Normally I haven't thought of Jack London's writings as expressing any form of the Emerson-Thoreau transcendentalist philosophy. London is usually associated with socialism (as in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel) or, perhaps paradoxically, the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer (which his protagonist vehemently defends in Martin Eden ...
Normally I haven't thought of Jack London's writings as expressing any form of the Emerson-Thoreau transcendentalist philosophy. London is usually associated with socialism (as in his dystopian novel The Iron Heel) or, perhaps paradoxically, the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer (which his protagonist vehemently defends in Martin Eden). But "To Build a Fire" and other Klondike stories relate to the "self-reliance" aspect of the New England writers' philosophy, perhaps in contradictory ways—both positively and negatively.
The man in this story is self-reliant to an extreme and irrational degree. He's been told by the "old timers" that one should not travel alone in the Northland, but he does so anyway, even while contemplating (apparently without worry) the advice he's been given. We're told that he's intelligent in observing things but not in the "significances" of them. He recognizes the severity of the conditions he encounters (with his spit freezing in the frigid air before it hits the ground, for instance), but this fact doesn't seem to make any impression on him. He keeps telling himself that the "boys in camp" will take care of him, somehow not realizing that his chances of getting to the camp are slim to none under such conditions.
The two most significant defects in his brand of self-reliance, however, involve the fire he builds and the dog who is his traveling companion. He knows all the details of building a fire, such as the need gradually to add increasingly larger twigs to it, but he's unaware that starting the fire under the snow-laden boughs of a large tree will cause the branches to collapse onto the fire and smother it. And he does not anticipate the self-preservation instinct of the dog. The dog's normal compliance and obedience disappear when the dog's life is at stake. The dog has a better understanding of the overall situation than the man has, and the dog survives while the man doesn't.
Is it a case of self-reliance gone amok? Not necessarily, because in general London's writings do stress independence as an ideal, both for people and animals. But perhaps the Spencer-influenced thinking in the story is simply that of the survival of the fittest being an immutable law. The man tries, but he's unprepared, "unfit" to make it on his own in the Northland.