To Build a Fire Historical and Social Context
by Jack London

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Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Late Nineteenth–Early Twentieth-Century America

Although Jack London’s ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ was first published in 1908, the story was inspired by the Klondike Gold Rush, which began in 1897. America’s focus during the early years of the twentieth century was much the same as it had been during the closing years of the nineteenth century. The country had recently undergone significant expansion across the western plains and along the Pacific coast. In 1898 America expanded offshore as well, with the annexation of Hawaii and—as a result of the Spanish-American War—Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

The late nineteenth century also saw an influx of immigrants into the United States and, with it, the opening of Ellis Island in 1891 as a processing station for the new Immigration Bureau. Immigrants became an important part of the country’s industrialized economy, which produced not only the textiles of earlier years but also focused on mining as well as on the production of steel and heavy machinery. Whole families became involved in the work force. Labor laws were passed and labor unions were formed in response to unsafe working conditions and to the economic depressions which occurred in 1893-97.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought about an increase in the number of public schools and libraries. By 1900 most states had compulsory education laws, and an increasing number of women were graduating from college. During the early 1900s, when London published ‘‘To Build a Fire,’’ the short story as a genre was experiencing enormous popularity.

The Klondike Gold Rush—beginning in 1897 and lasting until 1910—contributed to the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century atmosphere of territorial expansion and industrial growth, with their attendant economic cycles of boom and bust. The Klondike also proved to be a rich source of inspiration for much of London’s most successful fiction.

The Klondike Gold Rush

A rich vein of gold was discovered in August 1896 by George Cormack at Rabbit Creek, off the Klondike and Yukon rivers in northwestern Canada. The rush to Canada’s Klondike region began a year later, after steamships loaded with prospectors and their gold docked in San Francisco. Reports of the prospectors’ success set off a mania for gold. By then the richest claims had already been staked out, but this did not prevent many people, including Jack London, from heading North. This ‘‘stampede’’ of goldseekers had a profound effect on northwestern Canada. In Dawson, a city created as a result of the rush, Americans outnumbered Canadians by a ratio of five to one. The influx also affected Canada’s western neighbor, the American territory of Alaska, through which many of the would-be prospectors traveled on their way to the Klondike. In 1890, there were approximately 4,000 white settlers in Alaska; by 1910, thanks to the Klondike stampede and to later discoveries of gold in Alaska itself, that number had increased to 36,400.

Jack London spent time in both Alaska and Canada. In ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ he writes about the Yukon trail that winds in and out of Alaska and Canada: ‘‘[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, and still on to the north a thousand miles to Nulato, and finally to St. Michael on Bering Sea. . . .’’ Thousands of goldseekers traveled this and other land and water routes to the Klondike, hoping to strike it rich. They ignored warnings about the harsh winters they would encounter in the Northland, just as the man in ‘‘To Build a Fire’’ ignores the warnings of the experienced old-timer at the Klondike mining camp of Sulphur Creek.

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story of the man who freezes to death presents several problems that young adults might encounter. The most important thing the man does is ignore good advice. London says, "He remembered the advice of the...

(The entire section is 1,750 words.)