Since its first publication in 1908, Jack London’s short story ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ has been wellreceived. Today, it is regarded as a classic of American literature. In his literary biography, Jack London: The Man, The Writer, the Rebel (1976), Robert Barltrop asserts that ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ is one of a group of ‘‘outstanding stories’’ which distinguish London ‘‘as one of the masters of that form.’’ Similarly, James Lundquist (Jack London: Adventures, Ideas, and Fiction, 1987) describes the story as ‘‘starkly elegant, a masterpiece of quiet tone and subdued color . . .’’ and points out that it is the most frequently anthologized of all of London’s works. Earle Labor and Jeanne Campbell Reesman (Jack London, 1994) likewise praise ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ as a ‘‘masterpiece,’’ while in Jack London: An American Myth (1981), John Perry credits the story with being ‘‘fine-textured.’’
Indeed, stories like ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ helped establish Jack London’s reputation as a gifted author, inspiring some critics who were London’s contemporaries to applaud him as the ‘‘successor to Poe’’ and the ‘‘equal of Kipling’’ (see Charles Child Walcutt’s discussion of early criticism in his Jack London, 1966). However, not all of the Klondike stories were considered at the time to be of the same high quality as ‘‘To Build a Fire.’’ London freely admitted that his principal aim in writing was to make money; thus many of his stories of men and dogs at odds with each other in the frozen north were published in adventure magazines and were written to satisfy a reading public that was fascinated by tales of daring exploits. The result was that many of the Klondike stories were criticized as lurid and hastily written potboilers. It has been pointed out that when London published collections of these magazine stories, he did not distinguish between those of good and bad quality. Hence his 1910 collection, Lost Face, contains a mixture of both good and bad stories, including ‘‘To Build a Fire.’’ In consequence, a 1910 review in the Nation acknowledged London’s talent but condemned the blood and violence in his stories, declaring that London ‘‘seems to us the victim of a disease of the fancy from which, and from the effects of which, it is impossible not to shrink’’ (as quoted by John Perry in his Jack London: An American Myth).
The variable quality of London’s writing causes difficulties for critics today as well. In a 1967 article for Studies in Short Fiction, for example, Earle Labor and King Hendricks reprint a 1902 version of ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ which London wrote for a boy’s magazine and compare it with the author’s later, more famous 1908 version in order to prove that ‘‘ Jack London was not merely a prolific hack, but, contrary to modern critical opinion, an astute craftsman who understood the difference between juvenile fiction and serious literary art.’’ In his 1986 article for the Journal of Modern Literature, Lee Clark Mitchell observes that London’s ‘‘flat prose,’’ ‘‘childish plots,’’ and reputation for hasty writing has caused ‘‘embarrassment’’ for some critics, but argues that in the case of ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ London wrote carefully rather than sloppily, trying to achieve a particular effect in the story. Finally, Robert Barltrop has asserted that because his books continue to be popular, London ‘‘cannot be dismissed’’ by critics but should instead be ranked as an important writer (in Barltrop’s Jack London: The Man, the Writer, the Rebel).
A sinister aspect of London’s work is his championing of white supremacy. Although this attitude...
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does not appear in ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ it does manifest itself in a number of his Klondike stories, where Anglo-Saxons are represented as superior to the indigenous people they encounter in Alaska and Canada. In JackLondon: An American Myth, John Perry notes that London’s belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority was ‘‘a reflection of the time,’’ and was thus overlooked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the magazines who published his stories as well as by people who read them. Perry also remarks that ‘‘London’s faith in Anglo-Saxon superiority seems at odds with itself, considering his best-drawn and most convincing characters are half-breed Indians, who live simple lives of honor and respect in the wilds, while his brutal whites, the chosen race, are limned as savage elementals.’’