagination, pp. 107–115.

-- "Jack London's 'To Build A Fire': How Not to Read Naturalist Fiction." Philosophy and Literature, vol. 34, no. 1, Apr. 2010, pp. 218-227. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.snhu.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2010791039&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Image: "Jack London Territory." by Anita & Greg is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

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