Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’

by John I. Johnson

NOVELIST JACK LONDON (pictured; 1876-1916), the author of The Call of the Wild (1903), was the subject of a very good Web site hosted by the University of California at Berkeley (now archived). The site’s administrators write, “Because he was an autodidact, London’s ideas lacked consistency and precision. For example, he clearly accepted the Social Darwinism and scientific racism prevalent during his time, yet he seemed troubled that the ‘inevitable white man,’ as he called him, would destroy the rich cultures of various native groups he had encountered over the years.

“Although he supported women’s suffrage and created some of the most independent and strong female characters in American fiction, he was patriarchal toward his two wives and two daughters. His socialism was fervent, but countered by his strong drive toward individualism and capitalist success. These contradictory themes in his life and writing make him a difficult figure to reduce to simple terms.”

It is probably also true to say that London’s ideas simply do not fit neatly into contemporary ideological boxes, rather than that they are inconsistent or imprecise because he was self-taught. For example, the “inevitable White man” is not necessarily incompatible with the maintenance of the “rich cultures of native groups.”

In light of contemporary intellectual discussions, London’s ideas concerning group altruism, expressed in an 1899 letter, are particularly striking. He was only 23 years old at the time. (He died at the age of 40.) London wrote (as quoted in “The Soul of Jack London,” National Vanguard No. 109, April-May 1988):

“Where am I to draw the line [on altruism]? At the White. From the family unit, through the tribal drawing, to the race aggregation, you may trace the rise of altruism, very similar for all its various manifestations. The line stops there. If a man would save an animal from pain, another kind of altruism is brought to bear; the same if he saves a nigger, or a red, a yellow, or a brown. But let Mr. White meet another white hemmed in by dangers from other colors—these whites will not need to know each other—but they will heed the call of blood and stand back to back. . . . [T]he race with the highest altruism will endure—the highest altruism considered from the standpoint of merciless natural law, which never concedes nor alters.”

Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” originally published in The Century Magazine (August 1908), and subsequently in the story collection Lost Face (1910), stands out as one of his very best works. (An earlier, inferior, version of the story appeared in Youth’s Companion, May 29, 1902.)

“To Build a Fire” is not overtly racial or political. In the future, if White media expands, it is important to remember that content need not always consist of propaganda. It can also function simply to free us from the inconceivably narrow confines of Jewish-Leftist censorship, and permit the expression of cultural and aesthetic sentiments that the rabbis of “political correctness” in the universities and media will not countenance. Today, editors and publishers (and other multimedia content providers), acting as gatekeepers, monolithically screen out and suppress anything and everything expressive of our nature, no matter how innocuous or non-racial—as the campaign to censor Mel Gibson’s The Passion again vividly demonstrated.

The authors of the Berkeley site observe of London: “A committed socialist, he insisted against editorial pressures to write political essays and insert social criticism in his fiction.” One might fairly say London’s approach is innately Aryan, as opposed to Jewish-Bolshevik.

“To Build a Fire” presents the harrowing drama of man against “the unforgiving forces of nature,” as two Wayzata, Minnesota schoolteachers express it. The nameless protagonist, alone in the endless wilderness of the Yukon, miles from camp, is heedless of the mortal danger he faces:

“As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below—how much colder he did not know.”

Despite the absence of political or racial motive in the story, London vividly captures the essence of our population’s character in his portrait of the man:

“But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on the man. . . . The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. 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. Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks. Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.”

By contrast, the dog in London’s story symbolizes the instinct for survival and alertness to lurking danger so notably lacking in the man: “At the man’s heels trotted a dog, a big native husky, the proper wolf-dog, gray-coated and without any visible or temperamental difference from its brother, the wild wolf. The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for travelling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man’s judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero. . . . The dog had learned fire, and it wanted fire, or else to burrow under the snow and cuddle its warmth away from the air.”

The story straightforwardly and with deceptive simplicity relates the progress of the man, on foot, as he journeys toward his destination, the seemingly minor accident that befalls him en route, and his subsequent, increasingly desperate attempts to build a fire.

It is a superlative work of art.

Further Reading

The Jack London Collection

Jack London’s Writings

Dietrich Wolf, “The Soul of Jack London,” National Vanguard No. 109 (April-May 1988) (Part I) and No. 110 (March-April 1989) (Part II).

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Me and no one else
Me and no one else
30 June, 2018 10:49 pm

I read “To Build A Fire” and had only one thought at story’s end: that the fool deserved to die for attempting to traverse a landscape against such extreme cold. He deserved a Darwin Award, and death justifiably delivered it to him.

Reply to  Me and no one else
1 July, 2018 9:37 am

So, according to you, anyone who attempts to survive against the odds deserves to die? Glad you are a one-person show, “Me and No One Else”. To know that your summation of the entire book boils down to what you said in the above post leaves me kind of sad for you.

1 July, 2018 10:33 am

Much of Jack London’s ideology leaned toward a healthy White socialism. London’s high intelligence was careful not to invest fully in a specific category unless proven. The older encyclopedias stated he believed in the superiority of Teutonic and Celtic tribes.

Had Mr. London lived a full life, his position on Hitler would have been most interesting. Probably in general agreement.

Arvin N. Prebost
Arvin N. Prebost
1 July, 2018 10:55 am

I thought, in high school after reading this story, “How dumb and arrogant!” But I see now that this is indeed a story “expressive of our nature” as White people. White people are stuck between the harsh demands of nature and their idealism. Far from being some kind of macho, alpha Viking male, I think this guy might have been philosophical and idealistic . . . about everything except the demands of nature. He reminds me of that guy who lived in a deserted school bus in the wilds of Alaska (“Into the Wild”). He was an idealist, into philosophy and nature-mysticism, a kind-hearted soul. He died from starvation, in the schoolbus. But the people around that part of Alaska have contempt for anyone who would even try to do… Read more »

Alex Wells
Alex Wells
1 July, 2018 11:54 pm

This story was a subject of at least two of my high school English classes. I recall that in one of them the teacher pointed out that the author gives the man only one fault–that he lacked imagination. Jack London himself had lived in the frozen north. Undoubtedly he had seen for himself the survival value of imagination. For those who would like to get a broader view of London’s perspective on such matters, I recommend his other stories about the far north. The theme of survival is a common one in them.

Arvin N. Prebost
Arvin N. Prebost
Reply to  Alex Wells
2 July, 2018 10:16 am

“But all this—the distant trail, no sun in the sky, the great cold, and the strangeness of it all—had no effect on the man. It was not because he was long familiar with it. He was a newcomer in the land, and this was his first winter.” (To Build A Fire) It sounds to me like he was divorced from nature, or at least was unfamiliar with the nature of the frozen north, and that is why he could not connect the dots with intuition and imagination. He is also arrogant. He was warned by an older man not to travel alone in the open when the weather is 50 below. London relates that it was 80 below. The dog in the story, by nature, is more aware of the… Read more »

Arvin N. Prebost
Arvin N. Prebost
3 July, 2018 9:35 am

I am a bit lost in reading your comments, Clayton. There seems to be a presupposition that is not stated outright.

You think that artists are homosexuals? That London was gay?

Me and no one else
Me and no one else
4 July, 2018 5:10 pm

JIMB: “So, according to you, anyone who attempts to survive against the odds deserves to die? Glad you are a one-person show, “Me and No One Else”. To know that your summation of the entire book boils down to what you said in the above post leaves me kind of sad for you.” Unlike you, I actually READ the story and it was unnecessary for me to sum up “the entire book” since it was a SHORT STORY – not a novel! Clearly, you are commenting on something that you did not read, and yet you dare lecture me? Furthermore, if you had read the short story you would’ve known that the fool placed himself in his predicament because he failed to think his actions through. In other words, he… Read more »

bryan o'driscoll
bryan o'driscoll
22 May, 2021 2:48 am

I read most of London’s works when I was young and I always remember this tale most vividly. Nature generally doesn’t show mercy to those who ignore her laws. That is true whether in protecting yourself against extreme weather or in defending your race and land.