Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire’
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.
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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